Have We Gone Too Far Now?

I’m doing a class with 7th and 8th graders on leadership and diversity.  Today I asked them to brainstorm a list of words they thought of when they heard the phrase “Sexual Orientation”.  One girl raised her hand but then stopped herself:

“I’m not sure of the word.  I don’t think I should say it.”

I tried to assure her that it wouldn’t be held against her if she used a less-than-appropriate word.  I’d rather her take the risk and speak openly and honestly and, if necessary, I would provide her with better language.  She ultimately opted not to share.

Another student then offered “homosexuality”.

“That’s what I meant!  Well.  Sort of.  That word… but the bad one.”

I thought for sure she meant “faggot”, a decidedly ugly and hurtful word that has unfortunately worked its way into too many young people’s vocabulary.

“Do you mean the G-word?” someone else asked.

“Yea… that one.”

“You mean ‘gay’?” I said.

“Um, yea…” she said sheepishly.

I had to stop right there and explain how the word gay, itself, is not a bad one.  It is a word that many people happily and proudly identify themselves as.  The use of the word gay to denote something as negative… that is an issue.  Etc, etc, etc.  I explained that I understand that they were likely told not to use it, but what they should have been told was not to use it as a pejorative.  Otherwise, it is a perfectly acceptable word to use when talking respectfully about sexual orientation.

This time, I’m relatively certain that we went too far in making these kids thing that they couldn’t use the word “gay” to discuss sexual orientation in an academic setting.

(And, yes, for those playing at home, I’m definitely making all these kids straight ‘mo.  The Liberal Agenda will not be stopped!)

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48 thoughts on “Have We Gone Too Far Now?

  1. I’m definitely making all these kids straight ‘mo.

    Make up your mind.

    So we apparently cannot finesse the difference between “gay” as “non-pejorative term for (usually male) homosexuality” and “derogatory term used to denote something worth mocking, a la the attitude often (but thankfully less so) displayed toward male homosexuals”?

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  2. I have some acquaintances on FaceBook that have been getting banned regularly for using certain words correctly. Granted these are words with multiple meanings, some of which are crass & derogatory, but that is not how they use the words.

    Words such as Chigger (a small biting insect), or faggot (a bundle of small sticks), etc.

    Yes, they are intentionally trying to trigger the FB censors & then subsequently rail against said censors for being overly-sensitive, & for not reviewing for context & meaning. But they showcase how obscene it is for people to focus on the word alone, and ignore the meaning behind it.

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    • Chiggers are a real problem at the in-laws’ compound. I pretty much feel the need to link to an article about them whenever I bring them up.

      When I worked at McDonald’s as a teen, I had a former boss who I am 90% sure was racist and who used to love to use the word niggardly to try to get a rise out of black employees. He never used it except when there was a black employee around, and when he said it, he would shoot a glance in the direction of the one who was around. Not coincidentally, this is the McD’s that always put the African-American employees on the grill and the white employees at the register.

      In Matchbox Twenty’s VH1 Storytellers, Rob Thomas talked about how the word “Bent” (the title of the first single off their second CD) had different meanings in different places. In one place (Australia?) it means gay. He said it was kind of funny when they got there and saw posters of the band with the word “BENT!” written in big words behind them.

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      • One thing I find myself doing, particularly here where there really are no chiggers, is pronouncing the word slowly and clearly to make sure that people know exactly what letters I’m beginning with.

        Back home, if I say that word to anyone, they’ll have no problem knowing precisely what I mean, because those things are so evil that everyone has their name burned into the inside of their skull, or to the inside of their nether regions, where the little buggers like to hang out.

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      • “Chiggers” is a regional term, one I grew up with. I don’t know what the demonic little pests are called around here, because I know for sure we have them and have seen patients with their bites, but when I refer to “chiggers” people don’t seem to know what I’m talking about.

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      • That one makes no sense to me, because there’s no way “niggardly” could be a racial slur. Of all the awful negative stereotypes that black people have had to deal with over the years, stinginess is noticeable by its absence.

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      • The first time I visited Perth (the Navy ship I was attached to was stopping in Fremantle for a port call), I stopped in a leather goods store and asked if they had any fanny packs (small pack on a belt that you wear around your waist).

        Turns out down under, fanny is not another word for hips or butts…

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      • Chris, if I’m not in comfortable company – the type who knows what words I would and would not use casually – I will often just say “bugs” unless I need to go into an explanation of what kind of bugs they are. If I’m going to describe the little terrorists, though, I figure they will know that I am referring to something by its proper name.

