Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I don't believe in "bad" words...

Apologies to those who already know my stance on this particular topic.  It came up yesterday in a heated Facebook discussion and I am compelled to address it again here.  I'm sure those who don't find this rant interesting will move on to their next Internet station.

A person in a group I'm in related a story about being confronted in a parking lot because he had parked in a handicapped space.  He had a handicapped placard in his vehicle, but his wife, who was the one who had gotten the placard on account of an injury, had already gone ahead of him.  He was left standing alone by his car and apparently looked too healthy to park in a handicapped space.  So some do-gooder stopped by to confront the healthy looking guy, reminding him that he wasn't allowed to park in a handicapped space unless he had a handicapped placard.

The guy in my group pointed to the placard and, I assume, politely invited the do-gooder to fuck off.  Then he related to our group what happened, admittedly in a way that made use of a certain pejorative usually directed at male homosexuals.  The story was funny, especially since most of us have no use for busybodies who feel the need to get up in other people's business.  

Someone in the group took offense to the storyteller's use of the word "faggot" and asked him to delete it from his comment.  Curiously, the offended party did not have a problem when the storyteller used other colorful language that could be considered anti-gay.  He made no mention of it at all.  But he was very offended by the word "faggot" and told us all in very emphatic terms.

I told the offended one about my feelings regarding so-called "bad words".  I don't believe in asking people not to use specific words.  I am against the wholesale banning of epithets and slurs.  I think it's a waste of time.  Now... this does not mean that I agree with using words to hurt other people.  I definitely think people should be careful with their language.  I don't think it's right to name call or use words to diminish or belittle others.  However, I do think it's wrong to expect people to stop using certain words because they are "hurtful" to certain groups.  The fact is, sometimes so-called bad words aren't actually hurtful and they should be used.

Here's an example of what I mean.  I own a lot of Stevie Wonder's albums.  One of Stevie Wonder's most powerful songs is "Living For the City", which is the story of a young black man who grows up in Mississippi.  He goes to school to better himself and, realizing that he'll never get anywhere in racist Mississippi, lands in New York City.  His eyes are full of stars as he takes in the New York City skyscrapers for the very first time.

Suddenly, he's set up by a criminal who correctly identifies him as a fish out of water.  The criminal offers him a quick five bucks as he shoves a package of drugs into his hands.  Confused and caught holding the bag, the man from Mississippi gets arrested, tried, and sent to jail for ten years.

As he's thrown into his jail cell, we hear a white guard cruelly snarl, "Come on!  Come on!  Get in that cell, nigger!"  The door slams shut and Stevie's vocals become rougher and angrier as the story of the young black man from Mississippi continues... the ending sad, but profound.


Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City"...

As hateful as the word "nigger" is, I don't think this song would be nearly as powerful without it.  We hear the hatred and disgust in the guard's voice as the young man is thrown away like a piece of trash.  If the guard had not said the n-word and had treated the young man with more respect, the song would not drive home its compelling message about the problem of racism.  It would have less gravity.  

I could list numerous other examples from films, music, theater and literature, where hateful epithets actually add to the artistic value of a creation.  In college, I took courses in African-American literature and Women's literature.  I read many books that used hurtful language in context.  Try reading a slave narrative without coming across the word "nigger".  You won't be able to do it.  Try reading Gone With The Wind, Tom Sawyer, or Huckleberry Finn without encountering racist language.  It's not possible.  In those situations, the words many well-meaning people would like to ban illustrated a point better than softer language ever could.  Removing the "bad" words would weaken the work's impact.

Aside from the fact that sometimes hateful language is useful in an artistic or academic context, I also believe that words themselves are inherently neutral.  They have power because they are given power by people.  A lot of "bad words" didn't start off as offensive.  It wasn't so long ago that the term "mental retardation" was an official medical term used by doctors.  Now the word "retarded" is considered hate speech.  Other terms are now used in place of "mental retardation".  How long will it take before those terms are also regarded as "hate speech"?

Words can be repurposed.  Words that used to mean one thing now mean something else.  For instance, the word "bad" can sometimes mean "good".  The word "cool" can refer to temperature, or it can refer to something being interesting.  Likewise, a word that was once neutral can end up being "bad".  A word that was once considered offensive can be repurposed for something good.

