not your typical annihilatrix (furiosity) wrote,
not your typical annihilatrix
furiosity

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my calendar says I was overdue for some tl;dr navel-gazing.

So I was writing this thing about my favourite childhood books for scrtkpr, went off on a tangent, and started waxing poetic about slurs/offensive words and the defence of their use under the "free speech" umbrella. I'm actually not even sure any more how the tangent happened, because one moment, I was sitting there describing the plot and characters of «Республика ШКИД», then some stray thought grabbed me. Next thing I knew, I was writing not about children's literature in 1980s Soviet Union but about the shifting social/cultural morass around offensive language. In English. o.o

scrtkpr's original essay request was "anything you feel like" so apparently I felt like this... >.> I did check with her and she was okay with receiving this instead of the other thing for the help_japan auction she won, so here it goes.

I don't actually have a problem with using free speech to defend hate speech -- free means free, even if it is harmful, even if I disagree, even if I'd personally prefer if the person did not say it.

OTOH, it always seems to me that people who defend offensive language in this way don't just want freedom to say what they like, they also wish to be seen as good and reasonable people (in spite of the things they say). I think so because inevitably, if you say "wow, you're an asshole" to someone being unapologetically offensive, they are very likely to counter with "don't censor me".

Well, I'm not trying to fucking censor you. I'm just calling you an asshole for saying offensive shit. Subtle difference. Calling you an asshole in response to your crap is covered under free speech, too.

And when the "don't censor me" argument doesn't work, out comes rationalisation for why offensive words are actually okay to use (whether just for that person or in general). Specifically, I am really floored by the whole "but this word is perfect" argument. You know. Stuff like: "I know 'retarded' is offensive, but it's such a *great* word, so expressive and descriptive and carries just the right amount of energy when I want to refer to someone who falls outside my expectations of intelligent/capable. I don't mean anything offensive by it, I am just catering to my dire and life-sustaining need to make sure all my sentences are extra punchy, so it's okay if I use it."

Or "Language evolves naturally, trying to change it even a little bit is futile" Which is true. But changing language is not the objective; the aim is to change attitudes. Offensive language is not the problem, it's a symptom.

Or "Political correctness to appease fringe minorities will have a harmful long-term effect on society" or other stuff along the lines of "it's okay because it's not as bad as you say it is" or "it's the lesser evil", etc. In sum, there are lots of excuses we come up with so we don't have to feel guilty for continuing to use words that we've been told are offensive (or have in fact offended).

On one hand, I hate aggressive censoring of expression -- "if you use that word, you're an awful person because it upsets me" I don't mind requests -- you know, "I'd like you not to use that word because it upsets me". Obviously this does not apply to slurs; in that case, I gleefully support aggression because no, assholes who knowingly choose hate speech don't deserve consideration of their feelings.

But with non-hate speech. Like, when people get all fucking snooty about how swearing is uncouth and only people with a poor vocabulary do it. Fuck you, jerkwad; I'll bet you anything my vocabulary is 300% richer than yours; I speak three languages with native fluency and can get by in two others, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for most of the people who usually piss and moan about swearing.

But I have no issue with self-censoring, because that is something I do by choice. My best friend doesn't want me swearing in English around her daughter (known around these parts as Godbaby. Because I'm her godmother, not because she's a god of babies). It's a practical consideration; she doesn't want her daughter to start repeating these words and end up in trouble later, when she goes to school. Swearing is considered socially inappropriate to a huge extent, and a child who uses swear words will be told off or even punished for it. Shit, in the worst case, my BFF might end up having to explain herself to child support services if some other parent with a grudge decides to convince the teachers that swearing unconcernedly reflects an unsafe home environment. She has a foreign, decidedly non-WASP surname, too, so that would only speak against her.

I don't think my private (and immense) distaste for social taboos against swearing should take precedence in this case, because it may inconvenience or even harm someone I care about a hell of a lot. All I have to do is watch my mouth a little and be aware of where I am and who can hear me. As I am fortunate not to have any disabilities impeding my control of speech and behaviour, so for me, this is not difficult, and not a bad trade-off for the sake of someone important to me.

So, I don't swear around Godbaby. I self-censor. If I didn't, my BFF would grumble and complain, but she wouldn't sever all ties just because I won't do as she tells me. If she threatened that she'd never let me see Godbaby if I insisted on swearing in her presence, that would be her right as a mother, but it would also be a passive-aggressive attempt to police my speech: threatening to take something I value away if I don't stop saying words she deems inappropriate. On a very small scale, that would be an act of censorship (though certainly not in the sense that censorship usually happens in the world -- it's a microcensorship).

