Thursday, September 17, 2015

Your "right" to use slurs

This is a slightly modified repost of a Tumblr ramble I posted the other day. It was well received so I figured I should share it here too.

Here in the writing community, we of course feel that freedom to write what we please is of utmost importance. We depend for our success, happiness, and livelihood on having the right to choose our words and spread them. So of course some might get a little bit jumpy if it's implied that certain words are or should be off limits to certain groups, while perhaps still being accessible to other groups. 

Specifically, I'm talking about slurs and the conversation around who can use them.

Primarily, I'm talking about slurs that have been and continue to be used as dehumanizing terms for groups of people based on sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or gender identity.

In the circles I travel in, we frequently hear about the importance of including slurs in the category of words we should all have access to equally, lest we violate the delicate flower of "free speech" and damage our principles at the roots. Countering that, we hear other folks saying slurs should either be avoided or only used by people who have been or could have been described by them in a reclaimed sense. Which is always answered by cries of "double standards" and "censorship." 

Here’s the thing about ~free speech~ people and their all-important ~right~ to use slurs:

Every time I see someone “fighting” for the right to speak freely, including any and all slurs, I always wonder if they actually think their rights have been infringed upon. Because last time I checked, they do not get arrested or fined or targeted with institutional oppression for using those words. They still DO have the right to say them.

And the people who have historically been harmed by those slurs also have the right to get upset about it, express their anger, and make those people feel that they have done something inappropriate. That’s what freedom is. That’s what happens in a society where you are free to speak anything that comes into your head. Sometimes you will say something and lots of people will be pissed off at you. You are not “free” from that. You do not have the right to be protected from the outrage that sometimes happens when you do something outrageous.

If you think you are fighting for “freedom” by continuing to use slurs that target other groups, or that you are standing up for a basic right surrounding your use of words that harm others, think about the message people are sending you when they challenge your message. They are not saying you can’t say these things (because clearly you can, as you continue to remind us by bleating intentionally offensive words while claiming your “right” to do so is under attack). They are saying you shouldn’t. That you shouldn’t want to because you are harming people in ways you cannot possibly understand.

Telling you you shouldn’t want to use these words is not the same as censoring you, or putting you in jail, or shooting you. For the record, those are things that have happened to people in association with the words you think are just words--words which were and are used to dehumanize and “other” people who were and sometimes still are second-class citizens. Words that are reminders of a past and present (and probable future) in which people targeted by them had/have no rights, or rights that were not/are not applied fairly. Words that were and are used by people who robbed them of their rights. People you’re associating yourself with by using the language associated with their hate. You’re continuing to harm and treat others as less important than you if you believe your access to a word is more important than the effects those words have on others.

xkcd comic

Ask yourself why those words are so important for you to have access to. You may actually think it’s about the principle of the thing--that if you can’t have it, then nobody should have it--but if they’re simultaneously “just words” that shouldn’t offend anyone AND vitally important for you to be able to speak without consequence, what message are you sending to people when you won’t stop using them? That those words are about your rights, not about their pain? That those words shouldn’t hurt them, but hurt you tremendously if you are asked not to say them?

Nothing happens to you if you decide through common decency not to use a word with a hateful history. Nothing changes for you if you listen. And no, the PC police are not “coming for you” if you admit refraining from using these words is the decent thing to do. They are not going to slippery slope their way into limiting your opinionated YouTube comments and accusing you of thought crimes. They’re literally saying “this is a word that was used in association with my oppression, so if you want to stop contributing to the culture that oppresses me, one thing you can do is stop using it.” Asking you to stop using a word isn’t the same thing as accusing you of various -isms, nor is it a violation of your rights. 

But if you continue using it after people tell you it is associated with -isms, don’t complain if they treat you like a whatever-ist. That includes criticizing you, not wanting to be friendly with you, removing themselves from having to hear your opinions, and sometimes refusing to give you platforms or opportunities because they don’t want to promote the ideas of whatever-ists and make that environment unsafe for everyone else. 

It isn’t a matter of “making someone feel bad” or “people being too sensitive” or “people looking to be offended.” If you think you have a rights violation when people tell you maybe it’s not a good idea to use a word with a painful history, you certainly can’t turn around and tell others they’re crying over nothing because of words. It is clearly not “just a word” to the people it hurts, and if you’re this adamant about retaining unchallenged access to it, it clearly is not “just a word” to you either.

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