Words and Offense

02Apr11

A lot of people seem to be under the impression that I am “politically correct”.

This is an odd impression for many reasons, not a few of which relate most to political correctness’ nonsensical application to all sorts of things and the fact that no one can fully agree on a definition for the phrase. The one element of PC that people seem to agree on the most is that it is built around the avoidance of offense (often in relation to oppressed folks).  So the actual meat of the assumption isn’t so much that I am politically correct and more that I work to eliminate words that are found offensive byoppressed groups (my own and the ones of others). Mostly slurs.

Ah slurs. Amazing little linguistic fragments of nastiness, they are one of the most misunderstood elements of oppression in existence. But really, this applies to all forms of linguistics. The phrase, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” is the western cultural catchphrase of the almost painfully ignorant train of failure that is Statesider, Canadian and UK comprehension of how language in general (and especially the English language for us) influences the mind and determines learning. This also shows up in how rapidly reading is being pushed out of our (in the States) educational system. No doubt many other countries have similar problems in their own native tongues but I won’t presume myself judge of the severity or presence of the problem in a region, culture and language I’m less than familiar with. I’m not that kind of asshole.

For the most part, the assumption is sound when applied to the activist community. A huge portion of western feminism, western anti capitalism, the western disability rights movement, the Alphabet Soup community (and the oft forgotten trans portion of that group), western fat acceptance, western anti racism and etcetera social justice groups all tend towards addressing slurs and x-supremacist (where x is a privileged group) language in terms of offense. In order to explore this further, let’s go on a merry ride of definitions.

