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.
an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo :aspersion
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
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.