There are those among us who oft wax litigious, not because they wish to convey justice or even because they carry a flag for a cause, but just because they wish to harass, harry, shake, and generally wear their opponents down. It may be a means of asserting personal dominance – the world has a back-drawer infestation of such pests – or it may be a way of silencing opponents or winning in business by draining the resources of others. Such cases, and such people, are vexatious.
That’s the recognized word, and it’s a good one. You know what vex is, I’m sure. In its shape and sound it even suggests the cross, squinty face one makes when subject to annoyance. We often use it to refer to objects and situations that senselessly annoy us, but in its first sense vexing is deliberately causing annoyance: a good synonym is harass. It is done to shake the person up and rub them the wrong way, disturb them, agitate them – that’s what Latin vexare means. It is most likely related to vehere, which means ‘carry’, which we see in convey and convex and also in vexillary ‘of or relating to flags’.
Those of us who think of vexation as a reaction to some irritant might assume vexatious means ‘disposed to be vexed’. In fact, it means ‘disposed to vex’ – i.e., ‘tending to cause vexation’. Certainly insensate objects and situations may be vexatious, for example the dreadful weather in which I recently drove to Montreal from Mont-Tremblant, the dreadful traffic on the roads, the dreadful lack of ploughing on the highways, the dreadfully unhelpful signage, the pasta-plate of roads around the airport, and the apparently pilgarlic “winter” tires on my rental car. But the word is best used for people who are deliberately obnoxious.
There are many ways a person may be vexatious; it is the quotidian sport of internet trolls and those “free speech” advocates who insist on their right not to convey the truth or bear the flag of justice but just to insult and irritate and maximally vex those they disdain, especially ones who can’t easily fight back. But vexatious has a special legal stature. It is an established term of art, and in some courts a judge may declare you to be vexatious and in so doing prevent you from bringing further suits unless you get express permission.
Of course courts are formal establishments with formal rules; speech in them is subject to explicit conventions and enforced restrictions. Other areas of interaction in society are not as explicitly governed; we communicate using courtesies and conventions that we tacitly agree on and cooperate in. Vexatious people abuse the cooperation and subvert the agreement; in the dance of communication, they are the ones wearing spike-soled shoes that damage the floor. Their “free speech” destroys the basis of speech in society; it claims a right to that which it negates. It insists on the cooperation of others while it is utterly uncooperative; it demands goodwill serve badwill; it breaks faith. Since the point of the right of free speech is the preservation and reinforcement of communication in society, vexatious communicators work to destroy what they claim to be building. Speech is like building bridges on bridges on bridges on bridges; vexatious speech is like driving demolition equipment onto those bridges to damage them. Speech is like a ball game; vexatious speech sets out to break the balls.
Most parts of society are not courts of law; we can’t, in declaring someone vexatious, force them to get permission before they can speak again. But though we may not be able to stop a vexatious person from talking, we don’t need to give them an audience. We don’t need to let spike-shoed dancers onto our floors, demolition machines onto our bridges, or ball-breakers onto our playing fields. Freedom of speech not only lets but expects us to nix the vexatious.