a: an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo :aspersion
b: a shaming or degrading effect :stain, stigma
An oppressive slur fits more towards a mixture of definition a and b (an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo that has a shaming or degrading effect) and is additionally built into structures of systemic oppression. But we’ll get to that later.
2: something that outrages the moral or physical senses
4:
a: the act of displeasing or affronting
b: the state of being insulted or morally outraged <takes offense at the slightest criticism>
The most relevant definitions are used. Now dictionaries are not the best indicators of what things mean in social justice but these definitions do slide rather close to the reality. An -ist slur is a damaging and degrading wording, built into the structures of oppression with a very specific role and offense is used more in terms of a personal harm word (like a strike at the psyche and self esteem of an individual instead of the morality or simple displeasure) than the primary definition. These differences, however, are minor and don’t really change how the words work. Slurs are systemic and offense is personal. This we can all agree on (unless we are quite ignorant about how these things work).
So now I drop the bomb on you. I do not give a single flying or landbound fuck, when it comes to fighting slurs, about offense.
Even my oceanic fucks are not given. Digest that statement for a second. A (former) social justice advocate, marginalized person and (former) activist [edit ~KH] has just told you that when it comes to her reasons for fighting slur use and problematic language that she does not care about offense.  Some would find that deeply contradictory. Those people would be wrong. You see, offense isn’t the actual problem. It never has been. It isn’t the thing that makes slurs so ungodly harmful. Furthermore and this is important, offense is not limited to the marginalized and oppressed. Oh. Yes. That’s a bit of a problem isn’t it? Because you see, privileged people can be offended just as easily by marginalized and oppressed people as we can be by them. The effects of the offense may be different (power always adds extra harm to stuff) but there’s no doubt that we offend the privileged every day of every week of every month in any given year. Our anger offends the privileged and hurts them. Our self expression and living our lives offends the privileged and challenges their worldview painfully. The bigot Christian is offended by the lesbian couple holding hands. The cissexist gay man is offended by the trans woman who refuses to be called a drag queen. Chasers of pwd, fat people, trans people and poc are offended by each of those groups rejecting their creeper advances and attacking their fetishization of us/them. Thin people are often offended by fat positivity and fat people refusing to reject their own bodies. Bigoted cis feminists are offended by trans women accessing women only spaces. The list goes on and on. Offense is a very eclectic concept and it is open to anyone, even the oppressor. Even worse, offense is built entirely around direct effect. If a tree falls in the woods it does in fact make a sound, but if no one is there to hear it, no one will cringe at the crash. Likewise if a slur is said in a completely privileged group, without any supporters of oppressed people around (or people who just don’t think words are an issue) who exactly is it offending? No one. No one is there who would be affected. I’ve heard of too many people who just avoid using the phrases and slurs around people they know it will offend and then go and use it around people they know it won’t.
So one of the biggest problems with just concentrating on offense is because offense can be used just as easily against us as it can for us when it comes to getting rid of slurs being spouted by the privileged
Of course slurs are still bad and x-supremacist language still is a problem. Offense being a poor reason to concentrate on doesn’t mean they’re suddenly grand. They are still both utterly abhorrent and dangerous elements of oppression. Offense is just not the reason why. Systemic oppression, concept association and a phenomenon known as “hostile tagging” (where the phrase either tags a person as someone to be hostile to and exclude or tags an area as a hostile place to any oppressed people that come in) are the actual reasons why slurs and x-supremacist language needs to either be eliminated or limited and then reclaimed by the oppressed populations (as opposed to just avoided when around oppressed people).
There are mounds of science behind this. Perhaps not directly, but sociology and psychology have studied for years the impact of words on mindset and viewpoint. The things you say influence you. And as social justice starts to take advantage of this, we’re seeing more and more direct scientific research on how slurs and words in general work in relation to oppression. From an analysis of sexist humor and how it influences behavior to be more sexist in the joker and the audience to an empirical analysis of how ethnic slurs directly affect one’s estimation of a person of color to whom the slur is targeted the  direct evidence continues to grow. The results are not any surprise to those of us targeted by slurs of varying types of course. Having personally watched ableism and cissexism blossom in the mindsets of people who use slurs from those groups I can attest to my lack of surprise. But the results are telling. It’s clear that the denial of the power of words on the part of cisgender, white, thin, abled, men, etc has no basis in fact and every basis in denial, now not just to those of us who live it on various axes but to anyone with the willingness to look past that denial and read up on the science of it.
This is also a big portion of why offense should not be what social justice and the privileged individuals who work with the oppressed on it concentrate on. The frighteningly direct way that words influence behavior and in turn directly and effectively boost the effects of oppression on a huge scale is a much bigger concern then whether someone is personally offended. It means that no matter where someone says that slur, even if no one is around that could be offended, it still hurts us overall. And not all of us are offended by all the slurs that affect us, how a person takes a word directed at them depends very heavily on their own personality, experiences and psychology. When the word trap is used for me, even in a nasty way, I’m more afraid of the consequences than I am personally hurt or offended by the word. Offense doesn’t even come into play when I point out trap is a slur and call people out for using it outside of reclamation. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by concentrating so heavily on offense and ignoring how words directly cause and enforce oppression. And our supporters do the same but with a voice far more heard than ours.
This is not to say that offense is irrelevant. No doubt offending and hurting an oppressed person with your words is oppressive in and of itself, by making them feel less safe and causing pain to them as a privileged person, something that adds to the stress and difficulties of facing oppression and makes life even more difficult for that person. But to treat it as the sole reason why words are problematic, why slurs are what they are? That’s just not correct and even more, it ignores the biggest issue around words that we need to tackle, the one that makes the words deadly even when those of us who are offended don’t hear them.
So no, it’s not about offense. Not entirely. Words really do have astounding power.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can mobilize an entire society in violent hate against me. And we should never forget that fact.


38 Responses to “Words and Offense”

  1. 1 Dominique Millette

    Word.

    Thank you for this : “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can mobilize an entire society in violent hate against me. And we should never forget that fact.”

    You hit the nail exactly on the head.

  2. 2 Jadey

    I am always leery about talking about offense when trying to challenge problematic stuff, because often I am *not* the targeted person. I am *bothered* by racist, transphobic, and ablist slurs, for instance, but if I frame it as being offended/finding the slurs offensive, I’m centering my feelings about something that isn’t *about* me. Frequently I find that people assume I’m approaching something from the offended paradigm and will try to apologize/fauxpologize (depending on the person) to me, and not actually engage with the broader context of their actions. I get that it’s easier for people to interact with the concrete and immediate, the person standing before them, but it’s so beside the point as to be useless if that person is not actually the one hurt. Even when I am challenging things that are personally relevant to me (misogyny, fatphobia, homophobia), it still feels like superficial appeasement to have someone apologize and try to soothe my feelings, but not locate their actions and the consequences of them within the macro context and consider that they resonate well beyond the immediacy of hurt feelings.