        Kazzy, I remember the event to which you refer. People got all up in arms accusing them of actually having said N*. Missing the point: No, they actually said knickers, but it was still an inappropriate joke!

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      • For the record, that’s not quite what they did. The context was that he was actually talking about knickers, not as an actual stand-in for N*. He just enunciated it in such a way that it was less than entirely clear unless you were listening carefully and caught the context. Then a couple of black participants acted offended because of what he didn’t say.

        Which is still a dick move, because you’re making fun of something around an offensive thing

        “Ha! Look at them! They got offended because they thought I said that terrible thing when I said “KNICKERS!” Haha.”

        As they say, if you have to explain the joke (which you have to in order for it to make any sense) it’s not funny. More to the point, the whole thing relied on a great deal of disrespectful behavior.

        But that’s what it was.

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      • But wasn’t the joke about being deceptive and trying to trick people into being offended? I mean… that ain’t particularly funny. You’re right that they weren’t actually expressing the sentiment most often behind that word (though I vaguely remember the “rap” ending with them referencing Obama and then being about to say “Knickers” and stopping short, so… it gets muddy), but it isn’t like they were ACTUALLY talking about short pants.

        Their goal was to offend.

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      • Kazzy, we agree in spirit. I am just clarifying the particulars. The goal was either to offend or to mock the taking of offense. Neither of which are acceptable.

        Anyway, the lyric in question is “But I’m back from the dead now bringing back all my knickers” which is a play on the N word’s use in rap, but also works in context as a reference to his pants (it was performed in period attire).

        The most positive framing of the whole thing is a rather pathetic attempt at deniable naughty-naughty. When that’s the most charitable interpretation, you’re doing it wrong.

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      • Were the black folks in the audience who were offended… were they part of it? If not, it makes me wonder if their attempt was something along the lines of, “See? Dumb black people play the ‘race card’ even when we’re talking about pants.” Which still probably fits into one or both of your interpretations.

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      • He was a part of it. He was a sound technician. They had a recorded music video and the black sound tech there took offense at the same part. The singer gave the same rhyming explanation.

        I think the “See? Dumb black guy taking offense at something innocuous!” is a good summary, except that they had a black guy as a part of it.

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      • My wife and I were just talking about chiggers this evening as she forced me to walk across an open grassy area in shorts and with no bug spray. They are the scourge of my summers. By this point in the year my legs typically look like I have leprosy no matter what I do to avoid them and not to scratch. Apparently they think I am delicious.

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      • Fishing chiggers. My parents used to have a cabin in Ocala, and we would frequently go there on vacation. I always liked to walk through some of the trails in the woods around the cabin. It felt like an adventure.

        More often than not, I would end up with numerous chigger bites in the groin area.

        Then there was the one year the chigger bites turned out to be chicken pox.

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    • This may be true and the girl’s heart may have been in the right place about not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. But of course the equivalency of the words “gay” and “lame” is a problem as well: if even saying the word “gay” is somehow shameful, then how much more shameful is it to be gay?

      Kudos to Kazzy for addressing this directly and dragging it out into the light. The kids in his class are going to be much better off for it.

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      • Also, the word “lame” has its problems, too. It can be a derogatory (or at least condescending or paternalist) way to talk about people with some disabilities. It can also be just an old-fashioned word. But my point is, to call something “lame” as in “not good” is a pejorative use of it.

        Perhaps colloquially, this use has become used similarly to the way that “idiot” or “moron” have become used, almost completely divorced from what it refers to. But really, “lame” is a derogatory (or at least condescending or paternalist) way to talk about people with some disabilities.

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      • I struggle with this as well. “Dumb” is another one that has a very different origin than current usage, one that is potentially insulting. I wonder if there were similar efforts when these words started to shift as there are today with “gay” or “retard” that simply failed. My hunch is that there weren’t. It makes me wonder at what point do we say, “Well, now the word is completely divorced from its original meaning so the pejorative is gone.” I really don’t know. But there is something curious about telling folks, “Don’t say gay… say dumb/moron/idiot instead.”

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      • , this discussion made me think of something I never considered before. The word dumb used refer to someone who was mute. I wonder if the “lack of intelligence” meaning came from an assumption that it was lack of intelligence leading to people being unable to talk.

        That said, referring to a person as dumb is inherently insulting. Referring to a policy or program as dumb is a bit different.

        Another issue that comes from all of this is that we start with a word for things, it becomes derogatory, so we come up with a new word that is not offensive. In time, the new word becomes common, and then it too becomes offensive, to be replaced with a new word,continuing the cycle.

