Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looking to be Offended

To take the evolution of language one step further, what do we do when words like "gay" get coopted and expanded until they are used to mean "bad," "annoying," "stupid"? ("Ugh, we have to get to graduation two hours early? That's so gay.") When confronted, people who use the word in this way generally claim that the meaning of "gay" has changed and that this is an alternate meaning that in no way refers to sexual orientation. In one sense, of course that's true—the people saying it do not actually mean that having to wait so long is in any way related to homosexuality—but in another sense, it's clearly hogwash.

Far be it from me to imply the language doesn't change and slang can't change the meaning of a word for good. My mother and I used to argue "that sucks" with me taking that very tack. ("But Lauren, do you know what that means?") I argued that if blowjobs were actually the etymology of "sucks," which I wasn't convinced of at the time, the word had long ago branched out from that meaning and the usage synonymous with "that stinks" should have no horrifying connotations to anyone. If oral sex wasn't in the mind of those who used the expression or those who heard it thus used (my mother excluded, apparently), then in some quite meaningful sense (yay for postmodernism), it didn't mean that anymore.

So I can certainly see the appeal of an argument from postmodernism, that the word "gay" has a new meaning ((3) stupid) in addition to (1) happy and frolicsome and (2) homosexual. However, I think it's clear that, whatever connotations definition three theoretically doesn't have now, it definitely arrived in the lexicon through pejorative application of gay definition number two. (This is where the previous post becomes relevant!) It's apparent we lack imagination or a sufficient vocabulary in English (and probably every other language, but I'll stick to what I know) and so constantly lift from descriptors of other groups of people we don't like or (ding, ding, ding!) don't respect to describe anyone or anything negatively. ("Don't be retarded," "how lame," "I was gypped," "what a spaz," "she totally freaked.") So while the 14-year-olds saying "that's gay" probably truly aren't at that moment actually intending to offend or even comment on anyone who is gay and legitimately aren't considering that use of the word in this context, people who are gay or who have friends who are gay (or who are just old and so aren't desensitized to this usage yet) often can't help but sense the traces of its etymology. (It's significant to me that I have never actually heard anyone who is gay say "that's so gay" in any sense other than the obviously directly derivative sense that that's something so ridiculously sparkly and fabulous that only super-stereotypically feminine gay men would like it, so obviously not everyone thinks it's a word entirely without connotation in this sense.)

(I know it's super-cheesy, but I love this PSA.)

So now we come to the crux of the matter: do people have a responsibility to avoid saying things that offend others if they don't think they're anything that should offend anyone? On the one hand, you never know what might offend someone; virtually anything you could possibly say would offend someone for some (probably initially bewildering) reason. (Stupid example: if, as I age, anyone younger than me ever refers to me as "this young lady" in that slightly-ironic-to-be-nice way (because heaven knows being old is an unspeakable horror best ignored by exaggeration in the opposite direction), I'm going to clock them.) I do, however, think political correctness can go too far, and it's probably not a worthwhile use of one's time to bend over backward trying to keep from the slightest possibility of offending anyone. However, I do think it's very important to think about how the words you use came to have the meanings you impute to them, and especially if someone tells you they find something offensive, you should seek to eliminate it (at the very least in their presence).

One friend of mine in particular often argues the other side of this point to me. He'll say something sexist that I get offended by and then spends half an hour explaining why either he's not being sexist or why I'm too easily offended. Similarly with "that's gay"—he thinks people are being overly sensitive and it's not his job to be sure not to offend someone who's 'looking' to be offended. It seems to me he and others are taking the Eleanor Roosevelt approach ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent"), which I've always found to be terribly annoying and entirely untrue (or, if possibly true, to place an undue burden on the person feeling inferior). To a significant extent, it doesn't really matter if you understand why someone is offended; if they are, they are, and if you like them, stop!—even if you think they're being overly sensitive.

I think the reason people try to justify things they're told are offensive is simply because nobody thinks they're sexist or racist (or ageist or ableist or prejudiced in any other way), so when it's brought to their attention that someone does find something they said offensive in some way, they are so horrified or uncomfortable that someone thinks they're that sort of person that they feel the need to explain how they're not really. Cut your losses; you cannot win this one. Nobody's going to think you're incorrigible if they say, "That's offensive" and you say, "Really, how? Oh, wow, I didn't think of that"—the end. Being increasingly offensive as you explain how you're not actually being offensive or how it's their own fault they're offended, however, won't win you any friends.

