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29 September 2011, 12:00 pm 6 Comments

Not Your Average Prom Queen: Offensive Language: Retaliate or Educate?

This post was submitted by Jean

I don’t consider myself to be overly PC or an extreme feminist. I am a little of both of those things, but mostly I am just educated, respectful and conscious of language of the power language wields.

I’m also not so forgiving of celebrities who use offensive language and follow with some sort of caveat about how their comments are ok because they support gay marriage ala The Millionaire Matchmaker’s Patti Stanger, or Kings of Leon’s quick decision to tell a gay man to get a manicure and buy a bra, followed with an “I’m sorry 4 anyone that misconstrued my comments as homophobic or misogynistic. I’m so not that kind of person” tweet.

In my experience, classroom teachers don’t tolerate language like that from students of any age. Where should our tolerance lie as adults? As a student teacher, I took off points for students who used curse words or offensive words in their fiction writing, in classroom discussion, I corrected them aloud.  Teachers help young people learn respect, develop socially acceptable habits and gain understanding of historical, social and literary contexts of modern times. They also restrict aggressive, violent or inappropriate behavior. Who does this for adults? The police might step in for violent behavior, but what about the smaller offenses? Should we  make (theoretical) citizen arrests? Should we take to the airwaves (tweet-waves?) every time we hear an unjust word thrown? Should we boycott celebrities? Should we confront our families?

Mel Gibson: King of Racist Tirades

What do we gain from speaking out?

Enemies and fans alike have jumped on the backs (or off the bandwagons) of Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Tracy Morgan for their racists or homophobic tirades. In some cases celebrities issue apologies – most likely because those fans pay the bills, not because they are truly sorry, or because they don’t actually agree with the offensive statements they made. Refusing to see the movies/buy the albums/ read the books of a person who has used offensive language sends a powerful message that ignorance or closed-mindedness will not be tolerated from anyone – but a lot of people think the two things are unrelated.  Do Mel Gibson’s racist tirades stop you from enjoying Lethal Weapon?

Digital courage Vs. face-to face courage

A lot of us replaced the tequila-courage of college with internet-courage of adulthood– even the most mild mannered folks might take the opportunity to speak out on an issue on Facebook or Twitter that they would never broach in “real life”- condoning a friend for reposting political or celebrity hate-speech, or calling out @Celebrity for being #homophobic or #racist on Twitter, but what happens in face-to-face situations? How do we react when a friend, colleague or supervisor comments about how “retarded” a call in a football game was, or that how “gay” it is that a buddy bailed on happy hour. Can we muster the courage to call out that sort of language face-to-face? Do our efforts make a difference?

What about Freedom of Speech?

While us liberal, PC, uptight, buzz-killers are out there reminding people that suggesting African Americans only eat fried chicken and watermelon is offensive, there’s a whole colony of commentators gathered around talking about Freedom of Speech. “What happened to the First Amendment?” they love to snarkily ask. These questioners are right – the government doesn’t have the right to restrict speech, but when you are a public persona (a politician, actor, musician, etc) whose career relies on the support, financial and other, of fans or voters – it might be wise to ensure that your Freedom of Speech doesn’t ricochet off your angry fans and hit you square in the face.  When an individual receives 1000 emails, or Facebook posts condemning their language or behavior, that’s Freedom of Speech, too, right?

A Focus on Education

Its easy for us to destroy someone’s reputation on the internet for offensive behavior (::cough cough:: Rick  Santorum), or to embarrass someone in a bar for using language that might not be PC, but its important to recognize that some people don’t actually know better. Sure, Santorum isn’t one of them – he earned his internet reputation for standing strong in his hateful views – but there are bound to be people who honestly don’t think that saying “retarded” is offensive if they aren’t talking about a person, or who think because their minority friends use certain slang words that everyone agrees with their usage. Think about it like our underpaid and overworked educators try to do with our kids – if there is a teaching moment, take it. Ask why the word or phrase was used, what that person thinks it means – explain the origin, or who it can offend. Sure its awkward, and can be embarrassing, but if there’s a chance to create a wizened advocate rather than a smeared reputation – its worth a try.

How sensitive are you to language? Have you ever boycotted a celebrity for expressing offensive views (intentionally or not)? Do you Tweet/comment on offensive language you encounter on the web? Do you correct friends, family, or colleagues when you think they’ve said something offensive?