    I dunno. Keep your coins, I want change, I guess is what I mean.

    In other words, you are awesome. :)

  3. This is awesome.

  4. Great post, Kinsey, and it’s good to see you around.

    One big element of this, perhaps especially with disability and trans gender, is inaccuracy. Like your thing about the word “bisexual”. The most profound example I can think of is when the wrong gender pronouns are used, or when a same gender spouse is reduced to a “friend” – it’s much *more* than merely offensive because we are not being treated as the people we are – and often this happens with people with no particular malice about them. The worst I’ve had is being referred to as a “wheelchair” – the fact that I’m even hearing that, being talked about when I am present, indicates the treatment that goes along with the language.

  5. 5 Finbarr Ryan

    This this this. I tried to make this same point earlier tonight in an argument with some friends, but you put it far more eloquently and thoroughly than I ever could. :)

  6. 6 MediGeek

    Wow.

    I find this analysis fascinating and somewhat mind-blowing. I attempt to avoid offensive language simply because I’m not interested in insulting people, intentionally or otherwise (okay, I often fail when I’m very angry).

    This presents a new (to me) and very powerful argument for awareness and more conscious (and conscientious) use of language.

  7. 7 Shora

    I loved that first article you linked. I kind of want to print it out and force a couple my guy friends to read it. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve been told to “lighten up” because someone was “just joking” and I’m “being too sensitive”. Even by people who know very well the kind of oppression minorities face! I always say (on the rare occasions i do call someone out) “But there’s more to it than that!” and flap my hands around and stutter, not really knowing what to say. And a lot of the time, I don’t even find sexist jokes offensive; sometimes I’ll even find them funny! But I always think about what these jokes are saying to men who actually do believe the jokes against women, and its scary.

  8. Yup. I’ve been trying to tackle my internalized transphobia and homophobia ever since I realized that there were names for the shame I experience. I’m addressing it through art. My friends and supporters gently point out when I’m harming myself too–I’m really thankful to have lots of people in my life who have the language to catch me on that.
    I performed spoken word for the first time on Thursday night. It really helped me see how I have this talent with words: in speaking, writing, and performing. I can use it for positive action or negative. I think it’s something you need to watch out for: to make sure you’re not oppressing anyone with your language (or your actions).
    Lately, I’ve been working on the other -isms too. It’s hard. Calling myself and others out helps me see where the -isms are perpetuated. I’ve been naming privileges I have and have been trying to see where everyday language creates hierarchies and power relationships. It’s frustrating because it’s everywhere. There’s no escape.
    I’ve been trying to figure out if everything is always class struggle, a struggle for something better, a fight to be heard, to be seen, to be freed. I can’t figure out if the world is changing for the better or for the worse. I can’t understand why a large majority of people on this earth don’t seem to give a damn about anyone but themselves. I’ve been trying to piece together this world I’m in into something that makes sense. None of the pieces fit well. It makes me angry that the world is so fucked up. Will we ever eliminate oppression?
    More questions than answers, I’m afraid. And I’m afraid far too often for my peace of mind. (Maybe I should start a blog so I can put these fears somewhere.)

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and it’s great to read your post, where you express my feelings much more coherently than I could myself… For me the eye-opener was that I simply didn’t know _any_ slurs that weren’t based on one minority or another.

    Since then I’ve been trying to create new slurs, not based on the idea that comparing someone to a minority is a good way to insult them.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post.

  10. 10 Ace

    One of the first social justice texts I read was posted in the wall of a co-op and included the quote, “If someone insults you for belonging to a privileged group, it may offend you, but it cannot oppress you.” That was a key that turned in the lock of my head and was such an important thing for me to grasp as a person oppressed on some axes and privileged on numerous others.

