Friday 25 March 2011

Watch Your Language

Posted by Sally Outen

I'm going to dedicate this post to various ideas that will probably be very familiar to many of you reading it. This isn't especially exciting or radical material, but I hope you won't mind too much... and, OK, I promise to try better next time. The thing is, I'm finding myself having to go over the same old ground lately, in current debates over 'political correctness' and problematic terminology, and because I'd like to have all my arguments ready in one place. So here, in a similar spirit to
Derailing for Dummies, is a quick summary of responses I've received recently after calling people out on the use of slurs directed at people from marginalised groups. I'll provide a quick rant about deconstruction of each of these responses in turn.

Don't tell me I can't say that – you're taking away my right to free speech!”

I'm really not. I can't and won't take that right away from you, simply by saying “Sorry, I find that term problematic”. I'm only invoking my own right to free speech in expressing my concerns. It's also my right, if you choose not to take my considerations seriously, to avoid discussion with you in future for the sake of my own mental well-being, and to warn others about your behaviour if it is likely that they will be similarly triggered. Or, to alert any organisations notably promoting your voice in society – and if they choose to stop supporting you, they still won't be taking away your right to free speech. Your words can flow unchecked, even if your only platform is a soapbox.

And yes, I'm aware that we in the UK have legislation criminalising hate speech now, but that's not relevant to this argument. I'm not having you prosecuted; I'm politely suggesting that it might be a nice idea to show a little more sensitivity in your phraseology. In fact, I'm in general agreement with Peter Tatchell in his opinion that it's really not ideal to impose legal penalties on those who propagate hate speech. The alternative way - that is, to offer incentives (i.e. "people are more likely to listen to what you have to say if you avoid insulting them") - generally works better in practice in any case.

You're such a hypocrite. One minute, you're preaching about tolerance, and the next, you're being intolerant of me, just because of the slightest turn of phrase!”

I've never pretended to advocate universal tolerance, tolerance of everything. I am, however, being tolerant of you. I might not tolerate the expression you just used, but your words are not you. I believe in tolerance of people for who they are; and of the things they do, as long those things don't hurt anyone. I'd like to see racial tolerance, but I won't tolerate racism.

(And for that matter, I'm not intolerant of people belonging to your religion – only of your personal misogyny and homophobia, and of your implied belief that it is necessary to be a misogynistic homophobe to be a true believer of that religion.)

Oh, this is just Political Correctness gone mad.”

Well done – you can roll that one out without ever having to engage with the argument or the issues at stake. Whenever someone dares to feel offended by your phraseology, you can discount that person's feelings by explaining how their perspectives derive entirely from PC hypersensitivity. If someone proposes an alternative phrase, one that doesn't carry the same stigma, you can blithely accuse them of being a PC-fascist. Because they're totally oppressing
you with their request that you show appropriate courtesy for those who do not share the societal privilege you take for granted.

There's a fantastic post here
explaining how loose and lazy the concept of Political Correctness really is; how
“its objective isn't to communicate a substantive idea, but simply to sneer and snivel about the linguistic and cultural burdens of treating all people with the respect and sensitivity with which they wish to be treated.” I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

Anyway, here it is again, restated for the benefit of those who still haven't got the message:

When we take care over our dialogue with other people, it's not out of some compulsion to be fashionably 'PC'. That's your invention, not mine. Instead of trying to pretend this is some kind of modern fad, why not think about what's actually involved here. You might call it something like politeness, or decency; personally, I prefer to think of it as simple old, honest-to-goodness not-being-an-arse. Thank you.

But I have a friend who finds it empowering to use that term about themselves.”

If we assume that your friend is a member of the marginalised group at whom this slur is directed, then what that person is doing is reclaiming the term. If you don't belong to that group, then it isn't yours to reclaim – you use it with the full heft of your privilege and with the oppressive associations that come with that. And it certainly isn't for you to say whether it's offensive or not, even if your friend explicitly tells you that they, personally, don't feel offended when you use it. Your friend does not speak for the group as a whole, and others may feel more uncomfortable with your appropriating the expression, or with its usage generally.

A good example of this, and one that's been doing the rounds on the interwebs lately, is the term 'tranny'. Some trans people use this term about themselves and feel empowered by doing so. I've seen it used most often as a term of playful self-reference - and most of those who adopt it for themselves seem cautious about using it to refer to trans people as a whole. This is because they are aware that many of us feel triggered by the expression - perhaps we've had it directed at us as an insult, or feel that it has problematic resonances. In any event, if you're not trans yourself, don't use it, even if you mean well - your identity as a cis person places the word in a new context, one that many trans people will find uncomfortable.

