Tuesday, February 07, 2012

What goes as offensive these days?

So, after the Patriots lost, my friend (who hates the Patriots, more specifically, Tom Brady, more specifically still, what the media has turned Tom Brady into) posted on facebook something to the effect that he was glad the Gaytriots lost. Somewhere along the line, one of his friends asked him if he could stop referring to them as the Gaytriots, since it offended her, and some of her gay friends when used this way.


She and I got into a facebook debate about the evolution of language after that. For those of you who don't know me, here is a short list of relevant facts:

1) Although I am not a homosexual, I believe them to be no different from anyone else. I am not a "homophobe," and I support equal rights for everyone.

2) I generally take offense to derogatory remarks. And I'm not shy about letting the offending bigot know they're an idiot.

3) I majored in Professional Writing in college.

My argument was this:

What my friend was saying was not intended to be offensive to homosexuals. The "Pay" in Patriot just conveniently rhymes with "Gay." It was a humorous spin off of the team name. It clearly never intended to hurt a homosexual.

When someone says "that's gay," I don't even register homosexuality in my mind anymore. An exact parallel would be if someone were to say, "that's retarded," I associate it with something that is stupid, I don't associate it with something that has Downs Syndrome. To me, the meaning of the word has evolved, and moved past the offensive. The person I was having the discussion said for the record, she would have been offended by "retarded" too.

I said if retarded offended her, I could cite some other examples. Sticking with the football theme, what about the Washington Redskins? Did that offend her? What about 'Poppycock?' That was one of the most dastardly terms of its day. From the Dutch, it literally translates to "Doll Shit." It was sort of like dropping the "F" bomb.

In an opposite evolution, a faggot used to be a pile of sticks. Then later it was a cigarette. Now, it's offensive. It's still offensive. It will probably remain offensive for the rest of my lifetime. But perhaps not forever...

My point is that language is fluid. Meanings change over time, all the time. You can choose to be offended when someone says something that you know they didn't mean for it to be racially, sexually, derogatorily charged, or you can understand that meanings change with each generation.

The last thing she said was that her gay friends asked that the language not be used "in that sense."

Although I didn't say it, I couldn't help but think:

"My gay friends would tell your gay friends to stop being so gay and retarded..."


Valerie said...

It's a really interesting topic. And it's so personal, it's hard to please everyone. I'm one of the gays you're thinking of when you think your gay friends wouldn't be offended by that.

Considering that the Evangelical Right's campaign to demonize it, I actually cringe more at the word "homosexual" in the proper context than I do at hearing "gay" used in a derogatory context.

That said, I can see where the "don't say gay" camp is coming from. Especially where kids are concerned: I'd love to see a generation grow up that doesn't first associate "gay" with something negative. Your friend may not have meant anything directly derogatory by "Gaytriots," but he was still comparing something he hated to a class of people in a negative manner. Something can still be offensive even if you don't intend for it to be.


it's easy to say 'that's not what I meant. Or it wasn't meant to be hurtful or harmful..but if it hurts and offends one person..then it's wrong.

Ray Hardaway said...

So should I, as a black person be offended when someone says "That's a black mark on your resume" Or when someone refers to the "Black" plague? Clearly they're using the word Black in a negative sense. But to find that offensive would just be silly. Unless of course you're one of those people who can find offense in anything. But it's the same thing isn't it? Sure, black has other meanings besides (Cringe) African-American. I think "Gay" has come to have meanings other than homosexual, and using it that way has nothing to do with someones sexuality, just like referring to the black plague has nothing to do with race. I once had a (white) friend who used the "N" word to describe someone she knew. Now I find that word to be deplorable. But considering the context of the conversation, and the way in which she used it, I knew she meant no offense to me, and I didn't take it as such. Maybe I'm just more laid back than most, but the way I see it, there are enough people out there who want to hurt me. I'm not going to go around looking for hurt from people who I know don't mean me any ill-will. By the way, Brady and his team can suck rope. In the words of Bubblegum Tate "They are all fools of the highest caliber!"

Erica Hildebrand said...

A few years ago, I shared the same opinion: words shouldn't be taken seriously because allowing those words to be offensive was giving them undue power. I thought an open, casual approach to language was in everyone's best interest.

It was never my intent to be offensive, the way I saw it; and if someone took offense to my words, it was their own misunderstanding.

A few years--and experiences--later, my opinion has evolved.