I think everyone who has to navigate the waters of social engagement to any extent does have to make these small compromises -- not only for the sake of loved ones but also for the sake of their careers, for example.

I happen to be lucky enough to have a boss who wouldn't even blink if I exclaimed, "fuck this customer right in the ear, man". But we also have customers, with whom I am in frequent communication, who would not find me saying something like "fuck this weather right in the ear, man" at all appropriate. As I represent the company when I communicate with the customers, this is something I just would not say, despite my distaste for the taboo. I choose to self-censor in this way because my continued gainful employment is more important to me than my thoughts on yaoi harsh language.

I could of course flout the taboo in this case and swear left and right whenever I pleased, but I don't imagine I'd hold down a job of any kind for very long if I did. I don't have money enough to live off for the rest of whatever's left of my life, so I have to work in order to obtain the necessities of life. Even if I freelanced or ran my own business, I would have a hard time of it if I chose not to watch my language for expletives when dealing with others.

So, existing in human society requires establishing a balance between social expectations and personal desires/whims/beliefs. This is basic Life 101 crap; I'm not saying it to enlighten anyone but to formulate an argument, namely that we can exist in society without a growing sense of resentment for "majority values" only if we decide to choose to self-censor when it is in our best interests to do so. That is to say, I think I self-censor not because I have no other choice -- there are lots of ways to live out a life on this rock, and many of them do involve cursing to your heart's content whenever you feel like it. If the swearing was so important to me that I was willing to sacrifice certain comforts for it, I would. But it isn't that important; it's an ideological, armchair-psychology Weltschmerz-type conviction.

I don't think it always happens consciously, either; I think very often we make these choices without thinking because most of us were raised within/into a community -- what "community" means to you may not be what it means to me, but as a species we do tend to form communities and we do tend to succeed best in communities. It actually wouldn't surprise me if some of the "sacrificial" choices we make for the sake of community (at individual expense) are hardwired in us to some extent; an innate ability to do this would certainly be adaptive. [Side note: I distrust evolutionary psychology to a huge extent as a science because of the slew of issues with its methodology, but I don't think it's a wholly useless discipline.]

So here we go with certain terms that are considered offensive by (political) minorities, or subsets of minorities, or allies of minorities (less important, because majority-group allies don't get to set minority group policy). There are some words that are "understood" to be offensive when used by a majority-group member -- I am not going to list them because "understood" will vary by country or even by region if it's a large or diverse country. But in any society where the issue of minorities is at least near the forefront of political discourse, there are sets of terms that you just Do Not Use if you don't want to annoy/offend/insult/upset a minority group member. This can mean anything from gleeful usage of the terms by majority (for example, if oppression of minorities is still politically sanctioned -- way too many places to list) to utter avoidance of the terms on the pain of widespread ostracism (this kind of society doesn't actually exist, I don't think -- no, not even you, Canada) to pretty much anything in between these two extremes.

For me the formula is pretty simple, and two-fold:

1. Say a word or phrase. Be informed it is offensive. Stop using it.
2. Say a word or phrase. Be told that it is not a generally offensive word, but it upsets the person I'm talking to. Don't deliberately use it in front of that person.

This is pretty simple to me because, well, I am a writer with near-native command of a language with the most words in the world. I can find another word or expression to say what I mean. Even if you're not a writer, thesaurus.com is free to access and use.

Note that in 1) I'm not talking about ANY word that ANY person finds offensive for any reason; I'm talking about words that are established as offensive to the minority group, by the minority group -- there will of course be people in that group who don't care about it, but if there's consensus that a word is offensive, then people not of that minority group have no fucking place using it. I'm not saying that the minute a single voice says, "I'm offended", everyone should bend themselves into a pretzel over it without examining the context.

To wit, if someone tells me to stop using the word "ball" forever on the grounds that it's offensive to people who have been bullied by boys, because "ball" suggests "balls" suggests "penis" suggests "cis boy" suggests "cis boy who bullied me in high school and I still haven't got over the trauma and my trauma is obviously universal to all people who have ever been bullied", I'm going to tell that person to take a fucking hike into the faraway land of people who care. I will stop saying that word around them, but that's it.

If a majority group-member tries to get me to stop using some word they've personally decided is offensive to a minority group, I'm going to tell them to GTFO, because that is concern trolling and the key word in that phrase is "trolling", not "concern".

So, just to be clear: I'm talking about words that are known to cause offense if uttered by privileged people -- not all words whose use is challenged on grounds of possible offense.

