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evolution of PC speech

April 16, 2010

We were talking in my office today about off limit words. Actually, I was bringing how “douchecanoe” is my new absolute favorite word ever. But I brought up the Shakesville word choice policy, and that led Alejandro to tell us his difficulties in finding the correct word to use to refer to someone who is mentally disabled. He pointed out how fast those terms change, and for what reason: they come in to general use, become pejorative, and the group decides it no longer wants to be called that. He pointed out that this makes an interesting statement on how we view these groups: if we have to find a new word for mentally disabled people every five years because they all become insults, then what does this say about how we view the mentally disabled?

Anyway that’s not actually the point I wanted to make. The point I wanted to make was that the honestly important thing, from my point of view, is that we all make an effort. I used to get exasperated at the fact that both ‘black’ and ‘African American’ can get you in trouble, depending on who you talk to. I try to remember now, though, that these people have good reasons for why they prefer one term over the other. And I think the important thing is to respect each person’s right to self-identification. I usually use ‘black’, uncapitalized, because that’s what I know better and it’s less cumbersome. But if someone wants me to refer to them using ‘African American’ or even ‘Black’ then I’m OK with that – they get to tell me what to call them. And as long as they accept my well meaning apology that I didn’t know and I will do my best to call them by their preferred term in the future, then life should be good.

In the same vein, Ned called me gay the other day. I know he meant no offense by it – he’s well meaning and a good friend and hadn’t heard my rant. I’m not gay, because I’m not a homosexual man. I’m a bisexual woman, and I don’t want the gay label subsuming who I am. Call me bi or call me queer, but don’t call me gay. I’m not mad at Ned for mixing that up though – it’s a common mistake, he apologized, and life is good. And I’m okay with this because he was respectful and well meaning.

If we have to come up with new terms for disabled people every five years, maybe that’s a symptom of a greater problem: that we don’t really respect disabled people. For me, by choosing to avoid ‘retarded’ and ‘lame’ in my language (unless I’m actually talking about someone who calls themselves those terms), that ends up a constant reminder to me of a greater choice of mine: to attempt to understand and advocate for disabled people. And this extends to other language choices: for me, choosing to change my language always comes with a greater choice to change how I think about that group of people.

One other thing I’ve been pondering a lot lately. I really don’t like it when people use ‘gay’ as an insult around me, and have asked people not to say it. I certainly wouldn’t like people using ‘faggot’ or ‘nigger’, as those are terribly insulting terms, and would definitely call people out for it. If I ask the people around me to respect these language choices, then shouldn’t I respect their language choices? I work with a very religious guy who doesn’t like swearing. Seems like the polite thing would be to abstain when around him, as I do around another friend’s four year old sister. I dunno, though, because it’s somewhat different situations – ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ aren’t derogatory terms, they’re just not as socially accepted. I haven’t decided what I think about this. Just been thinking about it.

(As a final note….for some reason I want to begin all of my sentences with conjunctions. This is odd.)

ETA: I think it’s funny how controversial language choice can be, and that attempting to be non-controversial is actually a very controversial choice. I’ve been mentally cringing all day at the thought of posting this and what some of you will think of it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amanda permalink
    April 17, 2010 8:31 pm

    I’m curious about the word “queer”. I guess I thought this seemed derogatory, but I’m not really sure why I assumed that. I’ve never thought to ask anyone about it so now seems like the opportune time. Is this derogatory to some people but not you? Or have I just been wrongly avoiding an actually acceptable word?

  2. April 18, 2010 8:27 pm

    Haha oh I get in terrible trouble for that word. Queer used to be derogatory, but there has been a movement to reclaim it and make it a positive word again. So in some queer circles “queer” is an inclusive term because LGBTIQQAA is just excessive, but in other circles it’s still not acceptable. I like it a lot, because, well, that acronym I just typed, and also because that acronym too often gets shortened to “lesbians and gays” or just “gay” and I like it when people remember I exist. I do realize why people avoid it though, because it does have a very complicated history. So yeah, it’s sorta up to you if you use it or not.

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