  11. This is a FANTASTIC post. My adrenaline is up now! Thanks so much!

  12. 12 Mike

    “Offense is just not the reason why. Systemic oppression, concept association and a phenomenon known as “hostile tagging” (where the phrase either tags a person as someone to be hostile to and exclude or tags an area as a hostile place to any oppressed people that come in) are the actual reasons why slurs and x-supremacist language needs to either be eliminated”

    This is great. I learned a new concept. Thanks.

  13. 13 Katherine

    I hope you don’t mind if I save that last line of yours to use on people.

  14. 14 Alexis Christoforides

    Thank you for this post, it is awesome.

    As a by-most-accounts very privileged person, it really shocked me to realize that for almost ANY oppressed minority group that I can think of, I would have HEARD so much about them from other people or the media (in the form of jokes and political statements) BEFORE I would get to meet even one (or know that I’ve met one).

    Most people find spreading rumors about individuals to be rude and most people seem to know that rumors tend to spiral out of control. But when the same mechanism is applied to populations, suddenly it’s acceptable.

  15. 15 Yay

    Thank you for this post. :) Recently, there was a guy who made sexist jokes all the time in a group in which I was the only girl (out of like, ten people). I really didn’t know what to say in response. If I called him out on it, I knew he would probably be like “GOD you GIRLS are just so EMOTIONAL and easily offended seriously CALM DOWN it’s just a JOKE!” I wish now though that I called him out on it anyway. I should have said “Wow you are one sexist sack of shit.” It has been hard for me to articulate why it’s not acceptable to do that, and you not only did so really eloquently but also have research and things to back it up. If it ever happens again, I will have things to say. So thanks again. :)

  16. 16 scyllacat

    Right. I will have to read this at least once more to get all the bits. Right now, I’m flashing back on calling out my uncle on using the n-word. There was yelling, tears, and I stalked out, but in the end, he forgave me. :( I need all the defense, all the weaponry, and all the clue I can get.

  17. 17 Christina Shannon

    @ “…how a person takes a word directed at them depends very heavily on their own personality, experiences and psychology.”

    Yes, absolutely, and if for no other reason, this is ample reason why offensiveness is an ineffectual argument against slurs; it’s far too subjective and easily dismissed as such. Thank you for your thoughtful discourse on the objective reasons why slurs should not be tolerated. The fact that they engender and promote forms of even more cuastic and debilitating oppression against the socially disenfranchised and/or politically powerless within our common society at large – regardless of whether any individuals have been personally (or in direct proximily) offended or not – is what is often overlooked when the “that-was-offensive” debate starts and quickly devolves into dismissive apologetics at best or (quite as often) more slurs, usually about how members of the target group are “too thin skinned” ect., which derails attention from the actual oppressive power of the original slur.

    We need to stop taking offense and/or becoming defensive on a personal level. We need to start taking the initiative to oppose slurs as the vile propogation of oppression that they actually are. We need to stop giving privileged offenders an excuse to dismiss us individually (and as a whole) as “over-sensitive” whiners.

    Rather than keep practicing the self-defeating habit of “being offended” and thus remain “victims”, we need to become activists who recognize and acknowledge the facts about linguistic oppression. We should call out sexist, racist, ableist, ageist, cissexist, etc., bigotry by name and declare it all oppressive and unacceptable in any truly civilized society that both recognizes and upholds the dignity and rights of every human being. (Obviously speaking hypothetically here, considering this is a noble ideal that doesn’t yet actually exist anywhere, but a little polemic liscense might be allowable and is certainly necessary for this argument’s sake.)

    Slurs diminish us all – targets and perpetrators, both. They strip away our dignity and deny our humanity – including that of the bigots who ignorantly employ slurs, because all such slurs speak much more loudly and profoundly about the speakers’ lack of dignity and humanity than those slurs do about the intended target(s).