Some people call it (micro)censorship because essentially, people who object to certain terms being used in casual speech are threatening the user of those terms with ostracism from the group of people against whom those terms are considered offensive. "It's offensive to X minority" is shorthand for "X minority and their allies will think you're an *ist if you say this". And since *ists are not welcome in X minority circles, declaring you an *ist is cutting off all of your access to that group.

But I don't think it's actually (micro)censorship because, dude, if you don't give a shit about offending X minority, you can't possibly want to be in their space. I mean, if you don't care about these people to such an extent that your Right to Free Expression (which is not something any human actually requires to survive) matters much more to you than their feelings as representatives of a minority, why the hell would any reasonable, logical person assume that you want to hang out with them?

I realise it can be argued that freedom from offense is not something any human requires to survive, either -- Kinney knows (political) minorities have been managing to survive without any such freedom for thousands of years. But I am morally utilitarian and so tend to choose the option with the greatest net positive impact (failing that, the option with the lowest net negative impact) -- the discomfort caused by constant, endures-through-generations exposure to offense against one's personal worth based on group membership is greater than discomfort caused by the inability to say whatever the fuck you want to whomever the fuck you want.

The reason? The former impacts both the individual and society -- these are proven facts; minority populations everywhere are guaranteed to have more difficult lives than the rest, owing fully to the fact that they are considered unimportant, which is a belief system that offensive speech embodies and perpetuates. And if society is consistently failing to protect some of its members from harm, it's failing in its primary function.

The latter (discomfort caused by the inability to say whatever the fuck you want), when we're talking about offensive/hate speech and not "free speech" in general, impacts only the individual at that particular moment in time. To me, that is pretty fucking negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Not to mention the fact that refusing to consider the minority group's interests above your own over what is in the end a trifling matter bespeaks that they as a group are not important to you. If they were important enough, self-censoring shouldn't be an issue in the first place; it's the same level of sacrifice you might make for extended-but-not-close-enough-to-really-matter-either-way family.

So -- you don't want to be a part of their surroundings to begin with. That means you don't stand to lose a thing if you piss them off, for example by using words they don't appreciate. And since you don't stand to lose anything, you are not being subjected to censorship, because it's only censorship if saying whatever you wish carries a risk of you being at a disadvantage that will impact your life significantly (and the only way you can avoid that disadvantage is to bow to pressure regardless of your own wishes). But you've already dismissed the group's concerns -- and therefore the group itself -- as unimportant and irrelevant, so being respected by them shouldn't matter to you.

The idea that I am trying to get across here is that if you instinctively resist attempts by a minority group to tell you that a word you're using is not cool with them, then it is a foregone conclusion that in your own mental map of society, members of that minority group are of no consequence. They are not important enough to care about, not important enough to warrant compromises, because in your version of the world, you lose nothing by losing their favour.

And I think this kind of thing is really the root of all *ism: the a priori dismissal of groups which don't fit into your internalised view of "community/society". That internalised view is (almost) never the individual's fault: we can only work with that which we're given, and if we're given a view (not just physical view, but metaphorical -- that which is conveyed by our surroundings, including family and the ever-pervasive media) of a society in which rosy-cheeked white boys with penises pray to Jesus and grow up to beat their wives with impunity, the older we get, the more difficult it becomes to incorporate anything else into that view, to consider anything else a reflection of "my society" rather than merely an outlier to be ignored and, when it refuses to be ignored, othered and belittled.

But just because it's not the majority's fault that we have a limited, blinkered/sheltered view of society doesn't mean it's not our responsibility to educate our own damn selves in order to expand that view.

People talk about "fear of the unknown" being the chief motivator for *ism, and while it's difficult to argue that humans aren't likely to fear that which is strange, it's also difficult to argue that we are not by nature curious, inquisitive creatures. That's why I don't believe that fear of the unknown drives discrimination (plus, I just find the idea that ~we're all naturally predisposed to be *ist, we can't help it!~ completely repulsive).

We are at birth torn between the safety/comfort of the known and our desire to explore. I think it is our desire to explore that has enabled us to advance as a species far beyond anything any other animal species on this planet has done (though lots of them are pretty awesome in their own right, if not by ~human standards).

Which side "wins" on the societal scale is IMO entirely nurture-based, but I do believe that an inborn tendency to curiosity is more common in the human beings of today, because it is the more adaptive trait for us as a species. An individual survives by seeking safety; a community provides the safety we need to explore freely. We are afraid of strange things, but we also form communities and we are curious. It is a no-brainer to me that inquisitiveness is the default, and if it isn't, that's the fault of our upbringing, not our genetics.