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  • mera said:

    thanks, jean.
    i always call people out on their use of oppressive language. i think it’s important to not only know what they are implying as they use the language now, but the history of that phrase or insult and why it was originally used to bring someone down. i have ended relationships over issues around language.

    it’s ironic because sometimes a word (or a sign) is that way and has been for many many years. but we can educate ourselves on where it comes from, and maybe chose another word.

    also, i think it’s ironic that words like “dick” and other words for the (cis-gendered) male anatomy (when used as unsults) have a more powerful dominating connotation, when words like “pussy” or words for the (cis-gendered) female anatomy imply weakness or lack or power. thoughts? comments? perhaps next week’s piece?

  • TimG said:

    “Do Mel Gibson’s racist tirades stop you from enjoying Lethal Weapon?”

    You bet!!! I haven’t seen any movie starring that slimeball since I started hearing about his homophobic rants in the late 80s or early 90s. I can’t stand these people making wads of cash by bashing/denying my very existence, so I don’t go to their movies or buy whatever they are hawking. When my friends ask me to go along to some gore-fest starring Mr Gibson, I politely decline and politely remind them of what a raging asswipe the man is. I can’t do a damn thing about this particular specimen of pondscum, but not patronizing his movies means one less martini Mr. Mel can swig back on my dime. That makes me happy.

  • Megan C. said:

    If you want to say something offensive, go for it. I’m not your mother, father, or your God so I’m in no place to tell you how you should act or speak.

  • Ben said:

    You ironically referred to yourself as a ‘liberal, PC, uptight, buzz-killer’. You nailed it on the head, which is itself perhaps ironic.

    Let me guess: you’re a white, middle to upper-middle class 20-something female who may or may not be a lesbian. That seems to be the predominate demographic for those who enjoy ‘calling people out’ for their supposedly offensive and ill-informed language.

    Having never spoken to a statistically significant number of people within these groups (blacks, gays, mentally disabled) or performed a rigorous scientific study, what makes you the definitive authority on ‘informing’ others when something is offensive?

    There’s nothing groundbreaking about the fact that maliciously calling a gay person a ‘faggot’ in order to demean them is offensive. But when people call their friends ‘fags’ or ‘queers’ in a joking context (not trying to demean them because of their sexuality), that’s their prerogative. They aren’t degrading anyone, and if you get offended by the word in this benevolent context, then yes, you are an uptight buzz kill.

    I myself am gay (not a shocker due to my presence on this website) and often say things like ‘that’s so gay’ and ‘fag’. It’s sort of like taking the word back, if you will. If you disagree, you should start a campaign to prevent African Americans from affectionately referring to their comrades as their ‘nigga’. Let me know how that goes.

  • Jean (author) said:

    Ben – I’m not sure why a post starting a conversation about how one should or could react to language deemed offensive (by that individual) would spark such a reaction as yours. I never claim to be the “definitive authority” on when something is offensive. I also never claimed that I object to a couple of gay guys saying the word fag to each other. I suggested that in the event an individual is offended by another person’s language, they have the option to “educate” about why such terminology might be offensive rather than retaliate and exclude or trash-talk that person.

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever had the experience when a colleague, boss or family member has personally offended you with a comment about race, sexual orientation, gender/gender identity or a plethora of other categories for which you don’t need another person’s approval. If you have, how did you react? Did you get angry, or try to peacefully explain why saying, for example, “drinking Diet Coke is for fucking fairies” offended you? Or did you just play it cool? Do you think that reacting in any way at all makes you a liberal, PC, uptight, buzz-killer?

  • Ben said:

    @Jean: As I believe I made clear in my original post, it’s all about context. If someone said ‘Diet Coke is for fucking fairies’ I probably wouldn’t be offended if I knew the person wasn’t genuinely trying to demean gays. If something within the context of that conversation led me to believe they were being a bigot and trying to make degrading comments about gays, then of course I would speak out and inform them as to why I personally found it offensive.

    I don’t disagree that language can at times be hurtful, and some comments are certainly out of line. But as anyone who has ever spoken a single word knows, everything offends everyone now. Words mean nothing without context and tone–both of which I typically find easy to interpret in face to face conservation.