There was a Motherlode post/discussion a while back (because, yes, I'm ridiculous and read a parenting blog despite having no intention of procreating for some time, if ever) that I found quite germane to this discussion. It's about classroom assignments (in particular, that one where you make charts with traits from your parents and yourself to learn about heritability—you know, if you can curl your tongue; whether your earlobes are free-hanging or connected to your head, etc.) that are potentially awkward or discriminatory (in this case, to adopted kids...or those conceived through donor sperm or eggs or anyone who otherwise doesn't have access to both biological parents). I thought the post to be quite interesting, as I'd never really thought about that problem, and it seems plain to me that if there are things we as a society are doing that make people feel bad about themselves (or unable to participate!), if there's any reasonable way to avoid that, we should. (It should be noted the post offered other options with the same educational value that could be easily substituted.) Many of the commenters seemed less charitable:

"[A]doptive families are by far the exception, not the rule. So you're demanding to change the system entirely, just to satisfy a small minority?"

"My gosh, if I got frustrated and angry over one of my Kid's homework assignments because it didn't pander to my special situation, I wouldn't make it as a parent."

"Goodness gracious the things we manage to find problems with in our society. Count yourself lucky the issue you have to write about is a genetic work sheet your elementary aged child fills out. So much complaining so few real problems."

I think all too often people like these commenters miss the point. It's not the case that (most) people just sit around looking for things that an argument could be made discriminate against some specific situation they are in or quality they have in order to cause a stink and get special attention and pity. In most cases people are truly saddened/disturbed/hurt by whatever everyone else is assuming is universal and bring it up because they assume nobody's trying to hurt anyone's feelings, that the apparent blitheness with which they're being disregarded is simply because everyone else, not being in that particular situation, is simply unaware that they're hurting anyone. (Which discussion unfortunately too often triggers the "But I'm a nice person!" defensiveness and rationalization...) Nobody's asking that the sensibilities of the smallest minorities be allowed to dictate the majority's actions but just that people show some awareness of the fact that not everybody is like them. Presumably since we're not all ogres, they would then have some willingness to adjust if the adjustment wasn't onerous. Obviously nobody is aware of every possible potential offense they could give anyone else, but that's exactly why people do and should inform others of things that make them feel slighted.

Back to language, though: my question is whether all words that were ever offensively intended should be off limits forever after or if there's a sort of statute of limitations of offensiveness. "That's gay" and "what a retard" are definitely still too loaded to touch for those of us who don't want to offend, but what about "moron"? My inclination is that since that word hasn't been used to refer to an actual medical condition in my decades, it's officially decoupled and is thus acceptable (same with "lunatic," "idiot," etc.—of course, I may lean toward their acceptability simply because they're words I regularly use and I'm being defensive). I remember my mom getting mad about my use of "spaz" (see: spasticity), which was the first time I was made aware of an offensive aspect of a term I regularly used. Then (only a few years ago) my brother called me out on "gypped," which is obviously (in retrospect!) a reference to gypsies. Nobody has actually said anything to me about "lame," but it is certainly also offensive. I guess my problem is that I started using all these words solely in their slang senses and at a relatively young age and either never thought of their original meanings until years later or was simply unaware of the etymology at all (I'm pretty sure that conversation with my mom was the first time I ever heard the word "spasticity"; I had no idea it was a real thing). So I feel that since my speech developed using them in an innocent sense, it's somehow acceptable for me to keep using them. But this is exactly the point! I'm sure that's how teenage guys feel about "that's gay": if they don't mean to be saying anything about homosexuality and are possibly actually entirely oblivious of the connection, we should just ignore the offensive overtones.

It's immensely annoying how few legitimate words the English language has for certain concepts. ("Good" and "bad" are especially bereft. "Fantastic" doesn't mean "good," it means unbelievable, a fantasy. "Great"? It means big. "Awesome"? Inspiring of awe (/terror)—in fact, basically the same as "awful." Similarly, "terrible"? Inducing terror. "Horrible"? A horror. None of these words actually mean "good" or "bad" in varying degrees; they mean different concepts entirely.) It seems the ideas of "stupid" (whether expressed as "lame," "gay"—or, you know, "stupid") and of an unpleasant or unthinking person are actually impossible to express directly, without loaded reference to groups like those already described. People often disparage cursing, saying it shows a lack of creativity in vocabulary, but is it actually possible to use an extensive vocabulary to replace all vulgarisms? I'm starting to think not, and that's utterly depressing.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Douches and Assholes

This is a two-parter: today, the evolution of offense; tomorrow (or eventually), how much our speech should defer to others' feelings.

