There is no elegant way to lead into a discussion about appropriate use of language to describe people honestly without offending every living soul on earth, so let me start by saying that I will agree with absolutely anyone who says that there are some words that should never be used by any person with a conscience, with a love of humanity, and a belief in civil rights for everyone and those words are (do I really need to say them here? Yes, I think I do because of what’s coming afterwords):
There are more, of course, but my exposure to hateful words is limited to the hateful people I’ve been exposed to in my life and whichever particular brands of hate they swing around. You will not find me using any of these words unless I’m writing a bigoted hateful fictional character or recounting specific dialog that I’ve had to hear in the real world. What I’m saying is that before I go on, you need to understand that a language of hate is not the same as a language of teasing, of ridicule, or of honest social commentary. The language of hate, racism, and bigotry is indicative of a deep ignorance and/or a severely flawed human being.
Do we understand each other? I don’t care if two gay people call each other faggots, I will never do so. I don’t care if two African Americans call each other niggers, it is unacceptable language for me to use because it evokes the will to burn human beings alive for the color of their skin or for their sexual orientation. Got me?
Okay then. Words. I’ve been noticing a lot of attempts to remove derogatory words from everyday language. One example of this is objecting to anyone using the expression “That’s so gay!”. Another example is the attempt to get people to stop saying “That’s retarded!”. A third example is an objection to people saying “She’s so crazy!”.
Here’s a human truth: we are a big huge mass of individual animals all vying for space on the planet, for space in rooms, for space in lines, for space in groups, in jobs, in families…very few people manage to live in a vacuum and most people have to deal with a large number of people every single day that they might not choose to invite into their personal sphere. This fact creates a lot of pressure. I don’t know how many people can claim to actually like everyone they meet (those few who have made such claims are, in my opinion, self delusional) but most of us have to deal with people we dislike, that we disapprove of, and that we disagree with about a lot of different things both important and ridiculously unimportant.
One of the ways we let off steam and attempt to either diffuse tension or to be honest about it is to express ourselves verbally.
Another uncomfortable fact: everyone in this world is given different mental capacities, different skills, different sexualities, different body shapes, different races, different combinations of races, different desires, different quirks, different levels of mental stability, different levels of creativity, and different levels of honesty: some of these things are more universally undesirable than others.
Being born with Down Syndrome is not ideal. You may know and love many wonderful people with Down Syndrome but I know NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON who hopes, when they are pregnant, that their child will be born with it. That’s a fact that you can’t change just because you have a big heart.
The point I want to make is so huge I’ve avoided it for a couple of years.
For some people being born gay might be just as awesome as being born straight but there are many people who fear being gay and so on the spectrum of possible sexual orientation many people aren’t going to see being gay as an ideal sexual orientation.
We all have our separate scales and measurement of what we wish we were, what we’re glad we’re not, and we use those measurements and scales to put others into context in our lives. It is not mean to compare ourselves to each other and every single human being does it whether they will admit to it or not. When we describe other people we need descriptors that are informative.
If I am talking about someone who’s mentally retarded why should it be wrong for me to say what they really are? Because they’ll be offended? Mental retardation is a fact of some lives and in itself is not an insulting descriptor when it’s fact. Well, what if I’m trying to describe someone I met who obviously isn’t literally mentally retarded but has an obviously limited mental acuity… am I never ever supposed to mention such a thing out loud? Am I expected to NOT NOTICE? Am I expected to keep silence? Will this change the fact that some people are born with more mental capacity than others, just by never mentioning it? What is an acceptable way of describing a quality in another person that I find less than desirable?
No matter what words I use to describe a person with a limited mental acuity, I’m still saying they’re fairly dumb. I’m still saying that they are lacking in something I find desirable.
Tell me what you think will happen when we prevent everyone in the world from ever mentioning the shortcomings we observe in others in the world? What do you think will happen to language if we aren’t allowed to use it? What will happen to communication if we remove every negative connotation from it and only allow ourselves to notice the good things? What will happen if we only allow ourselves to use positive words? I know there are those that think this would create a perfect world full of well adjusted people and no one would ever have their feelings hurt.
Why? Because we are human beings. I believe that every human being is just as worthy of living, no matter our shortcomings, as everyone else, but we are NOT created with equal skills, equal capacities to achieve the same things as each other, we are not all created particularly well. We are all created differently and we will never all like each other and not talking about things doesn’t change the fact that they exist.
