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