(Content: references to bigoted language and violence. Fun content: robot cupcakes and Euler’s identity.)
The key question is: why do you even want to?
Specifically, this is the question I want to pose, on an individual basis, to every person on the internet speaking out for their freedom of speech as represented by other people not getting mad at them for using bigoted slurs. The argument that leads up to this point is ubiquitous and never ever changes at all. It starts with the bigot (whose exact suborder is still unidentified) using the slur of the day in some kind of context that doesn’t involve them actively wearing a Klan uniform and burning down the orphanage in their town’s Little Vietnam neighbourhood. Since that wasn’t what they were doing, they are obviously a blameless paragon of virtue and everyone else is just ‘getting offended’*. If this is a lucky day, someone in their audience might say that maybe it is possible they shouldn’t use that particular word – for our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the word is misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or even that elusive specimen, misandrist. (I’ll get back to that last one in some other post.)
What follows is simple and predictable: the bigot says ‘Whatever, get over it’, someone else says ‘No, this matters’, and the bigot agrees that yes, it does matter, because this is about their FREEDOM OF SPEECH and they should be able to say whatever they like without being censored, including using this slur of choice. And it may be hard to get a coherent response here, but often one can be gleaned from our bigot’s subsequent righteous quest for validation, and this if nothing else at last differentiates them a bit from the majority of contiguous jackwagonry out there.
The toddler response: “I didn’t mean it like that“. This’s a popular response that can be dismissed quickly. Someone who uses ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’ is still riffing off the social disapproval for gay folks, and the fact that they don’t actually care about that makes them more culpable, not less. I’d like to think everyone grasps this one by now, and I don’t think I’ve seen it much lately. I suspect we’re seeing more polarisation between the people who actually care that words mean things (and so stopped doing it) and the people who have realised they’re just fine with admitting to being horrible bigots.
The high school bully response: “It’s only a word“. Still going strong, of course. This is the anti-intellectual position wherein we insist that if people would just stop thinking about things that mean things we could all spontaneously evolve into independent superhumans who would build our own high-tech orbital houses from the grizzly bears that we personally strangled, except that everyone but them is too sensitive and sentimental and needs to toughen up. The temptation to call them on their bluff and only ever address them thereafter as ‘apesnot’ is enormous. (Ideally, I’d like to get their employer in on it too.)
The university hipster response: “I’m using it ironically“. These people are master philosophers who are too busy observing the beauty of Euler’s identity in the shape of a shiny corkscrew to be bothered with mundane things like the psycholinguistic shaping of sociological institutions through repetition of a simple concept. Or something? I would expect these folks to actually be really interested in the distinctions between the definition of a word, its connotations, and its implicature, but none of them will join my discussion group. Even though I brought cupcakes!
The secret agent response: “My friend said I could“. Well, that’s all right then, as long as you’ve got clearance from the hierarchy. But I’m curious about the logistics of this: what happens if you have two black friends? (For some reason, this never comes up. WHY COULD THAT BE.) If one of them gives you N-Word privileges and the other one says you can’t, is that like dividing by zero? Unstoppable force meets immovable object? Does the Matrix glitch out? Or is it some kind of Pandora’s Box deal, where anyone can open the box and once it’s opened no one can close it? We need to set up a rigorous scientific trial for this. Quick, find more black friends!
The adjudicator response is a bit special: “But sometimes it’s true“. This person isn’t denying that the slur is a slur, they’re just saying that they distinguish between members of the minority to whom it does apply and those to whom it doesn’t. They don’t just throw it around all over the place like an actual bigot would; they only use it to refer to women who really are evil conniving man-hating trash. Their judgments are carefully considered while sitting for nine days under a bodhi tree to ensure that it is justified. And somehow they haven’t noticed – or they’re hoping no one else will notice – that they can always justify it. That if you want to, you can always find some reason to say that this time it’s accurate, that this person really is the stereotype and deserves all the hate that’s got their particular label on it. If these people honestly believe that it’s sometimes true and sometimes justified, then they just haven’t thought about it long enough to notice the pattern.
Yet all of these possible responses are dancing around the same core issue: they’re arguing for why it’s okay for the person to use a particular slur, which keeps them a safe margin away from arguing about why the person did use the word. Maybe you can say it. So why do you want to? That’s a much more uncomfortable thing to talk about, because there are really only so many reasons you can want to use a slur, and the only way you’ve got a good one is if you’ve thought about it, which means you ought to be able to provide it pretty easily. If you can’t answer right away, you have admitted that you don’t have a good reason. Coming up with one after the fact is about as convincing as saying that the note you wrote is bilingual and you were actually secretly putting poisson in your boss’s drink because he just loves trout so much.
The reasons people give for this are also pretty common: because it’s funny – because it gets people’s attention – because no one can tell me what to say. My view on the ‘funny’ case is that if your joke boils down to ‘saying a bad word’ then you should probably workshop that sucker a little more, because I’m pretty sure it was funnier when I heard it on the first day of kindergarten. If it’s about getting attention, then it’s still lazy and just proving that you really don’t care about other people so again I’m not going to worry too much that I’m being unfair to you. And if it’s about proving that you can say whatever you like: well, yes, duh. No one’s going to confiscate your vocal cords. But just as your freedom of expression allows you to say anything, my freedom of expression allows me to find you childish and stupid. Just so’s we’re clear on that.
METAPHOR TIME. Because I have had more than one discussion about the intelligent use of references to minorities in comedy, and there are vast hordes of people out there who will happily insist that since comedy ought to be an element that reflects and interacts with all of modern culture, it can’t be cut off from dealing with subjects like racism and homophobia et cetera. True dat, no argument here. But if you’re imagining yourself as a comedian, take a break from that and instead join me in imagining you as a juggler. You’re up there juggling away and making important social commentary on the place of bowling pins in a world with a black US president. And then you get to the bit where you start juggling flaming knives, which always gets a big reaction and sends people home thinking about the knives in their lives. And somehow in the big finish, instead of all the knives ending up safe on the floor, one of them ends up in someone’s foot. You’re not sure what happened – did you screw up? Did they not see the warning tape and put their foot inside the Knife Zone? I don’t know and I don’t care: the point is that someone’s just gotten stabbed in the foot and that should matter to you if you’re a good juggler. You should be curious about what you might have done wrong, or how you can improve your act to take risks into account that you didn’t see before. You’re the one who brought knives onto the stage, and it’s your responsibility to make sure none of them end up lodged in a person. If you’re the type of person who think s that it’s other people’s fault if they get one of your knives stuck in their foot, then you can go to hell. And if you do care but this keeps happening and you can’t seem to avoid it, or if you’re not willing to take the risk and the blame for knife accidents, then stop bringing knives on stage, because you obviously can’t be trusted with them.
(The knives in this metaphor are slurs used for humour without oppressive intent. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here. That got kind of intense.)
*I’m fuzzy on exactly what folks think ‘offended’ means in the modern parlance. Cases where I would tend to use it myself would be things like ‘offensive smell’, a sensation that repulses and demands that everything everywhere be scrubbed thoroughly. I’m pretty sure I’ve stopped using it to refer to things like bigotry, because ‘stupid and evil’ really gets to the heart of the problem much more effectively. But what do other people think ‘offensive’ means when they talk about how easily other people get offended? It seems like a word without definition.