The Word Heard Around The World

Retard.

Fag/gay.

Nigger.

Chances are, one or all of these words made you cringe or elicited no response at all. Why are some words considered forbidden and some aren’t? What’s in a word, anyway? Obviously, I’m writing today in light of the recent Paula Deen fiasco.

For those more removed from current events than I am, allow me to update you on the situation. Paula Deen has recently been under scrutiny and ridicule for admittedly using the word “nigger.” For doing so, her contract with The Food Network hasn’t been renewed and her other endorsements are dropping like flies, as well. She offered a meager apology for her words, but the backlash is too great and the damage has been done.

If you had to rank the above words from least to most offensive, what would be your ranking? Mine is as its written above. I say retard all the time. I remember back when I used to work retail, I was back in the dressing rooms on a crowded Saturday afternoon. A few of my co-workers were back there, as well, and we were chatting as we folded and hung clothes. One of my co-workers was retelling a story and just happened to say “retard.”  The two of us went out on the sales floor to put clothing back on display. We were doing just that when a woman came stomping over to us, obviously very angry about something. Oh great, I thought, we’re out of her size of flip flops…

This woman approached my co-worker and proceeded to unleash on her.

“Excuse me, were you just back in the fitting rooms and talking?” she demanded.

The look on my co-worker’s face was confused and scared. “Yes…” she replied feebly.

“Did you say the word ‘retard’?” the woman demanded again.

My co-worker, obviously relieved she wasn’t going to get her ass chewed for something job-related, laughed. This was not the proper response. This woman’s face immediately turned bright red and she stepped closer to my co-worker, getting into her personal space and raised her hand and pointed an angry finger in her face.

“Do you have any idea how hurtful that word is? Or are you too ignorant to care? I have a retarded son–he’s mentally handicapped, and you spouting that word off like it doesn’t mean something angers me. You need to think about what you say in public because you never know who your words are going to effect.” And with that, she stormed off, leaving me and my co-worker dumbfounded and staring gape-jawed at each other.

“Holy shit, I just said ‘retard’!” my friend said. I was too incredulous to respond, but this incident has stuck with me nearly 10 years later.

More examples: one of my best friend’s cousins (no, not twice removed on her mother’s brother’s uncle’s side) works with mentally handicapped kids. She takes great offense to people saying “retard,” as well. Another acquaintance has the same issue with the same word, and has actually berated me for saying it in front of her.

I’m reminded of the scene in the movie “Anchorman” when Steve Carrell’s character introduces himself: “I’m Brick Tamland. People seem to like me because I am polite and I am rarely late. I like to eat ice cream and I really enjoy a nice pair of slacks. Years later, a doctor will tell me that I have an I.Q. of 48 and am what some people call mentally retarded.”

Dollars to donuts this got big laughs out of movie-going patrons when they saw this in the theatre. But how is this scene different from the scene in “Tropic Thunder” when Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.–who is in black-face makeup– have the “never go full retard” conversation? I remember when the trailer for the movie came out and that line was in it and going “…oh man, what?” and inevitably, advocates of disability went nuts over it. Here’s a statement about that scene from Gawker.com:

“It’s just good clean fun, the studio might say, pointing out that the movie also pokes fun at racial stereotypes. It’s a send up of old Hollywood films that trotted out able-bodied actors in disability drag, like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Sean Penn in I am Sam. Stiller isn’t laughing at people with intellectual disabilities, I can imagine his publicist saying. He’s laughing at the way Hollywood portrays them. But for the estimated 14.3 million Americans with cognitive disabilities and their families, such arguments may be problematic. These people share a history of segregation and exclusion, and report that what many call the “R-word” reinforces negative social attitudes just as surely as racial, ethnic and sexually oriented slurs do. … “What we are seeing already is a cause of great concern,” [said Peter V. Berns, executive director of the disability activist org The Arc of the United States]. “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have had a lot of pejorative labels assigned to them over the years. I’d like to think that we as a society are getting past that, but we are seeing one after the other examples that this is not the case.”

And then there’s the word “fag” and “gay.” I also admit to both of these words coming out of my mouth, but lately, I don’t say either one because I know several gay/lesbians and that’s just rude (but I still use “retard’?). One of my favorite sketch comedy groups is, as everyone should know, Kids In The Hall. They did this bit about words, which still cracks me up to this day:

 “I’m all in favor of certain people having their own, you know, lifestyle, but…why did they have to take the word “gay”? It’s such a lovely word! They’ve…they’ve robbed the English language of a beautiful word. I…they have. I mean, now if I say to one of my friends, or one of my friends asks me, “How is your son or daughter feeling?”, and I say “Oh, they’re feeling gay”…it’s a scandal. I’ve had to stop using the word altogether. Oh. So they’ve taken “gay” away from us. What was wrong with “pervert”?

And you can’t use the word “faggot” anymore either, you…it used to be a lovely bundle of sticks. On cold winters’ nights you’d throw another faggot on the fire. But now they work in restaurants, making your salads, being snotty and still expecting fifteen percent.