    The only way I know of that might be workable – without becoming habituated to victimhood or (as ineffectually) becoming slurmongers, ourselves, in retaliation – is to clamly and rationally present the facts about the oppressive nature of slurs. If we keep our heads, instead of “being personally offended”, we’ll more likely keep our dignity and humanity in tact while we reasonably and effectively challenge all such oppressive linguistic practices.

    Embrace diversity in all its beautiful forms.
    Love always,
    Christy

  18. 18 Christina Shannon

    You know what; I need to aplogize for insisting what “we” need to do. I normally know better. Once again, however, my passions got the better of me. I’m trying to learn to restrain myself, but I’ve obviously got a ways to go in the application of lessons I’ve supposedly already learned.

    So, here it goes. I’m sorry for writing that anyone else should do anything that is or even might be contrary to their personality, perspective, position, etc. What I could’ve and perhaps should’ve written is that I am looking at the possibility of me taking a more activist stance in challenging linguistic bigotry. After all, I am the only one I truly have a right to critique in this way.

    Love always,
    Christy

  19. What you say here is very true.
    and one problem with the fact of making it all about offense is that it can go in the two ways, of course privileged people can feel offended too except that what offend them is usually not so much a danger to them… apparently some neurotypical people feels offended by the world “neurotypical” straight people feel offended by the word “straight” and cisgender people by the word “cis”… but the fact is while being called this way may hurt them it has yet never put them in danger, while marginalizing minorities by reffering to those who are not from these minorities by the word “normal” is linked to an attitude that continue to put these minorities in a great danger.

    …but that’s not all, i’ve read elsewhere another post that also develop about the “offense” part…

    in short for some marginalized people, being “offended” means panic and flashbacks from ptsd due to a trauma that is a direct result of the oppression to which they are subjected.
    while usually “being offended” for privileged people means something much less visceral and more of the kind of feeling bad or being annoyed

    So on many level not the same thing.

  20. @Ole:

    Yeah definitely. In a lot of cases oppressed people are being fully triggered by things and calling it offense, while privileged people are just kinda irritated with their privilege being disrupted and call that offense.

  21. Thank you for this fantastic article. I’ve always known intuitively that offence wasn’t the really the main problem with slurs but I’ve always had a hard time articulating what the problem actually is, particularly when confronting people on their use of language.

    You’ve really helped me reframe this in my mind and you’ve given me some really useful tools for talking to people about how they use language and why it’s harmful.

  22. 22 RJ

    One of the mods just broke their own rules about having personal attacks over on Inclusive Geeks and attacked you specifically:

    [link removed ~KH]

    Just wanted to give you a heads up in case you begin receiving trolls on your site.

  23. 23 maitressemadz

    I am glad I came across your blog. You have an amazing ability to cut through the shit and get down to the root of the issue, and also for making us face our demons. I do agree that slurs are dangerous – not because of the offense but like you said because of the oppressive system and ideology they support.

  24. 24 just me

    Check it out: here’s a bunch of native English speakers who, upon being informed that a slur they keep using in English sentences is actually a slur in English, insist that it’s innocent because Japanese comic book readers who don’t speak English say it’s innocent: http://hachimitsu-scans.blogspot.com/2011/08/trap-is-terrible-thing-to-waste.html#comments

  25. @RJ:

    Thanks for the warning. Looks like some serious bullshit. For instance, I don’t have insurance through my parents. And the discussion on necrophilia and incest is a lot more complex then they’re pretending, as I did talk at length about the massive abuses that occur among those who are necrophiliacs (nonconsensual use of a body, i.e. without written consent pre death of the individual) and people practicing incest (like pedophilia involved or parents abusing their children, regardless of age). Oh well, I guess nuances and actual thought are beyond that so called geek on LJ. As well as actual fact checking.

    If I do get trolls I’ll likely just delete anything they comment. I normally do anyways.

  26. 26 Confused

    Kinsey Hope

    I am dealing with an online anarchist community who believes that words ranging from “bitch” and “retarded” are oppressive, down to “lame”, “crazy”, and “moron”. They ban people who use these terms, but take no action against and use phrases like “douchebag”, “asshole”, or “limp-dicked”.

