First things first, I want to say that whether or not I feel a word is offensive, I concede that if it’s hurting people we’re better off not using it. I think it’s a simple enough – if the word causes genuine emotional distress in another human then there’s little point in arguing for its continuance. I’m also not arguing for any particular point on whether or not these words are problematic or not, this is more of an open question into the matter. I’m also not trying to tell people what they can and can’t say. Decide for yourself, but give reason to your choices, don’t give into indifference or spite.
What is and isn’t offensive is a very personal and hotly debated issue. It’s never-ending, I’m still trying to shake off the bad habits I picked up in my youth; there are all kinds of horrible things I thought were fine that make me mortified these days. And sometimes, people feel that it’s okay to use a word because it doesn’t offend them, in particular, even if it vilifies a group they identify with. Often, the word ‘faggot’ springs up with this sort of argument “oh but I have gay friends and they don’t care”. Sure, it’s a logical argument, but it misses the point. For some the associations of this word run deeper than we can imagine, it can remind people of schoolyard bullies, suicide attempts and the genuine homophobic vitriol that spews from various hate groups. While there is still this horrible form of prejudice in the world, the world will always carry a certain weight, and for that reason alone we’re better off without it**.
Rather than discussing this in an abstract sense I thought I’d pick a few examples and compare them. The first of which, and the one which got me started on the topic is the word “douche”. It’s under some scrutiny these days, as people are starting to consider these things with a bit more gravity than we were a decade ago. For the uninformed, a douche is a product that women use to clean their vaginas – and some feel that its very existence is misogynistic at its core, but I couldn’t speculate. The word has become a strong favourite for the insulting of younger men, particularly white men who are prone to being flashy. I think the appeal is that it doesn’t tend to get censored on television, so it’s a bit of a household swearword, you know, a swear you can take to church on Sunday… that’s a thing right? Anyway, the point is that people are arguing that since the word derives from something specifically* feminine it’s misogynistic to use it as an insult – and they could be right.
So what’s the problem? See, I don’t really care if we continue to use it or not. I’m not attached to the word, and if people find it offensive then fuck it – kill it off. But, the question arises, that if the insult is bad because of its gender-centric origins, does it apply in all cases? Is ‘cunt’ inherently misogynistic? It’s hard to say, and I’m not the person to say it, but if it is, then how about ‘cock’ or ‘dick’? Is a penis a bad thing?
And that’s where things start to get grey. If we were to say that ‘cunt’ was disparaging to women, then shouldn’t we then say that ‘cock’ and ‘dick’ are disparaging to men? It’s not a bad argument but are things really that simple? No, of course, they aren’t. There are groups of people who like to dichotomize things like this, like the hilariously inaccurate “either everything is okay or nothing is” argument. The problem with this sort of simplistic view is that it ignores context. Context is everything. A drawing of Mohammed might be a light-hearted jab at organised religion to you, but for an Algerian Muslim in France in might be a reminder of the historical genocide and persistent subjugation of their people. So while people are screaming “free-speech” at the top of their lungs, others are shouting “racial epithet” at the top of theirs. And they can both be right. Fuck yes, you might have some birth-right to say whatever you want, regardless of who it offends, but it doesn’t diminish someone’s right to be offended, does it?
And you know what? I believe that no matter how much of a free-speech advocate you are, there is going to be something that is taboo, something that goes too far – I highly doubt people would be marching down the street chanting “Je Suis Rape Joke” – and yes, these sorts of analogies are somewhat pointless for actual critical thinking, but fuck it, isn’t it just easy to stop such smug fucking assholes about it all? Anyway, I’ve gotten off topic, my point was that context is the important factor in these things.
Often, the easiest way to work out if something is disparaging to a group is to first ask yourself “is this a group that has historically suffered from injustice, persecution or oppression?” If the answer is yes then you can safely assume that you need to adjust your phrasing (or just not speak at all). For example, is ‘slut’ offensive to women? Yes, it is. I’m not here to give you a history lesson, and I’m not interested in whatever nonsense, so-called ‘men’s rights activists’ have to say on the matter. Thing sucked for women for a really long time, and we’re still a pretty long way off true sexual equality. Yes, things have gotten better, but this shit is institutional – it is part of our doctrine – our societies oppression of women is historical, and for that reason, we need to do all that we can to avoid being part of that oppression. If it means giving up a word or two, then fuck it, I am onboard.
Free speech advocates would have you believe that these types of conversations seek to steal away their rights, but that’s not the intention. You can say these things if you want, you’re not going to be shot, no one is going to hang you, but you might get fired, people might decide you’re an asshole and they’ll probably tell you off, that’s their fucking freedom. It’s a double-edged sword. Remember it might be your birth-right to say whatever you like, but what you do with those rights is on you.
I’m not trying to preach to anyone, I’m not saying that we can’t insult people, and I’m not trying to take a stand for any particular movement or anything like that. I just want people to be a little more compassionate, to remember that our personal freedoms shouldn’t come at the cost of our humanity. Take the time to think before you speak, try and remember that we’re all just people who have our own hopes, dreams and fears.
*I understand that trans-women use douches also, and I don’t wish to offend anyone by creating a dichotomy here, I am just being simplistic for the sake of the argument.
**I realise some people with to ‘reclaim’ the word, to twist it from being an insult to being a sort of badge of pride for your identity. I don’t wish to try and take that away from anyone, but for the purpose of this essay I’m side-lining that line of discussion.