“Cunnilingus”? My grandfather drove one across America. With pride. He bought the first one off the lot in 1923. Oh, but now they’re all gone, forgotten – the Cunnilingus, the Rambler. Oh. I suppose “Rambler” means something filthy now too, does it, does it mean something…?

Can’t use the word “fisting” anymore either, oh no. No, no. But back in the forties the girls and I used to fist every Sunday afternoon. It was a knitting stitch, and a very difficult one. I made a lovely yellow afghan full of tiny, intricate fistings, that won a, that won a grand prize at a, at a jamboree. Yeah. Gave up knitting altogether, though, in 1979, finally found out what the word meant, oh no. No, no. I took that afghan with all that lovely fisting and put it up the poop-hole. Oh, that’s, that’s what we used to call attic. Now they’re all gone, locked away, like those beautiful words.

Well, I guess I’m just supposed to fade away, in silence…or be modern and accept it. Fine. I guess I’ll just have a Fuck Off. Oh, that used to be a summer drink, you know.”

Comedy gold, I tell you! Also, incredibly insightful. Kids In The Hall did many sketches about being gay and the word “fag,” as one member, Scott Thompson, was (gay gasp) homosexual…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I have a point to all this, I promise. Just let me get to it in time.

George Orwell, in an essay about words in politics, said this:  “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

Interesting, George. This applies to what’s happening today.

And then, the word “nigger.” I read this article today and agree 100% with the writer. Here are a few key points:

“We are stepping into deeply emotional territory here. No word in the American lexicon has the emotional force of nigger and yet its colloquial use grows as some young whites (and some Latinos and some Asians) believe it’s as innocuous as they decide it is. Words evolve but there is no new consensus on what nigga and nigger mean in the way the word gay turned in the 20th century from meaning happy to homosexual. Are young non-Blacks saying nigga as a way of expressing an allegiance with black people, or are they co-opting a signifier of edgy black cool, or are they attacking racism by defanging nigga or are they asserting that words mean whatever they want them to mean, history be damned? Whatever the ostensible motivation, non-blacks should not use nigga or nigger in most situations.

The flimsy, on-the-street colloquial usage of nigga by non-blacks is offensive and disrespectful to black history. It’s bizarre that anyone has to be told this. The idea that this generation of kids has recontextualized or defanged nigga is silly. Nigga is a Siamese twin of nigger. The two words are interdependent. Nigga would have none of its edginess or power or cultural sexiness without its close relationship with the Darth Vader of American English. Nigga is nigger with an ironic twist, but the venom is still in its fangs. Inside both words, I hear the echoes of slavery and lynchings and the Klan. It’s a word that locates blacks as monsters. Blacks who use it are laughing at that idea and perhaps thinking they’re defusing it or reclaiming it. Maybe we are. We have argued about whether or not we are for years with no resolution in sight. But still, blacks playing ironic games with the tools of our oppression does not give outsiders the right to play along. Whites who use it colloquially may think they’re using it in a non-racist way but the thoughtless, wanton usage does not come overstanding the history behind it, but from willfully ignoring it as if the past is done with us. We know it’s not even past.”

The article goes on to mention very few instances in which a white person can safely use the word, and that is purely for entertainment purposes, eg stand-up comedians, movies, music…basically, anything with the sole intent of artistic expression. So, in other words, Paula Deen, unless you’re doing a gig at Chuckle’s Laff Shop, your use of the word is wholly frowned upon. And that goes for the rest of us, as well. I admit to also using the word “nigger,” but in my feeble as fuck defense, it was for entertainment/shock value. I’d enter a room full of my white friends and shout, “what up, niggas?” See? Funny.

Or is it?

I know I’m not using the word in a way that basically takes a shit on black people and their history. But to someone who doesn’t know me and doesn’t realize I’m saying so in jest, this word takes on a whole new meaning.

Same with the other words I mentioned. I don’t mean to be offensive when I say something is retarded or gay, or–and forgive me for this bastardization–gaytarded (if I believed in a hell, I’d surely cement my position there), but the point of the matter is, I am.

At what point does our freedom of speech stop giving us the right to use these words and instead, means we’re being insensitive, politically incorrect assholes? That’s a tricky topic, I think. I’m free to say these words, certainly, much like people are free to take offense to me saying said words.

But are we being too sensitive? Are we so hellbent on finding things to piss us off so we can proclaim loudly they we are offended and you’re a terrible person for even thinking those words, let alone let them fly from our mouths? Again, shaky ground, friends.

Retard will always infuriate those who’ve dealt with the handicapped. Gay/fag will always incense homosexuals. Nigger will always enrage an entire race of people.

I don’t think there is or ever will be common ground here. And maybe there shouldn’t be. Maybe we shouldn’t let words become words and let them use their meaning. By doing so, we risk forgetting important parts of our history.

That’s all I have to say about this, and I hope I kind of made a point somewhere in this rambling.

As always, thanks for reading.

E

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