There are people who are assholes. Why shouldn’t I be able to call someone an asshole? Using strong language to describe a person who has made me feel like total crap, a person who has in one way or another disrupted my life with their meanness, their insensitivity, their crude behavior- using strong language communicates strong feelings.
I am not perfect. I am wrong about things often enough to keep me humble. But I reserve the right to observe people honestly and to share those observations as sharply and accurately as I can and to apologize when I find I’m wrong. Language is one of the single most important things humans have ever accomplished.
I don’t see how straight people saying “That’s so gay” should be considered offensive. If you have known a lot of gay people in your life (as I have) and have loved enough of them, you will firstly think “Dude, are you trying to be insulting? Being gay is awesome!” but truthfully, it’s usually meant in a more mildly teasing manner and here’s something I have to get off my chest: some of the gay men I’ve known and especially my close friend J. who I roomed with for two years are most definitely stylistically different than all straight men. Some gay men have a unique flamboyance of dress and approach to life which is absolutely nothing like the burly chap-wearing tough gay men nor anything like straight men in behavior or style.
When one guy says to another “Dude, that shirt is SO gay!” I actually think it’s a valid observation to make. Because there are things J. would have worn that no straight man would ever have worn. To observe that some gay style is definitely different than straight style shouldn’t cause offense because it is sometimes TRUE.
Well, I’m not gay so do I have a right to fight not to expunge that expression from general use? I think I do have a right to object as a person whose greatest passion in life is language and the more colorful and descriptive language is allowed to be without being hateful the better we communicate with each other and the more truly we understand each other and the more I love it.
I’m mentally ill. So if you won’t allow me to have a right to let people say “That’s so gay” then I submit that calling people “mental” or “crazy” is completely acceptable. I call myself crazy all the time. I am not crazy in the schizophrenic delusional way that requires heavy anti-psychotic medications and possible institutionalization. However, I am clinically mentally ill, I have experienced a period of psychotic break with reality including auditory hallucinations and inability to recognize myself in a mirror which my first psychologist believes was an indication of my personality fracturing (when I was a teenager)… so when I say I’m mentally ill I’m not joking. I’m not exaggerating. I’m also not ashamed.
Is my mental state enviable? Is it ideal? Would I wish it on anyone else?
Only on my worst enemies.
So when people call someone “mental” to describe an imbalanced state of mind, I don’t see it as derogatory, though clearly no one who isn’t mentally ill wishes they could be and so calling someone “mental” or “crazy” could be considered negative and/or mean since it isn’t a quality anyone really wants to be associated with. Still, if you are dealing with someone who is acting irrationally the easiest way to get another person to understand what you’re talking about is to compare their behavior to that of a a group of people known to be mentally imbalanced. “Mental” gets the idea across succinctly.
People get hurt by words. Max and I talked about this recently. In school they were using the old stupid verse “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me…” which he said is a lie. I agreed. We talked about taking responsibility for how we talk to people. We talked about trying not to hurt people with words just as much as we avoid hurting them with physical violence.
I’m not in favor of flinging hurtful words at people all the time. But the truth always hurts someone and I’m also not in favor of living a life of lies.
Nothing is solved by expunging expressions and words from use that are judgmental or descriptive in a negative way because there are many qualities in humans that are negative and we should always be allowed to discuss them and observe them.
I suggest that the only words allowed to be expunged from use are the ones that carry with them actual hatred.
When people say “That’s so gay!” they are either making a valid social observation that some things are more gay in style or habit than others, or they are trying to hurl an insult at a heterosexual person who will find such a comment mildly distressing. It is NOT an expression of hatred.
Calling someone “mental” is to observe an imbalanced or unpredictable character or action, it is NOT a hateful slur against mentally ill people.
When people say (and I’ve said it myself ) “Don’t be retarded” they aren’t saying “Retarded people are evil and horrible and valueless” they are observing that someone who has been gifted with a modicum of mental acuity is choosing to behave as though they were born without any.
If we remove the negative part of our language we remove half the truth from it.
Honesty always has the potential to hurt someone. Sometimes it hurts me. Sometimes it hurts you. Sometimes it hurts someone we love.
