Word Power
April 22, 2011, 6:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So many of the debates about derogatory word usage seem to be centered on social history, on semantics, individual rights and what I consider defunct moral codes. One idea rarely seems to be presented, however. What about an individual’s personal history with a pejorative?

For instance, my partner’s experience with the word “faggot.” Last summer, someone repeatedly prank called him over the period of a month, threatening him because he was a “faggot.” Ultimately, nothing came of these calls; the mysterious caller gave up, and we were unable to trace the phone number.

Some of my partner’s friends, however, couldn’t understand his frustration and hurt. Some of them even called him the “word police,” saying he should let such an incident roll off his back. These friends also didn’t know that for years, Mikhael was taunted and called a “faggot” by schoolmates, co-workers and even his grandfather. These friends may not be aware that Mikhael struggled with his sexual attractions for years, feeling guilty and alone. These particular white males did not understand that being taunted and threatened because of who you are is a frightening and isolating experience.

Nine months later, Mikhael says he feels less vulnerable to such insults because he is secure in the knowledge of who he is – a mixed race queer male-bodied person – and confident in his ability to ignore such treatment in the future. Other folks we know, however, haven’t been able to reach this feeling of security. It’s a natural human reaction to feel deeply unsettled when strangers hurl insults, especially since they’re sometimes followed by physical violence. It’s natural to feel unsafe, unwelcome and disliked.

Or take, for instance, the polarizing term “slut.” This handle has been applied to me a lot  since my late teenage years. Dating multiple people, dating multiple people of different genders, doing sex work, dancing in burlesque shows, even talking frankly about my sexual practices – all of these seemed to receive criticism and much of it was delivered in the form of that ephithet “slut.” Does it bother me? Not really. Maybe I’ve heard it so many times that it’s ceased to lose it’s meaning. For years, I’ve shrugged it off and laughed it away.

My experience is not my friend’s experience. One of my best friends grew up in an emotionally abusive fundamentalist household, where she was frequently branded “slut”  – for offenses such as wearing mascara and admitting she thought a boy was cute. Even after breaking free of this oppressive lifestyle, my friend cannot stomach this word. As an adult, the word has been viciously applied to her a number of times by both her own family and her social circle (as it inevitably seems to be to everyone who has the nerve to fulfill themselves sexually). These experiences have been deeply hurtful to her,  reminding her of the desperation and powerlessness that accompanied her years in her parent’s home. At one low point, she even questioned her own hard-won identity, wondering to me if her bigoted fundamentalist family was right in their accusations that she was inherently sinful and delusional.

I think it’s possible to talk for years to certain people about not using derogatory words, and it will make no difference. People need to have a reason for change, even if they don’t have the impetus, before that change is made. So should we all grow thicker skins, make ourselves immune to name-calling? They’re just words, after all.

Or should we do what seems to require even more courage,  and reveal our personal history with words? Should we consider the ramifications of a word before we use it against someone? Should we start being confrontational: “That really bothers me, and here’s why”?  Yes, further abuse and ridicule might be directed toward us. But the act of verbalizing our hurt – and our awareness of others’ – is going to change more minds than simply ignoring it, than simply allowing it to continue uncommented.


2 Comments so far
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I cant imagine anyone being mean to you or your sweet partner! What a small, insecure fool to prank call someone and make them feel humiliated!! People can be so evil! I swear they just get off on other people’s misery. Its them dealing with their own inner conflicts/confusion/guilts through belittlement. I’ll never understand it. It breaks my heart!

I once used to work with someone at a pizza place and she was going through a sex-change. She was born a hermaphrodite and spent most of her life as a boy, and then when she hit puberty her body started turning more female than male. She went to public schools and did her best to live a “normal” life. I remember answering the phone and hearing customers tell me they didn’t want her making their pizzas!! If she answered the phones they would call her horrible names. I dont even know how people found out that she was working there or what was going on in her personal life…She was the sweetest person (probably still is, I just haven’t heard or seen her in forever) I can understand curiosity (which I always quietly and politely asked her lots of questions, but in the nicest way possible),respectful confusion and maybe even a polite reserve from someone who is “different” from the norm, but NEVER open hatred or any acts of violence. People need to be taught better and not to be so fucking mean. That makes me enraged. Especially to people who have had to deal with haters, and verbal abusers their entire lives and for just being themselves!! ENRAGED! That makes me want to own a gun…..

Comment by therosewoodbeast

Words really can hit a nerve. Though I am thankful they eventually make me stronger. Those weak enough to lash out with words often do not understand the effects.
When I was a teenager I gained weight. I often came across people who seemed to be offended by my body. They called me a fat whore. Why? Because I was plus sized and stood up for myself.
Years later I have lost a considerable amount of weight and it now just makes me laugh when someone tries to call me fat as an insult. Even if I was, it’s like calling someone with brown hair a brunet as insult.

Comment by Jules

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