I’ve been observing the conversation around compelled speech for the last few years. I had probably been aware of it to some regard, but it really wasn’t a focal point for me until Jordan Peterson started making a fuss over in Toronto. He had this idea that language should be allowed to evolve naturally. That the freedom of speech was fundamental and essential to the free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and that legally requiring people to use certain words or not using others was a line that we should not cross.
The counter argument was that certain words were capable of causing very real harm. When those words are being used against people who are already generally understood to be from an underprivileged group, it seems to be human nature to want to support them. For those who believe in compelled speech, changing the language we use is a simple solution to a complex problem. I appreciate wanting to stand up for those who you don’t think can stand up for themselves, but I don’t think they’ve thought this through.
I grew up using the word fag about as often as anyone else my age. I’d probably be lying if I said I never used it to describe someone who was acting ‘gay’ or being flamboyant, but I can say I’ve never used used it maliciously. More often than not, I used the word fag with no homosexual connotations at all. Mostly, it was a substitute for ‘asshole’ or ‘jerk’. When I was in my mid-20s a close friend of mine came out as gay. We loved him all the same. A little while after he came out, I used the word fag around him. At this point, it was still part of my vernacular… and I’m pretty sure that it was still part of his not that long ago. He leaned into me, telling me about how I shouldn’t use the word. I told him that if I was using it as a homophobic slur, I would agree. But I wasn’t, so what exactly was the issue? He told me about how words can hurt people, even without bad intentions. I pointed out that he still used the word retarded fairly often when describing something that was dumb. I asked if it was fair to ask him to stop using the word, even if he had never used it as a slur towards a disabled person. He wasn’t happy that I was changing the direction of the conversation but conceded that he would probably stop using that word for the sake of backing up his argument. So I challenged him. I told him that if he wanted to change the language he was using, that was up to him. But I didn’t think it was productive for him to change the language he was using for the sake of protecting the feelings of those who were more focused on being offended by the language than understanding the message.
Regardless of whether or not I was right, supporting my friend in a transitional time was more important to me. So I stopped using the word. There were plenty of words to choose from, and I just couldn’t think of a scenario where that word was necessary. Since then, I’ve adopted a philosophy around language which challenges me to use the truest and most accurate language available. As expected, I’ve yet to encounter a situation where the word fag was the truest and most accurate word available. As language has become a political battlefield, there are a lot of reasons why someone might want you to use one word and not another. What I’m personally up against right now is someone who believes that changing the language being used is a primary tool in how you remove the stigma around something. I don’t think she’s thought this one through.
When trying to understand language, the history of words can teach us a great deal. In this particular context, let’s revisit the word retarded. The word retarded has been around for hundreds of years, and essentially means to make slow. It wasn’t until the 1960s that advocates for mental disabilities pushed to adopt the label “retarded”. From their perspective, terms like imbecile or moron had developed negative connotations. And there’s where things get interesting, because both moron and imbecile were existing scientific definitions for someone with an intellectual disability. So ‘advocates’ pushed to change the label to mentally retarded, you know, to remove the stigma. But the stigma didn’t go away, it simply shifted to the new word. People started using the word retarded in the same way they would use moron or imbecile. So the advocates tried again with ‘special’, ‘handicapped’, and ‘disabled’.
The pattern seems pretty obvious… Scientists discover something and come up with a word for discussing it. When the word is used to describe a disability, it inherently comes with negative interpretations. When the word finds its way into mainstream language, it evolves to have multiple definitions. While it retains the scientific definition, those negative interpretations becomes slang. When that slang is used often enough, certain individuals or groups become especially sensitive to that word. Rather than deal with their sensitivities around that word, they push to introduce a new word which doesn’t carry the same stigma. And repeat.
This isn’t an isolated example either. The word cripple used to be a medical term before it became more commonly used as slang. The word neurotic seems close to being overhauled for negatively characterizing neurotic people. Whatever happened to sticks and stones?
At which point do we accept that we can’t protect people from language by controlling the language that’s being used? You can try to remove the word that the stigma is attached to, but that doesn’t remove the stigma. Compelling people to use the word retard instead of moron didn’t change the stigma, it just got people to associate the stigma with the word retard instead of moron. I can’t help but think that the best thing we can do to protect people from language is to help them understand it.
There’s a good chance I have dyslexia. I say good chance because after I self-diagnosed during a abnormal psychology class, I never bothered to acknowledge it as a weakness. To me, it was a difference in how my brain worked. While it made certain tasks more challenging, there were certain things I was exceptionally good at. Some of the best computer programmers out there are off the charts autistic. I’ve seen very cool (and very detailed) art done by someone with OCD. I’ve yet to meet a group of people as positive and loving as those with down syndrome. The changing of the stigma doesn’t happen with the changing of the word, it happens when we learn to appreciate the value in one another and recognize that we can all contribute.
If I was a parent to someone who was disabled, I’d care a lot less about the language being used around them and care a lot more about how they were able to navigate that language. If I had a kid with a disability, I would do everything that I could to help my kid understand that they’re different. I would want them to know what makes them different and why they are the way that they are. I would teach them that being different didn’t make them better or worse than anyone else. I would want them to know that who they became would be a matter of how they applied that difference. I would want them to know that no matter how much or how little someone has been given, they will always be in a position to bring positivity to the world.
…But I would also want them to know that not everybody understands this. Some people have grown up in a difficult world where they’ve yet to learn your value. Some people will think that they can lift themselves up by putting you down. Some people will tell you about all that you’re unable to do without appreciating all that you can do. And that’s okay. Sometimes, these people will call you names. That’s okay too. It’s okay because none of what they say will change who you are and how much you matter. The only person who gets to change that is you. If anything, they’ve given you an opportunity to show the world just how capable you are. If you can use that moment to inspire others, you can change how people think. It’ll be you who removes that stigma.