I can't control how anyone reacts to what I say; I can only control the words. If my words offend someone, the responsibility is on me for using those words, not on the listener for taking offense. You can control what you say; you can't control what you find offensive.

I don't have a problem with people saying "that's so gay" if I know it's meant harmlessly--as it usually is. (On the other hand if I hear schoolkids on the street say it, it tends to bother me.) But there will be some people who take offense to it, and no amount of "it wasn't meant to be offensive" can change that. Their taking offense to it is no less valid than me *not* taking offense.

When people say something like "Gaytriots" or "Faggy-niners" it's a direct comparison between "gay" and "something I dislike" and "clever insult" so it's a bit more inflammatory. Even though I dislike the Dallas Cowboys, it really irks me when someone calls them the "Cowgirls" because I, personally, find that misogynistic and insulting.

"My gay friends would tell your gay friends to stop being so gay and retarded..."


I'm not saying, though, that there aren't situations where language is misappropriated. Sometimes the correlation between an "offensive" word and a targeted group of people is grasping at straws and socially bureaucratic to the point of absurdity. Words like "stupid," "crazy," and "nuts" are all now considered ableist language, even though it seems an awfully long string to draw between "that game was so stupid" and targeting someone suffering from mental illness. I just don't see the relevance to it, short of saying "hey man, you are stupid, a really dumb stupid individual."

Do I think it's overreaching to consider "stupid" an offensive word? I do. But that doesn’t invalidate when *other* people are offended by it (or any other word), is what I'm trying to say.

Ben said...

@Valerie So if "homosexual" has become cringe-worthy, when I must classify someone by their sexuality (which I rarely do), what do I say these days?

As for kids growing up where gay is associated with something negative, I don't think we can control that. It's evolving how it is evolving. The good news is while they may grow up with "gay" having negative connotations, my point is they may NOT have homosexual connotations.

And as I said, my friend was comparing the "Gaytriots" not to a class of people, but to the negative evolution of a word that each day is having less and less to do with homosexuality.

@ Yellowdog Granny, wow, I did NOT see that response coming from you. 90% of your posts could be considered offensive between the language and the trashing of every political persuasion that isn't democratic (not that I don't find all of it hilarious).

Everything I have ever said probably offends at least one person. I don't think I could filter myself to the point where no one was offended. And even if I did, I bet I'd be pretty boring.

@ Erica, I agree with your initial assessment that allowing words to be offensive gives them power.

I also agree with your assessment that you can't control what people find offensive--but I disagree in the fact that they can. I think we have a choice in what offends us, at least to a degree. That's sort of the point of this post--

I hadn't heard the FaggyNiners yet--for the record, that one doesn't sit well with me. But as for the Gaytriots, the "gay" part of it has lost it's association with homosexuality to me. In my personal (also perhaps the biggest falicy in my argument) lexicon, it's just a negative connotation now.

I sure wish Dr. Puccio read my blog. I'd love to hear his point of view, both from personal experience and from a man who made a career out of studying language and it's evolution.

Erica Hildebrand said...

>>So if "homosexual" has become cringe-worthy, when I must classify someone by their sexuality (which I rarely do), what do I say these days?

I use Gay and Straight. Most people I know do.

>>But as for the Gaytriots, the "gay" part of it has lost it's association with homosexuality to me.

But for a lot of people "gay" is still very much a part of their identity. :)

"Mom... dad... I'm gay." "Let's go to gay pride." etc.

So even if people could choose what words they find offensive, choosing to find gay-meaning-stupid offensive is still rightful. Even though I, personally, as a gay lady, don't take offense to it, I see the justification of those who do.

Fascinating topic, by the way.

David said...


The entire episode is worth watching, but 9:45-13:00 is the part that is most relevant to this.

Good ol' southpark, brilliant satire combined with dick and fart jokes.

Ben said...

@David I stand corrected. Apparently "Faggot" is no longer offensive, as it just refers to inconsiderate people and bikers.

While I disagree with Trey Parker and Matt Stone about the point that particular word is in evolution, they did hammer home my point about shifts in language. Most relevantly, when they asked the kid to "point to the faggot" and every one of them chose the biker.

Maybe it doesn't offend me because I'm not gay, so I've never had to deal with it. As a white, straight, educated man, I've been afforded pretty much every advantage possible when it comes to avoiding stereotype (amongst other things).

As much as I want the derogatory use of the word to be gone, it's clear that it isn't (yet). Here's to the next 50 years of evolution.