Some groups have even reclaimed hateful words.  They use them among themselves and no one gets offended.  Why?  Because those words are not being used in a context of hatred.  Indeed, sometimes they are even used as terms of endearment and it becomes "okay" for people within certain groups to use so-called hate speech among themselves.  It's only wrong if an outsider uses the word.

For instance, as a now former Army wife who sponges off her husband, I am sometimes referred to as a "dependa".  I don't like the word dependa much, because I think it's belittling and insulting and really only applies to a small number of spouses.  But I've come to expect that people will use that term in military circles.  So now, I try to think of it in humorous terms.  I belong to a group of "dependas" and it's become a joke.  I still think it's shitty to refer to a military spouse (usually a wife) as a dependa (short for dependapotamus), but my getting pissed off about it won't change anyone's mind.  Instead, I think it's more effective to behave in a way that goes against the "dependa" stereotype.

I think it's a lot easier to demand that someone stop using words like "faggot" and "retard" than it is to have an honest conversation with them as to why they feel the need to use such language in a hateful way.  Moreover, asking someone to delete an objectionable word is basically a cosmetic fix.  The person can delete the word, but it's unlikely that he or she will stop using it.  They may not use it in your presence again, but they will probably still use it in front of other people.  So basically, all you've done is make yourself feel better momentarily.  You haven't changed anyone's mind or heart.

Yesterday, I told someone that I don't believe in bad words.  He said that he does, and said he was surprised that I didn't.  He called me a "wordsmith".  Actually, it's because I write that I don't believe in bad words.  I love words.  I think every single word has a use.  That doesn't mean I don't think one should be very careful with their language.  It doesn't mean I think it's right to deliberately humiliate or demean people with language.  But I do think people have the right to use whatever words they want to use and I hope they'll use them with care.

The words you use send a message about who you are.  For that reason, I don't generally go around calling most people hateful names (except perhaps Bill's ex wife and ex kids-- I'm working on that, though).  But I also think that's a conclusion that people should come to themselves.  It's not something that can be forced on people.  After all, you can do your best to shut someone up, but you can't control their hearts and minds.  A person might stop saying hateful words in your presence, but that doesn't mean they don't still have hatred in their hearts.  Ultimately, I think we should be trying to address the deep seated hatred rather than burying words and making them taboo.  Ah... but it's much easier to Band-Aid the "bad words" than it is to address the real problem.

4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure why anyone feels the need to police anyone else's use of words other than his or her own minor child's or his or her students' if the students ar not of age. I don't use the "n" word at all (I'm being a bit silly in not writing it, I admit) because each time i said it, it would become easier to let it slip out, and then I might accidentally say it in a way that it either hurt others or hurt my own career. how anyone else handles the word is not my problem. I agree with you that some works of art or literature would be less powerful without inclusion of raw terms. And it really has nothing to do with me that some black people use the "n" word in inclusive circles.

    I was lying when I said I don't worry about the word usage of other adults. I do worry about my brother's use of words. He uses the term "Mongoloid" to refer to someone with Down Syndrome. That really grates on me, in part because I think it makes him look stupid, and I don't like it when my brother makes himself look stupid. I think he may just use it in front of me to upset me. I hope that is the case.

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    1. Well, I don't mean to say that people shouldn't be sensitive to language. I think it's a good thing that you recognize that some words are hurtful. Bill and I were talking about this as we were making our way home this morning. We both believe that when you bury language, it can have the effect of whitewashing the past and people start to forget about darker times.

      I do think language needs to evolve, though, and people need to be conscious of what they say. I don't like language cops, though. I think most folks need to pay attention to their own behavior before they start policing other people's. What was especially rich about the situation that prompted this post was that the guy who took offense to the word "faggot" had no problem when the original poster also called the guy a "a motherfucking dick sucking bitch". Not a word was said about that... yet he really got upset about the word "faggot". It boggles the mind.

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    2. I try not to offend others with anything I say, especially on the job where it can hurt my evaluations, but all of that notwithstanding, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Still, language police are hard to take. I have plenty to do just worrying about myself. I don't see where some people find the time to worry so much about the words used by others.

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    3. It's probably a good thing I rarely see other people.

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