See also the argument from 'intent'.

Fine, be offended. It's just words. Words never hurt anyone.”

Words play an important role in shaping our cultural attitudes towards, and perceptions of, marginalised societal groups. A slur isn't just an upsetting expression; it's an inherently reductive categorisation that elides people's individual experiences and identities in favour of lazy stereotyping and misrepresentation, through all of the (negative) associations attached to the word in question. Such constructs allow us to avoid thinking of members of marginalised groups as people. When you make a conscious effort to reject such labels, you engage with the potential to consider underprivileged individuals on their own terms – or at least, on equal terms with people like yourself.

Or, to put it in simple terms: language influences thought; thought influences action.

So, by amending problematic terminology, you're not just avoiding offence; you may actually be compelling yourself to reshape your perceptions of people - in turn, affecting your treatment of them. And others in your situation will do the same. Society does the same.

Now, consider. This is a society in which many groups of people still frequently encounter unfair discrimination in attempting to access jobs, housing, goods and services. It's a society in which hate crime continues to claim the lives of innumerable people every year, while others are left with physical or emotional scars. This is a society in which marginalised people live in fear.

Words can hurt people. They do hurt people.

Please, watch your language. OK?


  1. You might call it something like politeness, or decency; personally, I prefer to think of it as simple old, honest-to-goodness not-being-an-arse.

    Looooooove this.

  2. Thank you for this. It articulates a lot of arguments I've tried to give people far better than I could have.

  3. "You might call it something like politeness, or decency; personally, I prefer to think of it as simple old, honest-to-goodness not-being-an-arse."

    Like Galatea, I heartily approve of the sentiment here. However - and I'm sure you won't mind me saying this - I'm a little uncomfortable about the language. Admittedly this is a habit I haven't entirely managed to break myself yet, but I do think using body parts as insults is decidedly problematic. I was reminded of this by the numerous signs at the protest yesterday punning on "cuts" and.... well, you can guess.

  4. @ Annalytica -- I see what you mean here, especially re: the protest signs. On the other hand, for me at least there's a distinction between insults that turn on *gendered* body parts, which open to door to allowing misogyny to creep into your discourse, and insults that refer to body parts aren't gendered.

    I also find the spectacle of the main characters in Riot Nrrd calling each other 'butts' to be pretty much the funniest thing ever.

  5. When it comes to gendered body parts, male body parts get used as insults at least as often as female body parts, so I'm not sure it is particularly misogynistic. Rather, I think the insult hangs on the idea that certain body parts are shameful, whether they are parts that people of all genders have or not.

  6. Rather, I think the insult hangs on the idea that certain body parts are shameful, whether they are parts that people of all genders have or not.

    I quite like the idea of drawing this out by using 'public' body parts as the locus of shame, eg: "he is such an elbow", "she's a right earlobe".

    (I'm just going to point out here that genitalia / secondary sexual characteristics of all kinds are possessed by people of all genders [apart from hypothetical cases of esoteric genders which are only professed by a handful of people]. That doesn't stop them being "gendered insults", but I thought it worth clarifying for how we write about these issues.)

  7. Thank you for pointing this out, Annalytica - and how appropriate for this post! Yes, I think I can certainly see where you're coming from here.

    I tend to avoid using strongly gender-associated body parts as insults, because as Ben Elton points out in his magnificent "Man from Auntie" analysis of the issue, words for female-associated body-parts tend to be considered 'ruder' than names for male-associated body-parts, on the whole. And this can feed into misogyny, and the monsterising of women's bodies.

    However, I can see how even using words for parts of the body that aren't strongly associated with any particular gender can feed into body-image issues, and I'll endeavour to avoid using such insults in future.

  8. @Sebastienne: thanks for pointing that out. You are right of course that when I talk about "gendered body parts", or "male/female body parts", I don't mean that everyone of the same gender actually has the same body parts. Rather, within the dominant discourses about gender and bodies, particular kinds of body parts are associated with particular kinds of gender identity, so that reference to particular sexual characteristics will evoke thoughts of the gender typically associated with those characteristics. I hope that makes sense!

    @Sally - thanks for understanding! I see what you mean about female-associated body-parts being ruder, which possibly explains why, if anything, words for male-associated parts are more often used as insults, because they are less taboo. That adds a whole other layer of problematic implications to the existing issue of body part=bad.