Language is like people and comes with infinite variations both good and bad. I suggest we each take responsibility for our own use of it. If you claim not to have any negative feelings or if you think it’s just as awesome to be mentally ill as it is to be relatively balanced and normal, then you are a lying sack of shit.
And I mean that, really.
I’m not personally insulted that you don’t want to be mentally ill like me. I’m only insulted when you aren’t even willing to admit that some people are “crazy” and some aren’t. I’m offended that you would like to stuff my shortcomings under the carpet so you can pretend we’re all the same beautiful butterflies.
That kind of dishonesty doesn’t get me the help I need for my mental illness and it doesn’t improve my life to have my particular challenges brushed off as non-existent or normal.
Pretending that we’re all the same diminishes me and my life experience more than using my mental state as part of your yardstick for sanity could ever do.
It diminishes us all.
Language is the best way we have to communicate, to negotiate, to understand, to express our individuality, to mend bridges, to burn them, and to evolve. You don’t evolve by denying the truth. You evolve by accepting it and then without regard to anyone else you seek ways to make yourself a better more compassionate person.
But no matter how evolved and compassionate you become, you are still human.
The most spurious thing anyone has ever said about humans is that “There’s no such thing as normal” or another way people like to frame it is “Everyone is normal!”
No matter how uncomfortable it makes anyone, there are general norms in behaviors and in actions and there are always people who aren’t normal; whose behaviors don’t fall within an acceptably average range. I should know. I have consistently fallen outside the norm my whole life.
Abnormality doesn’t cease to exist just because you pretend it does.
So here’s what will happen if you successfully get rid of the expressions I have used as an example of what people are uncomfortable with: new ones will replace them because people need to notice and express those things.
This morning as I contemplated finally stepping up to this topic it occurred to me that perhaps it is a favor to language that gentle-souls try to remove words and expressions that make them uncomfortable because it will force new ones to surface which will enrich language all over again.
I was thinking about what I would call people I normally refer to as “mental” if it became heinously unacceptable to the masses to use “mental” and I turn to Georgette Heyer for inspiration and our even more colorful language of the past:
TOUCHED IN THE UPPERWORKS
Is that actually less offensive to the same people who object to “crazy”? It means the exact same thing.
You can’t stop humans from being human.
You can’t suppress truth.
You can’t whitewash language or it loses its diversity and soul; it becomes homogenized and useless just like most food in the United States: Mal-nourishing, processed, clean of all organic life, dead as a corpse but pretty as honey-baked ham.
A friend gave me this following link in which this issue is discussed from the polar opposite point of view as mine. It filled me with rage, but in the interests of listening to different points of view on the matter and as an example of why I felt I needed to tackle this post in the first place, I offer it up for anyone interested.
I am an ableist, apparently, and I think the word has a negative connotation since clearly the people calling me an ableist are using a word that describes people who discriminate against those with disabilities , and while it might be true- I don’t think it’s fair for them to use a word with any negative connotations about me while they’re accusing me of doing the same about them. Especially because I am one of the people they are supposedly trying to protect by expunging all negative words and descriptors from language. Their time and thought might be better spent simply working to improve the services available to people with special challenges.
Wait, am I allowed to refer to different-abilites as “special”, Which was previously a colloquialism for mental retardation? Though the word “special” is also used in positive ways to refer to awesome amazing people we most particularly love…this whole post is saying that even if a word has a positive connotation as well as the negative it is wrong to use it.
God dammit- this is ridiculous!
So here’s something Philip found for me on the same topic but completely funny and irreverent and anyone who agrees with the first link will undoubtedly be deeply mortally offended and hurt irrevocably by this handling of the same issue:
It’s all in the comments.
A word about bullying and how negative language is merely one weapon amongst many in the bully’s arsenal and removing it from use will not prevent people from being bullied:
I know there are many people out there concerned about the power of words to bully. I understand how people might think that if you remove all mean words from our language or at least forbid people (kids especially) from using them that suicides from bullying would never happen. It is ignorant to believe this.
I was bullied quite consistently from the time I was in Kindergarten until I was sixteen. I think efforts to bully me have continued since then but efforts at bullying me eventually failed to impress or hurt me because I just ceased to care. I was so busy plotting my own death by the time I was fifteen that someone hurling a bottle at me from a car for looking different seemed pretty insignificant and made them look amazingly stupid. I might have been mental but I was never stupid.
