My take on the language wars
March 19th, 2011
[In this commentary I will use certain replacement characters within some words. This is to minimize the censoring features of website monitors. I want to keep BTB as accessible as possible.]
I am a word-Nazi.
I don’t allow certain words to be used in my home, in my car, or in my company. I refuse to let certain jokes be told or attitudes to be expressed. I have delivered obnoxious little lectures and, on at least one occasion, pulled over and ordered a friend out saying, “I don’t want to be around you right now.” I can be a real killjoy and a total pain in the ass.
I recognize that words come charged with history, context, and implication. So no, words are not “just words” and not all words are equal.
Consider the following sentence: “I believe that all people should be equal under the law, be they young or old, gay or straight, white or a n!gger.” It doesn’t matter that the sentiment is positive. The choice to go with a slur derails any possible good and suggests to the reader that this statement is not really one of inclusion. Or, at least, not in most contexts.
Most of my objections are to words, jokes, and attitudes surrounding race. Don’t say anything in my presence that you would filter out if that racial group were the majority in the room. But while I am more tolerant of gay folks usage of gay related humor, I fight against buying into the pejorative messages that are driven our direction.
And I am not one who believes much in “reclaiming the power” in words. I find that far too often, adopting a slur as our own in reality means conceding the presumptions that were thrown at us and acting as though they are positive instead of negative.
Take the campaign to reclaim “queer”. This word was at one time applied to gay folk as a way of saying, “you are different, you are odd, you are ‘other’ than me, you are outside of acceptable social norms.”
But many of those who have reclaimed this term do not seem, to me, to be countering that claim. Rather, they seem to be adopting it. They say, “yes, we are different, we are odd, we are other, we are unacceptable, and we’re proud of it.”
That might be fine for those who emotionally need an identity as outsider, but it still buys into the outsider mentality. It agrees with our tormentors that our differences are more important than our similarities, a perspective that I do not think is healthy or true.
Also queer has, in many contexts, shifted to mean “anyone other than the bourgeois capitalist conformists” with little attention to sexual orientation; an identity based more on politics than attributes. And, amusingly, a good many queer folk are so tied into their outsider identity that they would exclude some gay people from being queer like them, finding them to be too assimilationist (is there anyone who would consider a GOProud member to be part of the queer community?).
So I find little use in adopting queer as part of my self-identity or my vocabulary. I don’t agree that I am outside of acceptable social norms or believe I should be segregated from society at large. My sexual identity is based primarily on recognition of my own attractions rather than on rejection of someone else’s.
I think that f*ggot is another word with little going for it. Like queer, it is an in-your-face word and can carry shock value, but it carries even more baggage. Unlike queer, which has mostly dropped from common usage, f*ggot is the slur du jour for those who delight in pain.
It has been my personal observation that those gay people who use the word “f*ggot” have not recaptured it from our oppressors. Rather, they – whether consciously or unconsciously – are reflecting their own sense of inadequacy or shame in that word selection. Yes, it can be used in irony, but more often it carries an undertone of worthlessness.
When one angry gay person screams “f*ggot!!” at another, more than a little self-loathing is exposed. (And, on a side note, is there anything more cringe-worthy than hearing a black man referring to a rival as “that n*gger”?)
I choose not to feed my own demons. I choose not to bolster negative social messages or validate the hatred of others. So, for me, f*ggot is a word without value and with more than a little danger and it has no place in my vocabulary.
The word fag I find to be a bit less troublesome. While it is still a slur from those who hate us, there is less emotional baggage attached when used within our community. Yet I think it still carries some value of “lesser than” and thus I don’t find it to be particularly useful.
But while words are important, intent is what should drive our response. And it is on intent that I judge the use of pejorative terms used to refer to gay people.
Some who comment here use the term queer in a way that does not intend to emphasize outsider status or exclude gay people who are not socially segregated, and I cannot apply my observations about the term to their usage. And I am already on record as finding the use of f*ggot in culture to be less important than the purpose of its use.
I’ve heard plenty of our enemies – those who seriously want to harm our lives and our freedoms – use the word “homosexual” in ways that were far more corrosive than had they said f*ggot. I’d far rather accept someone who toss out “homo” or “fag” but with a message of inclusion than read one more rant from the right that uses the polite term “gay community.”
Because while I am a word-Nazi around my friends, it isn’t really the word that I am objecting to, but the reason for the word. There are seldom any good reasons to use slurs, and when a pejorative term is used it mostly means that a mean-spirited thought is behind it. And that is what I find unacceptable.
Blanket policies about words that do not consider context or meaning are ridiculous and counter-productive. And, sadly, I think that in this instance that is where GLAAD has gone.
I agree with GLAAD that incautiously using the term fag – even when by a gay person – can add to an overall atmosphere that is damaging, especially to kids in school. There simply is no disputing that tossing around this word contributes to its social acceptance or that while he may have meant no harm, much harm can result.
I even think that it is within the mission of GLAAD to contact the writer and remind him how language can have consequences and to encourage him to look at the reasons within himself that he chose to go that path. I would hope that they would correct a writer that called something “so gay” when they meant “so pathetic”, even if the writer were gay.
But they should not presume intent or imply that Berk was an insensitive jerk that needed to be slapped down. And they should not have published this effort as a victory or suggested that it is the word itself, and not its intent, is what matters. Rather than participate in a more safe society, they reveal a rigidity to political correctness that is, for all practical purposes, just the mirror image of those anti-gay activists who put the word gay in scare quotes and insist “the correct word is homosexual”.
In writing this, I recalled two experiences that relate to this issue.
A few years ago I was on a cruise ship and overheard one young man talking to his friends. He was telling them that they should go to a particular club on the ship because there were some girls that were attractive and “the guys with them are gay.” At first I thought he was being offensive, using the word “gay” as a put-down. Then I realized what group he was talking about. And, yes, the guys were gay.
The other was a time I was walking on a street in my neighborhood with a friend. Some young man passing on the other side yelled “f*ggots!!.” I turned and shouted back, “yeah!” He kinda paused and shouted again, “f*ggots!!” and I responded with, “Yes. Good guess.” in a slightly impatient tone that implied that he was maybe just a bit slow. He stared, started to respond, closed his mouth, and walked away.
My point being, don’t find offense where it isn’t intended. And when we do reclaim power, reclaim it over our worth as people rather than just over a word.