Using Words

TRIGGER WARNING: This post uses language that could be considered offensive or harmful. 


I am a fan of linguistics. I take great pleasure in pointing out to people that words like "fuck" or "shit" are little more than vibrations disturbing the air between their source and our ears. That the existence of an object, like a tree, has absolutely no inherent logical connection to being "tree-like" that mandates that word be used to describe it. That language is an organic thing, constantly changing, and our current definitions, grammar, spelling, and usage standards are arbitrary. Invented to make language more universal and easily understood, to be sure, but entirely arbitrary.

I am also a fan of parody and satire. While parody is generally amusing, satire can be funny, but it doesn't have to be. Its real goal is to provoke thought. Some of the most biting and harsh written satire I've seen doesn't even approach humor. And parody and satire are especially revered, because they are used to either poke at the things we hold most sacred, or perhaps to reconsider those things we most revile.

But we are not arbitrary beings. My familiarity with complex neurology is limited, but from what I understand, we are the sum total of our experiences. Each moment that we consider what to say, how to react, what to do, and how we treat others is driven by our past experiences. To invoke Sam Harris, thoughts arise from an entirely unknown place in our minds, on their own. Much of how we're driven and react comes from places we don't understand or consciously process. 

I may be making a presumption on this, but I am fairly certain that the Columbine school shootings are well known internationally. Perhaps one of the details that escapes common knowledge, however, is that someone pulled the fire alarm in the building amidst the shootings, and it was blaring the entire time that students and staff were trying to escape, or find shelter, during the rampage. The school cafeteria was also one of the main areas where the most violence happened. After the shooting, the school was renovated so that the cafeteria was no longer accessible, and the fire alarm sound was changed.

Why would they do these things? Couldn't the students and staff separate that location and a simple noise from the threat of two armed teenagers intent on killing people? Perhaps they could. But out of respect for those who might be horribly reminded of the events of that day, they made these simple changes, and for some, a world of difference.

Today, on Twitter, a notable atheist tweeter used the word "faggot" in a parodical tweet. Someone pointed out that this tweeter should perhaps avoid "hate speech." My own position was similar, in that the word "faggot," regardless of context, is like the Columbine fire alarm. Sounding in a void, it is nothing more than a noise. For people who weren't in the building that day, if they'd never heard the alarm, even knowing the story behind it, they would certainly not be affected by it in even remotely the same way as a student who had been cowering under her desk during the ordeal.

For people who know the dictionary definition of the word "faggot," they understand how it can be used as a weapon against gays. But they don't understand precisely what it's like to be on the receiving end, and have it be accompanied by years of mental torment by their peers, by a society that indicts people who have homosexual attractions, by religions who condemn them as abominations, and by people who just generally hate what they don't understand. 

Often, things like using hate speech, or rape jokes, etc. are held up as the pinnacle of free speech, under the sacred protection of freedom of expression. I adore freedom of expression. It allows me to write on this blog. It allows me to discuss things. To share my opinions in a greater social context, with audiences who may or may not need to hear them. Discussion is the life-giving soil that grows thought and change. When I opposed this tweeter's use of the word "faggot," both he and his followers took the common stance of, "context is everything, freedom of expression is supreme," and "it must be awful to be offended by everything all the time."

But the truth is, I never mentioned being offended. "Faggot" has been used against me many times in the past, and I'm happy to say, it seems to be a word that I hear less and less. But for some, the word carries the same kind of traumatic weight those Columbine fire alarms did. It doesn't matter if they're in an office building which happened to buy the same fire alarm system that Columbine had, and the alarms go off. Their minds will automatically go to that place. I only wanted to begin a discussion on why that word is problematic. 

Instead, I got reductionist arguments as to why I shouldn't use words like "triggers" because that was the name of their dead dog and it upset them. First and foremost, if someone I knew asked me to do that, then yes, I would completely respect that request, and I don't see why it would be unreasonable. But even so, I agree that we should not be forced to police our speech when it comes to such things, as just attempting to communicate would become an exercise in absurdity. 

Among the responses I got in other tweets from the many other people who joined in the conversation was that I was "choosing to be offended." Often, an argument that both atheists and gay people have to constantly face down is the "choice" we're making, either to not believe in a god, or to be gay. I don't choose my attractions, nor did I choose not to believe in a god. Those who have been traumatized, abused, and ostracized, perhaps even beaten and battered, for being the person they are, and form a connection to that trauma and that word can't choose to un-live those experiences.

Convince me that context inherently overrides trauma, and excuses your poor choice of words, and I will believe that such things are harmless when used correctly. For now, I am sorry for the people who follow this atheist tweeter who can't separate the harm associated with that word from his parody. I asked that he be considerate and empathize with people who couldn't. It's not a matter of making or treating every word in the English language as a potential psychological minefield. It's a matter of recognizing a word used as a weapon of oppression and hate for what it is, and how context might make no difference for some. That was, apparently, too much to ask, and too oppressive of his freedom of expression. But freedom of expression is not freedom from responsibility.