    Needless to say, they linked here to justify their strange policy. Is this consistent with your ideas?

    ~Confused

  27. fucking wow. excuse me while I add this blog to my Google Reader with hearts in my eyes. I’m e-mailing the link to a friend who recently told me I was “trying too hard to be PC” when I explained to him that I under no circumstance enjoyed the rape joke he tagged me in on Facebook.
    As a member of many minorities who withstands many slurs, I thank you.

  28. @Confused:

    Douchebag and asshole are not slurs and don’t have slur function. They don’t boost elements of oppression like the slurs above do. Limp-dicked, however, I would say is problematic because it could be construed as ableist and may boost ableism regarding sexual disorders, heart disease issues and other problems that could lead to that sort of condition. I’m sure they were unaware of those elements of limp-dicked.

    Regardless, I doubt any of this will make a dent in your skull, since you seem to not comprehend any of this shit after having (I assume) actually read this post. So I imagine I’m wasting my time talking to you to begin with

  29. 29 Emily Somers

    I revisted your 2009 post about ‘cis’ and its perceived negativity because I liked your feisty rhetoric and felt it would be useful over on the Bilerico site (which is not debating that very issue.) However, the Femmesay commentary that you link is now broken. Might you have an archived copy of it by any chance? I’d like to read the analysis, since you endorsed it so highly. Thanks!

  30. I’m glad you found it Emily, I wasn’t able to archive a copy cuz I found it was gone long after I could do anything about it

  31. 32 matt

    As a non-bigot christian, I wanted to thank you especially for taking the extra time to say “The bigot Christian is offended by the lesbian couple holding hands.” instead of lumping the bigot-christians and the non-bigot christians in together the way a lot of people do.

    It sucks being a non-bigot christian, because the people who’s side I am on and who I identify with and who I advocate for are often the same ones who lump me in with people I am fighting against via some big blanket statement.

  32. @Matt: Keep in mind that when a portion of society is operating in violent hate against a group it’s often a dangerous (even potentially fatal) move to give the benefit of the doubt to a given privileged majority (and in the United States, the UK and Canada, Christians are privileged). For further detail on the subject see this article

  33. 34 ThanksGoldfish

    Quote: “One big element of this, perhaps especially with disability and trans gender, is inaccuracy.” Great point, Goldfish. The term “blind”, for example, is not in and of itself a slur. In fact, I proudly refer to myself as a blind person. But it takes on the same function as a slur when people use it to mean “in denial”, “oblivious”, “incompetent”, “disoriented”, “unscrupulous”, and [insert undesirable personality trait here]. Often the only way most English speakers actually feel comfortable using the word “blind” is in expressions that do just that, like “love is blind”, “turning a blind eye”, and “the blind leading the blind” etc. often when the same people try to talk about actual blindness, they play all kinds of verbal gymnastics by resorting to terms like “non-sighted”, “visually impaired”, “sightless”, “visually challenged”, and “non-seeing” because their whole concept of the word “blind” is tied more to those negative characteristics than to the actual physical state of being itself. Like you pointed out, it’s not about offense. I don’t even necessarily find the examples I cited offensive. But I do seem them for what they are–little seeds that plant themselves into people’s subconscious and form the basis for books/movies like Saramago’s “Blindness”, where an entire town of people go blind from a virus and end up living in feces, starving, and raping each other as a result (because that’s totally what would happen if the whole world went blind tomorrow). The negative association created in the listener’s mind when an everyday word is used as a slur is immediate and subconscious–which is the perfect vehicle of oppression. Thank you so much for this post, Kinsey Hope.


  1. 1 Sensitivity and a Hostile World (a few carefully illustrated thoughts about political correctness and how it relates to words borrowed from the DSM) « the distant panic
  2. 2 She was only appointed because she’s a linkspam (8th April, 2011) | Geek Feminism Blog
  3. 3 My Dyke March Story: A Trans Woman’s Narrative « Faithful Image
  4. 4 Wandering Son Reflections: Episode 5 – “Natsu no Owari ni” « A Random String of Bits

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers

%d bloggers like this: