Saturday, February 19, 2011

Power of Words

Like everyone else, I also enjoyed the question session with Dan Savage and the following lecture. I was pleasantly surprised because, honestly, I didn't think I would learn much of anything from it. I thought the conversation would stay very surface level. I mean the message is "It gets better," and bullying those different is bad. I get that. But, particularly in our personal session with him, a ton of things I hadn't even considered came up.
My specific subject this blog is spurred by the one of the few responses he gave that I found inadequate. I had wanted to ask this in our class and was thrilled when it got brought up in the general session. However, I think a combination of nervousness at the divisive topic, combined with the lecture moving to a close, led him to an unsatisfactory answer. The topic is the use of pejorative gay terms and how he feels about their use (fag, queer, etc...). While the individual asking clearly expected a clean-cut "Don't say that" answer, Dan was vaguely supportive of their use.
My best friend and roommate the first two years of College was and still is gay. We used gay slurs at each other all the time-sometimes jokingly, but other times only using the negative connotations, not the gay connotations. This has, by the way, caused me many problems later on in public since, instead of being trained against casual slur use by the friend you'd think would, I was encouraged. But I wonder if it is actually better to cut those words out of our vocabulary? I feel like that does the same thing as segregating swear words from the masses, it places their value on a pedestal. All of those words are symbols we place on other things. None originally meant gay (even gay). I think that use of them in more acceptable ways could actually diffuse their meaning, devalueing, rather than empowering them.
Now I'm not sure if this was Dan's reason for not disparaging these words. After all, as Dan loved to reiterate, he is a dirty sex columnist, and I imagine those words can be quite useful in that line. However, what do you think? Do we need to eradicate this language to help eradicate the thoughts often behind it? Or can we water the language down and steal its power out from under it?


  1. I think one of Dan's points was that he is a writer, so free speech matters to him, personally and professionally. So, he is skeptical that either through censorship or restriction of a certain word that is seen as offensive can help our society.
    Also I do not believe that language should be dictated from this top down, politically correct system. We use words to communicate with the people around us and the context of those words matter. Just because the word gay or fag can be used in a derogatory manner, but because I am the one assigning the intent behind that word, it could mean something else. For example if I go see Transformers 3 and after being deeply unimpressed by its lackluster acting and crappy plot, I tell a friend "I thought that movie was gay." I am not referring the homosexual nature of the film, but really have just substituted the world gay for bad. While it is true that I should not really be using this term so loosely, I am not using it to demean another human being and my intentions are to insult Michael Bay. People need to be able to speak freely and even stupidly, we should be free to correct them, but who decides which words are inappropriate, what punishment is fair? The government, the media, who ever it is will lead to a less free and more restrained society.

  2. I agree with John in that Dan's failure to outright criticize words such as "fag" and "queer" comes from his commitment to free speech. But I want to address another one of John's points; does a change in speech have to be instigated rom the top down? Could it not be encouraged from the bottom up, and in the case of derogatory speech, don't you think it should be?? Isn't the whole point of free speech for us to have the opportunity to exercise our responsibility to questions social and political norms...even norms in our vernacular?

    I don't think it's a question of enforcement, but rather of the extent to which these words are integrated into our culture's speech without opposition. Just because a government surely shouldn't impose punishments on people who use these words, does not mean that we as a society should accept their use as a tolerable norm. I maintain that it is our responsibility to critically think about what we do and say, and not allow ourselves to engage in pejorative and offensive speech just because it’s a normal thing to do.

  3. Ryley, I agree that using so-called swear words or derogatory terms can take away from their power, when used strategically. If marginalized groups reclaim a word (such as gay, fag, or queer) that was once used by bigots as a means of oppression, then the word loses its strength to cause harm. I agree with Sarah's comment that linguistic shifts like the reclaiming of derogatory labels must follow a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. However, I think that Dan’s acceptance of derogatory terms goes beyond a commitment to free speech. When reading about his column before class last week, I learned that for the first six years of writing Savage Love, he had his readers address him by, “Hey, Faggot.” Yet, as he mentioned towards the end of lecture, some partner organizations and individuals of the LGBT community have been encouraging him to censor himself.

  4. One point that several of you have touched on but not really addressed directly is that fact that language is very malleable. Think of when we were children and our parents or teachers prohibited us from using profanity or certain derogatory phrases. Perhaps some of us simply didn't use those terms or express those ideas, but the majority of us simply found other ways of expressing the exact same ideas without technically using the language that had been forbidden to us. As Ryley stated, many of the derogatory terms that we have now did not originally have their current meaning, but they certainly possess those negative connotations now. Rather than hoping to eliminate the usage of these terms, I think that it is more important to focus on the reasons behind the use of these terms and those instances in which they are used harmfully.


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