Bullying is a special art and it can be accomplished with almost any weapon. The weapon of choice is irrelevant. A fist or a foot is just as painful as words can be but sometimes just excluding a person from something is worse torture than any words can inflict. I’ve experienced all forms of bullying so I consider myself an appropriate witness for the prosecution of bullies everywhere.
What defines bullying is intention to torture and repeatedly push someone down to break them apart. Bullying isn’t hurling one insult at a person. It is a repetitive assault over the course of weeks or months and even years in some cases. There are a lot of bullies in the world and they are generally very broken people, some of them sociopaths, some of them so desperate for acceptance from their peers they’ll push someone down who their peers all agree is different just to be considered one of them.
The use of a derogatory term against another person, if it is based on your true feelings about someone and isn’t coming from a place of actual hatred (as in the terms listed in the beginning of this post) may be an unkind act but it isn’t automatically bullying unless you repeat the offense over and over with the express intent to wound the other person. Bullies derive satisfaction of one kind or another from watching people hurt. It is all about intent. Bullying is a ritual of abuse.
I have been called many things in the past forty years but the worst hurt I have ever recieved in my life has been from friends and family because those are the people whose opinions I care about the most. Those are the people who have the most power over me. I believe this is true for most people.
I’ve been called: freak, mental, crazy, prude, bitch, cunt, shithead, a failure, slow, stupid, fuck-up, witch, loser, narcissist, mean, ignorant, cold, weak, evil, satan’s helper, satan’s dirty little secret (okay, I just made that one up because that would have been such a memorable insult and would have made me laugh), sinner, two-faced, insensitive, thoughtless, selfish, a nobody, goody-goody, annoying, outsider, liar, misfit, creep, weird, weird-ass, asshole, jerk, breeder, and sick0.
Those are only the ones I can remember.
I won’t tell which ones caused the most damage or who delivered them.
It is infinitely worse to be told by a parent that you’ll never amount to anything than being called “retarded” on the school playground. They both hurt but one is crushing in a soul destroying way while the other usually fades over time and has much less power.
My point is that it’s important not to confuse the weapons of the bully for the source of evil but to recognize that it’s intent that differentiates bullies from people simply letting off steam or expressing displeasure with each other or exposing their own ignorance.
How to prevent bullying:
1. This is 100% the responsibility of the parents of children. Many parents bully their own children and this will teach their children to do the same. It is a parent’s job to treat their kids the way they want their kids to treat others.
2. Teach your child that it’s okay to have opinions and make judgments about people in life, (because without allowing them to do this they will not know that it’s okay to recognize when a person is “off” in a dangerous way) but teach them how to judge when it is hurtful to share those opinions and when it’s okay to share them.
3. Give your child attention, talk to them about their experiences with others that bother them, be a person they feel safe sharing their fears with not the person they fear being imperfect around. If you want to keep your child from becoming hopeless from being picked on you need to know when they’re experiencing problems and you need to be the one to give them tools for putting the experience in it’s place. If you don’t know how to do that for your child then get some help.
4. Help your child build a strong self esteem. With you they should feel that no matter how imperfect they are they’re loved and valued. Your kid is going to be teased and hurt by others at some point in time, if they come home and feel loved and valued and if they are helped to understand how flawed a bully is it will help them maintain their feeling of self worth.
5. If your child, for whatever reason, is prone to being teased and or bullied: teach them self defense. Teach them not to take it. I believe in dealing with bullies without violence but if your child is being physically pushed around they should not be encouraged to do nothing. Bullies will only stop bullying for two reasons: indifference or fighting back. The bully thrives on fear and weakness. A bully will usually stop bullying if they no longer get the satisfaction of making their target afraid.
My closing statement:
Language is not the enemy of anyone. Language is merely a reflection of the human spirit in all it’s gorgeousness, potential, disappointment, ugliness, gravity, difference, truth, lies, light, and dark. If language is sounding mean then it’s merely reflecting what’s in the human heart.
Let me end by asking you this: if you look at your own reflection on the surface of still water and you don’t like what you see, can you fix what you don’t like by stabbing the water? As soon as the water settles again you will see exactly what you saw before. You have to change yourself. You have to change the original heart and soul of a thing.
Language is a reflection of who and what we are.