I suppose you could make the argument that this might be nature-based, that there is an evolutionary reason for a majority to consider a minority unimportant in their mental society maps, but in the case of women and people of colour, we're not talking about actual minorities but political ones, and I think it's pretty safe to say that genetics does not determine political ideology; society and upbringing does that. [Yes, according to some thinkers, our genetics guides us in the direction that it is most favourable for us as individuals, but I think selfish-gene theories are a pile of shit only a little smaller than the steaming heap that is religious determinism.]

I'm certainly no exception when it comes to clinging to words that don't need to be used. Like, I use a lot of ableist langugage, especially internally; I've taught myself to be thoroughly disgusted with "retarded", but "moron" and "idiot" still figure prominently in my thoughts (and my words, even though usually follow them up with "Damn, I shouldn't use that word.").

They're no more benign than "retarded", strictly speaking, but a while back I actually unfollowed a Tumblr that said "idiot is an ableist word" and linked to FWD as proof. I told myself that it was because i think FWD's ableist word profile is way too fucking extreme (because come the fuck on, "intelligence" is not a fucking ableist word without precise context to render it offensive) and I didn't want to follow someone who was increasingly parroting sentiments I see as utterly counterproductive concern trolling.

And that all is true; while I have a tendency to default to extreme judgements as a first response knee-jerk, I really do not like sustained extreme viewpoints in any direction, and I loathe concern trolling. But I think the impulse to unfollow had more to do with me making mental toddler fists and just not wanting to acknowledge that a word I enjoy using is offensive. I'm not proud of it, but I suppose owning it is a step in the forward(ish) direction.

One of my biggest things both growing up and now is that I really hate stupid people. But I define "stupid people" not as people with disabilities which leave them unable to reason on the same level as the average human, but wilfully ignorant people. I can't get along with anyone who sees something that goes against their worldview (or worse, opinion) and just assumes it is wrong without bothering to find out that maybe they have been wrong all this time. I have no use for such people in my life, and so it feels important for me to have strong, specific insult terms for them, with "idiot" near the very top.

This is not a defiant "therefore I will use these words and not feel bad, because as you can see I am a special snowflake". It's more of an "I understand why it's so hard to let go of these words; I'm not even sure if I can, but I'll keep trying, because I really don't have a good reason not to". Plus, as much as I detest wilful ignorance, I also know it's true that many people on the autism spectrum demonstrate exactly the pattern of behaviour that sets my teeth on edge, but they don't do it because they refuse to change their mind; they do it because they can't change their mind, and it is wrong for me to lump them together with people who do it deliberately because they fear being proven wrong or just because they're lazy.

This is more of a "hey, I had all these ideas while writing about something totally unrelated and maybe it can be used to explain why we do this thing". Maybe there's a way to stop doing it, because in the end, whether we agree or not, it's not like words in general are going out of style any time soon, so why would one really insist on an offensive word when there are alternatives? Free speech may seem a compelling argument on the surface, but free speech ideals protect ideas, not words. Words are wind. (as GRRM really enjoyed repeating in A Dance with Dragons...)

Even if I'm totally wrong and it's indeed ~natural~ for humans to hate and fear one another, we've obviously come to a point as a species where the social environment in an ever-increasing number of political spaces is beginning not to tolerate such hatred and fear. Why cling to a word or ten in the name of your individual freedom when in so doing you are impinging upon someone else's?

I mean, throughout it all, you're free to say, "fuck all this shit; I will use whatever words I like, because I hate no one so I mean nothing bad by them, and I will never listen to anyone who complains because I've only got one life and damn it I'm going to do what I want as long as I can!" There's nothing wrong with that, at least not from my perspective. I WILL think you're kind of an asshole for it, but you know, I'm kind of an asshole too, so at least we make a fine pair. It's the attempts to make up excuses as to why hateful language is actually okay that drive me up the wall -- no, you don't get to have your cake and eat it too. If someone wants to use offensive speech because their personal freedom rates above all else, no one can stop them (unless their locale has super strict censorship laws, I suppose). Just, you know, I wish they wouldn't act so damn surprised when people get upset with them for it...>.>

[I mean, for all my attempts to not say offensive shit, I'm otherwise gleefully rude to people all the time, and sometimes it's undeserved, but I'm okay with being considered a mean girl. If I weren't okay with it, I'd probably try to play well with others. But that's way too much work, and last I checked, there was nothing wrong with being a crotchety old bat. :D]
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