We often talk about being politically correct and using language that isn’t purposefully offensive to people. We try to be mindful of other people’s feelings and to maintain civil discourse.
However, there have been times when I have complimented someone and they took it to be insulting just because of their own associations with a specific word, and their own relationship with language.
I once met a dancer who was tall and sinewy and flexible and very thin. I told her she was beautiful, so graceful, like a gazelle.
She was very offended by this. Her own view on gazelles were not as favourable as mine, obviously, and where I focused on their grace and beauty, all she could think of was that I was insulting her.
I once, while becoming socially conscious of the derogatory manner of calling women ‘girls’ decided to call the women I worked with ladies. I was quickly rebuffed and told they were girls. Being called girls, to them, was a compliment where as being called ladies was an insult.
When becoming aware of our own language and how it affects people, we have to remember that everyone looks at language, especially offensive language, in a very personal light.
Now, most contentious of all, and one that has gotten a lot of press for the past decade, is the use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult. I’d like to take a moment to frame this discussion in my own childhood.
In my childhood, I didn’t call people gay. I called them lame, or retarded. This was during a point in time when there was a lot of publicity surrounding mentally and physically handicapped people, during the rise of the word ‘special’ to describe those with severe handicaps. Differently-abled. We weren’t to call them handicapped people, but people who have a handicap.
My cousin was handicapped. He was born with Sacral Agenesis, a problem with his spine that is similar to Spina Bifida. He was in a wheelchair. I loved him, I never looked down on him, and I thought he was awesome. He worked as a clothing model as magazines and stores were trying to be more inclusive, he got free seats in movies and other shows because of his handicap. He even brought me to meet the Globetrotters and the Ninja Turtles and Mr. Dress-up. In no way did I consider him retarded or lame.
Another friend I had when I was younger was severely mentally handicapped. She couldn’t form words, was in a wheelchair, and had the mental equivalency of a two year old or so. I never thought of her as retarded. The words, to me, weren’t linked to the reality of my close friends and family.
And this is what’s happening with the word gay. It’s not that people are using it as an insult to gay people, or because they have ill concept of homosexuals, or even necessarily feels about them in any specific way, for good or for bad. It’s a word. A quick, easy word.
And when people say that we should use the word ‘gay’ and should use a more appropriate word like ‘lame’, I’m instantly reminded of my own recent childhood where lame was another word for someone in a wheelchair or required crutches. Lame was very recently another slur, and one that people took offense to for a long time.
We can try to enlighten people about why their language is hurtful, and try to be more mindful of the words we choose to use, but it helps everyone to be a little less offended by these things as well. I know it’s hard. I know everyone has hot button words. I know I have a few. We just have to accept this and not let it bother us so much. Not everyone has the same opinion on words as us, and a good many people have turned their back on politically correct language because they feel that it has gone to long and effectively neutered our language.
Not Safe For Work.
George Carlin completely shirked politically correct language and reveled in using un-PC terms. Not because he hated those people, but because he felt that pandering to people’s emotions and making things so palatable and easy to digest was bad for communication and bad for people. Dedicating our life around trying to make sure everyone is happy and feeling okay makes people weak. People don’t learn how to deal with handling minor upsets, people feel that any thing they don’t like should be censored – either by the person talking or, if they refuse, by someone else.
Not only that, though. This constantly changing definition of what makes language offensive creates divides between people.
Take, for instance, the transsexual / transgender movement. There are many who feel he and she are sexist and we should move away from that to ze and zir. Some have then taken offense when someone call them ‘him/her’, because they feel those definitions and those words are wrong and insulting. Because of this, some people have felt alienated from even discussing transgendered issues because they worry that they’ll be seen as offensive if they don’t use the most politically correct term – one that may well vary depending on location and personal preference.
We have to understand that people use language in different ways than us, and the important aspect is the intent of the word and its usage. We can still try to coach people in acceptable language, letting them know why certain words aren’t the best to use and why certain words are considered hurtful and hateful, but we shouldn’t let language control us and hinder us from making friends.
I’ll end with a final thought. For years Dan Savage, a gay male columnist, had readers address all letters to him with ‘Hey F****t’ in an effort to reclaim the word. Words can be reclaimed, definitions change, and language is a fluid thing. We can try to lead it in the direction we want it to go, but we must remain mindful that intent is the most important thing to decipher in language, and not the words themselves.