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      • That was my understanding of dumb, but if someone knows better, I’m happy to be corrected.

        But you are absolutely right about the cycle. The only solution would seem to be people being less pejorative with one another. A pipe dream, unfortunately…

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    • It’s possible. The way the other kid said, “the g-word,” made me think the kids consider this word verboten. I don’t doubt she was attempting to be thoughtful and considerate. My concern is less with the output (what she said) and more with the input (what the adults or others around her told that made her think connecting “gay” with “sexual orientation” was wrong).

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  3. Mike Schilling

    “That one makes no sense to me, because there’s no way “niggardly” could be a racial slur. Of all the awful negative stereotypes that black people have had to deal with over the years, stinginess is noticeable by its absence.”

    Apparently others have a differing opinion on whether niggardly is racist:

    “Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 4, 1999; Page A1

    D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that he will rehire a former top aide who resigned last month because some city employees were offended that the aide used the word “niggardly” in describing how he would have to manage a fund’s tight budget.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/williams/williams020499.htm

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  4. Kazzy,

    I’m not surprised by this ancedote. Adults are told all the time the “correct” words to use by various advocacy groups and the media. That kids have picked up on it is no surpise.

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    • But I don’t think real advocacy groups have said, “Never say gay.” Any one I’ve ever seen has said, “Don’t use gay as a pejorative.” Somewhere along the line, that got skewed into, “Never say gay,” likely by parents and/or teachers. As such, we failed these kids, at least temporarily.

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      • I agree, but the kids, just like the adults, now are encouraged to self monitor their words because of the nasty consecquences of straying too far from the “approved words”. The default becomes “when in doubt, don’t say it.”.

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      • To the extent that this is true, I think it is in err to tell people not to say something, for a variety of reasons. My goal tends to be, “Let me make sure you understand the full implications of what you’re saying.” When in a position to set parameters for speech (such as in the classroom), I try to set them around a broader idea in service to our purpose. So there isn’t a list of “naughty words” as much as there is an expectation that the students will be respectful and considerate of one another. Rather than say, “Don’t call him gay, call him stupid,” I’ll say, “Think about an effective way to deal with the problem that resolves rather than exacerbates it.” I don’t know why calling someone stupid is any more acceptable than calling them gay-as-pejorative.

        Boiled down, I tend to take more of a, “You shouldn’t say XYZ because…” than a, “You can’t ever say XYZ.”

        In talking with the upper school head, he made the point that it is possible these students have never had the opportunity to use the word as intended. They might have only ever really heard it/said it as a pejorative, and thus were unclear on if/how/when to use it in the appropriate context. I hadn’t considered this angle, which might shift my response a bit.

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  5. This just shows that when we enter a battle to change our language, we should remember that we’re armed with clubs and not rapiers. It’s like the story of ain’t — it was a perfectly good contraction of am not, but then people started using it for the other persons & numbers as well. So the English Teacher Mafia attempted to correct people’s usage, but instead of “only use ain’t for first person singular”, the message that was heard by the people was “don’t use ain’t“.

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  6. As a matter of idle speculation, I wonder how much of this is a generational thing, and perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, most people will operate under the assumption that “gay” is a label best not used, similarly (but not exactly comparable) to the way that the word “negro” is just not used any more. Again, this is idle speculation, but we are indeed all getting older, and times are changing.

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    • I think about that all the time.

      My hunch is that there are two primary factors in the evolutions of terms used to identify people or groups:
      1.) For a long time, marginalized groups were often denied the freedom to self-identify or choose their own nomenclature.
      2.) Acceptable terms becoming pejorative or otherwise derided by non-members of the group.

      I think we currently do much better with #1 now than we did historically. We’re still not all the way there, but certainly are closer than even a few decades ago.
      The second one remains an issue. I suppose it likely has gotten better to some degree, but not as much as the first.

      But I do wonder if in 2050 we’ll look back on this decade and smirk about our use of terms like “gay”, “African-American”, or “transgender” and think what neanderthals we all once were.

      As a general rule, I try to refer to people (either as individuals or as collectives) with whatever terms they chose to identify as. It sometimes amazes me how many people refuse to do this.

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  7. it may also vary by region, perhaps the term is considered less pejorative elsewhere?

    btw, did you guys know that they call bean bag tossing “cornholing” in the south? or at least maryland? i am glad someone told me that before we moved down here because that is an insanely uncomfortable conversation to have with a stranger.

    “hey, would your kid like to try some cornholing?”

    especially after punching them.

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