Thursday, June 07, 2012

On the Use of Slurs and Offensive Terminology

From this Google+ post by Kristen Strater.

Recently a tweet by Gwyneth Paltrow caused some level of controversy in the news because of her choice of words, and Kristen shared this piece by Billy Johnson Jr., to which myself and a variety of others replied.  I recommend reading the post, especially the comments by Darryl Barnes, Chuck Buford,  and Holden Caulfield, though as the purpose of this site is primarily for voicing my perspective on things, I'll only include here the thoughts I had on the matter.

Many of the alternate spellings and uses of the original slur derive from earlier use by African Americans in rap or comedy or other media, either consciously or unconsciously reclaiming the word somewhat from it's racist earlier use. That said, these uses of the word were nearly exclusively made by those who the epithet was originally used to insult and denigrate, and it is certainly used by some still for its original meaning.

In the end, I tend to believe it's important to be able to speak our minds freely and to have a wide variety of words to do so. It is not necessary to use historically hurtful words which don't really serve to convey any more meaning to a thought than had it been made without the word, so regardless of the shifting meaning behind a word in the now, there's no harm in simply considering my choice of words or phrasing of an idea so as to not offend listeners or readers. I'm not talking or writing just to shout into the ether; I want to be heard, understood, and engaged with. Offending people or ridiculing them reduces the number of those willing to converse with me and that's doing everyone a disservice.

...and later

+Darryl Barnes,I apologize if I came off as addressing something irrelevant, but for what it's worth I don't think I was giving any history lesson. As your exchange with +Chuck Buford shows, there's a lot of difference in opinion on the matter even in this 'modern' age. A couple of questions so that I might better understand your position on it, if you'd indulge me. You said you're not offended by slang variants of the word and have multiple white friends who use the terminology in a friendly and casual way, though for argument's sake if an openly and proudly racist guy called you one of those would it be the same? I may be off the mark though I would assume you'd at the least be uncomfortable with it because you'd have a feeling of what he was implying or intending to get around and still use. On the other hand the actual racist word used in a comedy bit where someone is using just about every other slur for other race and ethnicity imaginable it may be more tolerable because the intent behind the use of it.

In any event, I've no doubt you've a different perspective from myself on this having experienced life in a different pair of shoes, so to speak, and I respect your opinion on the matter. I stand by what I said in the second paragraph of my last comment, which is that the use of the word is not necessary to better convey a message or idea to others and in fact using it will distract from what a person is trying to say because of either offense at its use or because there will inevitably be a crapstorm of meta-discussion about 'should he or she have used the word, ever used the word in any situation, does this mean they're racist, oh they have black friends who say it's okay, blah blah blah.' If someone's wanting to contribute to a conversation, it's not fear of using an offensive word and a suppression of their free speech to avoid using it; it's recognizing its use is at best a distraction to what they are trying to say. This goes for all slurs or offensive terminology as well, not just for one term for one demographic group. (Obviously the caveat is if the conversation is about slurs.)

Kristen Strater I +1'd your comment illustrating the context of this particular story and how I guess the tweet in question is a paraphrased reference to one of the songs off Watch the Throne since I'll admit I didn't initially read much about this particular story. Having read it, I think outrage isn't in order(though titles of songs or movies or books or lyrics or quotes with slurs do present a slightly different issue from simply using the word in one's own parlance) and I don't think there's been as huge an outcry about it nationally as if it wasn't such a tangled situation. To answer your question about anti-racism activism I wouldn't consider myself an activist and I'm not really involved with any groups or movements or done much specific reading on the topic, though I think I've seen a couple of Wise's videos here on the internet. I just enjoy participating in discussions with people and I relish trying to find ways to discuss things considered to be controversial or polarizing in a way that is both enlightening and engaging for people who are interested in the topic.