Because Language Matters

Not terribly long ago one of my students deeply disappointed me by using the word “gay” in my classroom to refer to something he really thought was “stupid.”

Rather than directly point out the boneheadedness of his statement, I asked him whether he meant to say that the idea in question was homosexual.

He looked at me blankly.  “Huh?”

“Or did you mean to say that it’s really happy and carefree?”

“No,” he said, looking at me as if I’d just asked the most asinine question in the world.  “I mean it’s stupid.  I don’t like it.”

“Then why did you use the word ‘gay’ to describe something that clearly isn’t?”

“Because.  That’s just how I talk.”

I appreciated his candor, even though I vehemently disagreed with his logic, because his frankness led to a productive discussion about the words we use and why we use them, about the concept of “framing the debate.”  When people use “gay” to refer to something that they simply don’t like, they demonize a percentage of the human race, sometimes without meaning to and sometimes with malicious intent.  They’re ascribing a quality which is Other from themselves in order to show disdain for something, but the problem with this, of course, is that this practice implies that Otherness is somehow bad or wrong, when in actuality, it usually isn’t.

“Okay, so how about I don’t use the word ‘gay,’” the kid suggested, “and instead say something else.  How about…I don’t know, ‘pagan.’  I can say ‘pagan’ instead of ‘gay.’  Would that work?”

“Are you talking about ancient folk religions?” I asked.

“No, of course not, I’m talking about something stupid,” he said as if irritated, as if stunned that I hadn’t been paying attention.

“Then.  That.  Doesn’t.  Work,” I said as evenly as I could, angry that this otherwise smart kid either was goading me on purpose or was actually, unfortunately, sincere.  I wasn’t sure which possibility was worse.

“Then I’m not sure I see your point,” he said.

I explained that when you refer to something you don’t like in a pejorative way by naming it with a quality which is different from you — when actually there’s no logical reason to do so — you are, intentionally or subconsciously, demeaning anyone who actually does have that quality, solely because it is different from you.

We discussed Otherness and respect, and why respect and acceptance are different from tolerance.  (One person even pointed out the narcissism implied by the idea that anything which is different from oneself is bad.)  It took a while, but I think the student finally understood my point.

No one has used the word “gay” in that context in my class since.  And that’s good, but I’m not naïve enough to imagine that it’s because I changed the social thinking patterns of a bunch of young people.  More likely, it’s because getting read the riot act, no matter how politely, in front of one’s peers sort of sours the mood.

Or maybe it’s because I have a really big, colorful, eye-catching poster above the white board in my classroom that says, “F*G ISN’T FUNNY.  Stop hate.  Start now.”

***

In a particularly insightful essay about the n-word versus the f-word (and I don’t mean “fuck”), a friend of mine* once shed light on the conflicting ways in which American society treats discomfort with issues of race and sexuality.  He wrote about the “Black Codes” enacted after the Civil War which “limited the access blacks had to the basic rights the rest of the nation enjoyed,” such as the ability to serve in the military and the right to marry.  (Interracial marriage was outlawed in this country until just a few decades ago.)  He contends that today, there are de facto “Gay Codes” in effect which affect a range of life experiences from professional opportunities to what someone does in the privacy of one’s bedroom with another consenting adult.  Developments such as the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the very slowly increasing number of states which have legalized same-sex marriage are chipping away at these inequalities, but it’s a rough road.  Civil rights battles are always protracted and painful.

Witness, for example, the atrocities of lynchings in the first half of the twentieth century.  Witness the atrocity of the death of Matthew Shepard just before the turn of the twenty-first.  And note the way people reacted to both situations in their respective time periods.  As my friend wrote, “The fatal beating [Shepard] endured left his skull so badly shattered that the doctors in the hospital he was rushed to were unable to operate.  It also left most of the country shocked and horrified.  But it was only the brutality of the killing that evoked such a large emotional response; the anti-gay motives common to numerous incidences across the United States could not spark such a reaction on their own.”

These incidences he refers to include, among other thoughtless acts found in high school hallways, the use of the word “gay” to refer to something one does not like.

***

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m offended when people diminish the value of another human being simply because that person is different.  Bullying is a terrible practice, made no more palatable by the real circumstance that it is motivated by fear or self-loathing or ignorance just as often as (if not more often than) by mean-spiritedness or herd mentality.

When my high school students use these kinds of slurs, I’m reminded of the elementary school children who won’t let one child play with them because they don’t like the exotic food his mother packs him for lunch.  I’m reminded of the seventh grade boys who tease the girl in their class whose breasts have already developed.  I’m reminded of adults who are so socially stunted that they avoid co-workers who practice different religions or who speak different languages at home or who sport the occasional tattoo or piercing.  What are these people thinking?  Probably a lot of things, but I’ll bet at the forefront of all of it is Otherness, and a subconscious inability to comfortably process it.  It would be great if we could all start teaching the children around us right now that it takes all kinds to make a whole world, and that all people are equal.

And maybe if we work on that hard enough, eventually we will all teach ourselves, too, that sometimes those old patterns of behavior we may have been raised with aren’t necessarily the best way forward.  I’m far from perfect, and though the environment in which I was raised was a good one overall, I wasn’t explicitly taught these progressive ideals at home — and certainly not at all in grade school — back in the 70s and 80s, but I’m finding that the more I work on it in my daily life now, the easier it is to erase those old uglinesses away from my children’s interactions with the world.  As they say, lead by example:  repeated actions become habit, and repeated habits become character.  So the message is simple:  say what you mean, and think before you speak.

And yes, I’ve heard the argument that this “evolution” of the word “gay” is just part of a natural progression of language, that the word used to mean “happy” and then it meant “homosexual” and now it means “stupid” or “objectionable.”  I can see the logic in that thought process, but I reject it.  What motivates it is, at best, laziness and at worst, a rationalization of malicious behavior and a lack of respect, and we cannot, on either a societal level or a personal one, tolerate that sort of thing if we want to live in a free and fair world.

And what intelligent or conscientious or foresightful person doesn’t want that?

*  This friend has chosen to remain anonymous, although I am using his words and ideas with his expressed permission.

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6 thoughts on “Because Language Matters

  1. Shannen

    I always find analysis of these things fascinating, and recall the articles I have read regarding the evolutionary basis for prejudices : http://www.prometheism.net/articles/prejudice.html

    We are more highly evolved primates, and have the ability to disregard and overcome our primal instincts that tell us to reject otherness, but the innate fear of things foreign is still inherently there.

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  2. angeliquejamail

    Thanks for posting this. 🙂 Perhaps there is something to the idea that avoiding things/entities which were different from early humans helped with survival, but that’s so different from our current experience that I don’t think it works on a grand scale as a rationale for human interaction and behaviors now.

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  3. This is an interesting post, Ange. “Are you talking about ancient folk religions?” is one of my favorite lines. I almost fell out of my chair when I read that, but, I digress. I read about this topic frequently and I enjoyed your perspective. It’s comforting to know that there is at least one teacher who is teaching their students how to respect others.

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    1. angeliquejamail

      Thanks. 🙂 And yeah, when he said that, if I hadn’t been so irritated and if it hadn’t been such a serious topic, I would have about cracked a rib it was so funny. Talk about random!

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  4. Cindy

    My hat is off to you, O mistress of your emotions . . . in your position, when he chose “pagan” as his handy backup slur, I would most likely have levitated and shot sparks from my ears. 😉

    Like

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