I find the evolution of insults rather fascinating. Not so much the evolution from "misbegotten half-faced hedge-pig" (purportedly one of the ever-popular Shakespearean insults) to "you jerk," but the evolution of the meanings of "fag" or "moron" or whatever throughout time.

As is commonly known, "fag" (also meaning "cigarette") comes from "faggot" which at one time referred to a bundle of sticks or wood. Less commonly known (at least to me, until Wikipedia came along to enlighten me), "faggot" in reference to people likely originated as a term for the poor old women, usually widows, who gathered such bundles to sell as firewood. (The general habit of denigrating gay or effeminate men with terms originally used to describe women is particularly offensive in my mind, now from both directions though it was likely only intended to be offensive from the point of view of the man so impugned.)

In addition to slandering men by insinuating they might be as bad as—the horror!—a woman, slandering people by association with the less mentally gifted members of society is a perennial favorite. I find this evolution to be particularly interesting as it seems the medical establishment is constantly playing a game of linguistic whack-a-mole to replace terms that have been coopted as insults with more politically correct, less loaded terms...which are themselves coopted in short order. (Though, to be fair, it seems the medical establishment was not selecting labels with neutral connotations to begin with, as most of their terms have been in use in various derogatory senses for hundreds of years.) "Moron," "imbecile," and "idiot," though coming into the English language at different times, shared a period of time as part of a classification scheme for the mentally deficient (in order of increasing deficiency). "Cretin" at least started out with some degree of sympathy enshrined in its usage; literally it means "Christian," reminding one that this poor creature crippled by a thyroid disorder and low mental capacity was still, after all, "human despite physical deformities." So after every term already in use for the mentally handicapped becomes corrupted, on comes "retarded." As a term, I'm sure it originally seemed rather nice, implying simple delay or a slower pace. Of course, we all know how that worked out. Then there are the terms derived from the mentally ill segment of society: lunatic, deranged, crazy, insane, mental.

Gendered insults are fascinating. Basically any gender-specific body part is up for grabs, though often used in a less tidily gendered fashion. (This is where I get completely subjective and start going entirely off my own connotations.) Though of late there is more cross-pollination, in general I think terms dealing with male genitalia are only applicable to men (or at least started out that way): dick, cock, prick, jerk (well, the etymology of that one is slightly less clear), cocksucker (in an interesting turn of events, apparently cock-sucking isn't offensive to a woman who does it—nice to be given a pass for once). "Asshole" seems also to be primarily applied to men, though it's getting more equal opportunity these days. Women's anatomy seems up for grabs, though; "cunt" and "twat" seem like they were used probably more to describe women, though "cunt" at least is shifting man-ward. "Pussy" has, I'm pretty sure, always been directed at men. (Because, you see, women can't be expected to be courageous, so by a simultaneous usage of analogy and synecdoche, wimpy men are pussies. I was about to use "wussy" instead of "wimpy," but then the internet informs me the two likely etymologies for "wuss" are "pussy wussy" (as referring to a cat) or a portmanteau of "wimp" and "pussy." Well, there we go again.)

Then there are the blatantly misogynistic terms, all applied to women, of course (bitch, whore, slut—and yes, I know, "bitch" is becoming equally applicable these days, but when it's used for guys, it generally seems to be taking all the negative female aspects of the term and applying it to the guy for a double whammy of insultingness: a female bitch is mean or crabby or overly assertive; a male bitch is whiny or wussy or whipped, or he's someone's bitch, a loss of power not really implied with the female version). "Bastard" and "son of a bitch," though rarely used in their literal senses anymore, in those senses would deprecate the woman/mother more than the man being so designated. ("Motherfucker," however, would actually seem to only impugn the man...of course, dare I suggest it's because the mother is either already assumed to be depraved or because she is obviously powerless and without agency?)

