Slurs and Self-Censorship
People say horrible, offensive things, without meaning for them to be horrible and offensive, all the time. Put another way: slurs and insulting phrases work their way into the cultural lexicon which, even when not used against the particular group to whom they were originally applied, hurt those people. Words beginning with the letters N, R, F, C, K, much of the letters of the alphabet, many of them hard consonants, birthed as hurtful slurs, fall into casual usage, used to either offend those not belonging to the particular group originally insulted, which can have the effect of still insulting them. Which in a sense can be even worse, because then it’s like you’re taking some quality of a person, making it the focus of their being and thereby reducing their existence to an insult.
When I was a kid, the words “retarded” and “retard” were thrown around with little concern for their meaning or the offense they could cause. To kids of my generation and demographic, everything was retarded and everyone was a retard. Someone didn’t know the answer to a question or did something embarrassing, a machine wasn’t working right, a bus was late = retarded. It was part of our vocabulary, and I do include myself in that, unfortunately.
I didn’t regard that as a bad thing, not as anything. Though there must have been some awareness in my stupid child brain of the cruelty in the word. (And yes, it should be noted that the word retarded did not begin as a slur and that it does have a useful, technical meaning. However, that meaning has been almost completely coopted by usage of the word as a slur and insult, in a sense remade with purely offensive intent.) I never called an actual mentally retarded person retarded or retard. In the stupid brain of a child, that makes that alright. As long as you don’t use a slur against a person belonging to the group for whom it pertains or was intended, it’s not so bad. If you call a person with no mental disability a “retard,” a non homosexual person a “faggot,” or a non-black person a “nigger,” then no problem, in the mind of a stupid child.
But the thing is, when you fuck up and happen to casually use one of these horrible words without thinking, not to a person for whom the slur is personally offensive but in their presence, that feels awful.
My (honorary) aunt’s brother is mentally handicapped. I’ve known him for most of my life. He’s a sweet guy, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt his feelings. Except, once I did. Not intentionally, but that hardly makes it better. We were all having dinner together. I was regaling everyone with a witty anecdote, and then I threw in the comment that something (don’t remember what) was retarded, meaning that some event was ridiculous or annoying, problematic in some frustratingly complicated way. I wasn’t even talking about a person, but the fact was that I used a word which caused him pain, which had probably been used against him through his life by assholes with that intention. The realization of what I’d said hit me. I tried to cover it up, carry on and say other things, but I could see him there at the table beside me and feel his hurt, and I felt really and truly like a piece of shit.
Also, as a child, I used the words gay and faggot and alterations of them as pejoratives. That was the way my friends and peers talked, and the way that people in the movies and TV we watched and the music we listened to talked, not that that’s an excuse. This was another situation in which I suppose by the logic of my stupid child brain, it was okay to use these words so long as I didn’t use them against actual gay people. You can call a situation or a piece of media you don’t like gay, call someone you dislike a faggot, and it’s okay so long as you’re not saying them to actual gay people; that was the thinking of my stupid child brain. And when a rap song uses the words, you sing right along without thinking at all.
However, on the subject of rap, in much of which the N word is ubiquitous, I always had sense enough not to say it. From a young age, I knew to censor myself and never say the word, coming to use the word “ninja” in its place. Whether alone, with people, or in my car with the stereo blasting, I don’t say it. Whatever it was that made me know enough to do that should have extended to the other shitty words that worked their way into my vocabulary. They have been subsequently removed, but not as early as they should have been.
Some people, generally assholes, will bristle at the idea that we should monitor our speech, that we should refrain from using certain words. They’ll laugh, like gassy assholes, at the “oversensitivity” of people today, and shout furiously, like ruptured assholes, against the idea of censorship, claiming it is a violation of constitutional freedom of speech. To the latter argument: the First Amendment means that the government cannot control or suppress speech, it is not a license for any asshole to say whatever despicable shit they want, or an order for every other member of the public to abide it. The structural laws of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not so much declarations of what people can do, but rules of what the federal government cannot do to them. So, no, you don’t have the “right” to go around spewing hateful shit without consequence. As for censorship, most of us censor ourselves everyday.
Do you go into a restaurant and say, “Let me get some motherfucking nachos, cunt, with extra goddamn guac, but none of that cocksucking sour cream”?
I hope you don’t. If you do, the manager of that nacho restaurant certainly has the right to refuse service.
But most of us do not talk like that. We self-censor the things we say based on context, where we are and the kind of people we’re around. So it should not be a stretch to censor a few of your worst words from your vernacular entirely.