My best friend Nick and I have grown into very different people since heading off to our respective colleges. Nick has become a lot more socially conscious; he’s extremely active in his global outreach group, he loves the Jesuits, and he’s become one of those social justice warriors that are only slightly intolerable. He cares a great deal about LGBTQ+ issues and women’s rights, and he’ll be the first one to point out when you use demeaning language or stray too far from political correctness. I’ve changed as a person as well, but in less obvious ways. I’m more politically aware, although I still continue to mask that with my trademark offensive humor, and I have dedicated all of my free time to cultivating my future celebrity rather than helping children in third world countries. We still get along, of course, but we fight more than we did before starting college, often on the topic of political correctness, and the words I choose to use. Most of the arguments fizzle out after a few minutes; Nick accepts that I was being facetious and I accept that there is something in the New York City water supply that has caused mass lunacy. We agree that we’re different and decide to like each other in spite of that.
A few months ago, however, we had a disagreement on a topic that made me reflect upon my language choices and their effect. He called me out for using the word “bitch” and criticized me for using a word that is rooted in a history of violence and oppression. I immediately responded by saying I wasn’t using the word in a violent way, that I was saying it as an exaggeration, and that he was being overly sensitive. I essentially argued “YOU KNOW WHAT I MEANT” I felt heated after the conversation, not because Nick yelled at me, but because I felt as if Nick had implied that I was endorsing a culture of violence against women, which is something I would never consciously do. I felt like there was a moral judgment being passed on me, one that I didn’t like, and it made me feel humiliated and angry. And so I started to rationalize reasons as to why Nick was wrong for calling me out; I told myself that he was an out of touch privileged kid who was being brainwashed by the uppity white PC police at his school, I told myself that he was part a social justice movement that was just a more annoying version of the hippie wave, and I noticed I wasn’t satisfied with any of the conclusions I was drawing.
I realized I was upset because I hated that I was being held accountable for the language I was using; I was frustrated that the words I was using had a context and history that existed beyond my own intent. I didn’t want to acknowledge the power that words have and I certainly didn’t want to be tied to the structures of oppression in this country or be accused of perpetuating them. I didn’t think I should be blamed for the actions of past men or contemporary misogyny, and I thought it was unfair to be called out for saying something people absentmindedly say on a daily basis. I responded in the way most privileged people do: I rejected Nick’s claim, insulted him for speaking the truth, and justified what I had to say by distancing myself from it.
What I’ve learned is that intent isn’t really all that relevant when it comes to language. What I’ve learned is that people become upset for being called out because they are angry that their authority is being challenged, they’re frustrated because the world isn’t bending to match their views. To use an example, I know that when people say “that’s so gay” they’re really saying “that’s so stupid” and not referring to actual gay people. But at the same time, don’t I have the right to be offended? Shouldn’t I be able to say that whether or not you meant it to be an insult is irrelevant? I don’t want to look up the word “gay” in the dictionary and see “stupid” as one of its definitions, and I don’t think that it’s fair that we let the groups that created such pejorative terms redefine and reclassify them whenever they deem fit. I don’t think it’s the right of the majority to dictate whether or not marginalized groups are allowed to be upset, or change definitions because they think whatever discrimination that group has faced is in the distant past. I don’t think it’s okay for people to call someone “retarded” and then justify it by saying they didn’t mean “retarded retarded” When we do shit like that we’re simply further oppressing the people those words affect most. The fact that the word “retard” is effective as an insult is indicative of the reality that people still discriminate against people with special needs, and when we get butthurt about being called out, it just proves that we’re unable and unwilling to accept our own bigotry. It proves that we lack sensitivity and have no problem with further demeaning and marginalizing our most persecuted groups.
I’ve used a lot of ugly words in the past; I’ve used the “intent” argument to get myself out of taking responsibility for my hurtful actions, but upon discovering the depth of pain I’ve possibly inflicted upon other people, I’ve realized that saving face is not nearly as important as legitimizing people’s feelings. If someone calls me out on saying, “he’s so retarded”, I shouldn’t feel bad because I was caught or accused of meaning it in a different way than intended. I should feel bad that I so thoughtlessly hurt the feelings of another person. I should feel bad that such hateful language has been so ingrained in our society that certain groups of people are constantly insulted without the people doing the insulting even being aware of the fact.
It’s SO easy to trivialize the experiences of other people, especially if they are unfamiliar to us, but just because we haven’t gone through something ourselves doesn’t make those things any less real. I’m not asking people to stop saying offensive things altogether, what I’m asking is that they think a bit more about what they’re saying and how that could affect others. I want the people who make Caitlin Jenner jokes to think about what message that sends to transgender youth, I want the people who say “retard” to think about how they’d feel if they said it in front of someone who just lost their special needs son, and I want the people who say “that’s so gay” to wonder what it must be like to hear that as a gay kid who got kicked out of his house for being who he is. The great thing about language is that we’ve got like a bazillion words. We should be excited at the idea of having to switch things up and start using new words. I personally love calling people “reptiles” right now and can’t wait to come up with some brand new words of my own. I’m not expecting people to stop being awful and cease hurling insults (Ryan Murphy would never allow it), but I’m expecting people to think just a little bit more about what they’re saying before they open their ignorant ass mouths.