And now, to my favorite (in some strange sense of the term): "douche" or "douchebag." Though obviously the intent is to insult a man by calling him something associated with the vilest of vile, the very dross of a woman, surprisingly, I have absolutely no (gender-associated, feminist) problem with this one (the word in general I find grating, but that's a different issue). Firstly, the implied action just doesn't have the same kind of weight. (What, you're so gross/insignificant/disgusting that you could be the thing to clean a woman's vagina!? Doesn't seem quite so intuitive as most of the rest of them. (And wouldn't a clean vagina be seen as a positive thing by the sorts of people who start using these words, anyway?)) But best of all, (though this is an appeal to modern thought, so it goes slightly against my general literal, historical, and semantic arguments elsewhere) douches are no longer seen as a good thing! Women (generally) accept their vaginas as healthy and clean the way they are. Douches are decried by doctors and even women's magazines as a good way to upset one's natural balance and cause infections and all sorts of lovely things. Modern enlightened women find them repulsive and more than a little oppressive (especially when taken in tandem with the past habit of using Lysol as a douching agent—yeowch). So if you want to insult a man with a term related to a woman, "douche" is your word! It's not offensive to women exactly because douches are themselves offensive to women, so who could argue with applying their label to people who offend? Or that's my take, anyway, and apparently one in which I'm not alone.

Some day I would be interested in being able to compare people's definitions of jerks, bitches, assholes, douches, etc. In my estimation it's clear they aren't simply used to fill in the blank when an insult is desired; they each apply to distinct groups of people. I imagine one man's "douche" is another man's "asshole," though.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Darndest Things

Adults swapping cute-child stories seem to be the last bastion of socially acceptable mockery. Is there ever a situation where "[Offspring] said the cutest thing yesterday!" ever doesn't mean, "God, children are so delightfully stupid!"? Your job as a parent is to correct your child's misconception and explain the world in a way so as to help them understand how things work, not go around and tell all your friends the dumb way your child thought things happened.

Especially if the misunderstanding involves sex, death, reproduction, or religion, probably the reason they hold such quaint misunderstood notions is because you did a really bad job of explaining it the first time around. If your kid says something 'cute' based off a baby being in someone's stomach, that's because someone was too squeamish to explain a uterus (or didn't even bother with the distinction of "a special compartment inside of Mommy"). When a kid worries a watermelon might grow in their stomach, dollars to donuts that's because some uncle or friend of the family told them not to swallow seeds or that's what would happen. How is a child supposed to not hold a warped view of reality when people insist on telling children out-and-out lies (Santa Claus, storks, boogey men who will steal you away if you don't stop crying) or oversimplifying the truth to a degree that it's no longer even slightly accurate? Your child is only going to know what you tell them (until school age, but even then, what the larger pool of adults tell them), so if they don't understand something, it's not cute, it means you're failing them. (It should be embarrassing for you to tell your friends how poorly you must have explained reproduction for your child to come out with that doozy.)

We do all agree that a parent's primary job is basically to turn their child into a real person, right? You're supposed to teach your child, help your child negotiate relationships, show your child how to do things, model behavior, etc. All too often I feel like adults think "having a baby" is a decision about them and what they want out of life, about liking pre-rational children and thinking they're adorable and wanting to have one for their very own. Well, that's not quite how it works. You're not making the decision to have a cute little baby, you're making the decision to bring a person into the world. Let's act like they're actually a person with (to varying degrees depending on their level of development, but almost always more so than they're given credit for) their own legitimate goals and not just an accessory or a lifestyle choice or something to give you meaning and purpose and make you happy and fulfilled.

At the very least, if you're going to laugh about your child's misguided notions, don't do it in front of them. I'm sure parents don't think they do this, but they totally do. Even if they don't tell the "cute" think Child A said today when Child A is in the room, they'll talk about a cute thing another child who's not present did. (Children aren't stupid. They know if you talk about their sibling or your friend's children with your friend, you talk about them too.) Or they'll tell the story when the child is in another room playing and ostensibly oblivious. Children hear. And if they're anything like me as a child, they're mortified. Children can tell that "cute" is code for "stupid," even if that's not what you think you mean. Why else would everybody be laughing merely from hearing the thing the kid said repeated with absolutely no build-up or context? It's humiliating to have your parents tell a story about you thinking something that you have since been told is not the case solely for the amusement of others. It's humiliating and bewildering to hear them tell the story of what you said and hear people laugh and still not know why it's funny. You were simply trying to clarify something about the world, and all they can do is squeal about how precious you are. Children don't want to be precious, they want to understand.