Well, those computer problems are totally worse than I’d initially thought (“so that’s what a crashed hard drive smells like!”), so I’m at that borrowed computer again to write–but glad to do it, because I noticed something yesterday that really bugged me: namely, how quickly “good people” seem to rush to make slurs and insults against marginalized people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or the like.
I admit: I totally don’t get how a culture that says it idolizes Jesus and is as sanctimoniously and dramatically religious as American culture is can possibly condone that kind of behavior. It seems to me that the Bible is generally pretty clear about how people should behave toward each other; though “love your neighbor as yourself” is neither unique to Christianity nor first thought up by Christian writers, it’s still a pretty good model for interaction. I still think that “the love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13, which many Christians use for their wedding ceremonies and then promptly forget exists, is one of the best descriptions of true love that I’ve ever heard outside of The Princess Bride. Two thousand years later, those ancient ideas still resonate: Love is patient. Love is kind. And just like that my eyes sting because I know that this is true, this is real, this is worth keeping.
Likewise, I like one of the New Testament’s other ideas, namely Luke 6:45: Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks. There can’t be sweet water flowing out of a bitter spring, or bitter waters flowing out of a sweet spring. Good words come out of a good person; when evil words come out of someone, that person is way less likely to be truly good. And when someone is pushed into anger or some other tongue-loosening state (“in vino veritas”), then we begin to see that person’s real and true self; the mask starts to slip a little bit.
Now, I’ve got no issue at all with profanity. I don’t regard profanity as being evil. I’m not calling people names based on their physical attributes or saying untrue things. I’m not using my words to wound innocent people or to hide wrongdoing. To me, how the word is used matters more than the word itself does. As an example, the concept of “hell” as eternal torment in a cosmology ruled by a supposedly loving god is what is truly evil, not saying the word “hell” when I’m mad at something. Some of the most hateful and virulently oppressive people I’ve ever encountered were people who refused even to use fake-cussing like “dang,” while one of the most progressive and enlightened people I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading is ex-metal-musician Henry Rollins, who isn’t exactly a person who fights by Marquess of Queensberry rules, and it sure seems like NFL player Chris Kluwe is heading that same delightfully spirited way.
This verse in Luke speaks to me because it encourages people to quit compartmentalizing and to look at ourselves as we truly are and not as how we’d like ourselves to be or what we say about ourselves. If someone use words to wound, to hide wrongdoing, to call someone nasty names, to lie, or any of those things, those are bitter waters flowing out of that person, and they flow out of a sick and diseased heart. I really think that the use of slurs is an example of tribalism, of separating people into groups of “us” versus “them” and making “them” sound as vile, weird, unpleasant, and inhuman as possible. The problem is that when we mistreat people that way, we tend to dislike them more and more, which feeds into future mistreatment of those people, and don’t you just have to wonder if that quirk of human thinking is maybe the reason why super-misogynistic Christian churches seem like they’re the worst offenders when it comes to mistreating women in their organizations?
So when I hear about stories like this gung-ho Republican man calling female political candidates all kinds of sexist slurs, or this one about a racist Florida resident opening her cross-adorned front door to shriek savage racist invectives at black children, or any of the times various Christians like pastor Mark Driscoll hiss anti-gay slurs against anybody who doesn’t conform to their ideas around gender roles, I think about that verse from Luke and what it means. The interesting thing here is that all of these people would be the first to say they’re not sexists, racists, or bigots–that’s why there’s a standard joke there about the racist mating call being “I’m not a racist but…”. How many of us have heard people chirp the most shockingly bigoted things and follow it up by saying that they actually “love” whatever group it is they’re insulting, demonizing, and dehumanizing?
Despite those protests, yes, an -ism is actually exactly what is being displayed in these situations. A racist is as a racist does, and so on and so forth. The use of demeaning language is an indicator light blinking over the head of someone who thinks that people in that class are well below him or her. And the person using this demeaning language is pulling out not only words that wound, but specifically is using the words that he or she knows will wound the most deeply. When you heard Mel Gibson a few years ago screaming at his babymama that he was sure that she’d get raped by black men because he thought she dressed too provocatively, you’ll notice that he used a variety of both vile sexist and shockingly racist slurs. He used the worst and nastiest words he could find, and I can’t help but think that he knew perfectly well that those words are the most hurtful there are to the people in those groups, just like he knew that even the threat of third-party rape is used to silence women and keep them compliant.
Mr. Gibson’s protests afterward that he’s not a racist or sexist rang completely hollow, because people who aren’t racist or sexist simply don’t need to attack people on the basis of their membership in those groups. Someone who isn’t a bigot doesn’t feel the need to single out that characteristic of a person to use in an attack on that person. It’s only someone who feels that blackness or femaleness or whatever is an inferior trait who would ever use those traits as part of a studied personal attack on someone. It doesn’t even matter if the target is actually part of the group being insulted or if the accusation isn’t actually technically an insult; I’ve personally heard feminist men get called the same epithets that feminist women receive, and just about every non-Christian has been called an atheist whether that person has expressed a lack of god-belief or not (and for that matter, I’ve frequently seen liberal Christians get accused of atheism). Bigots use what they hate most and what they think is most effective.
Indeed, feminist writers are very familiar with rape threats, sexist slurs, and demeaning speculations regarding their sexuality and appearance–all strategically deployed to wound them by misogynists who clearly feel that they are morally superior to women. I’d also say that most women by now know about “negging,” that practice popularized by pick-up artists who capitalize on many women’s body insecurities by insulting them in order to make them more receptive to the PUA’s advances. I must imagine that people of color and LGBTQ folks get similar attacks from bigots who hold a similarly lofty self-image, since the mechanics of privilege seem to function so similarly from one group to the next.
Slurs are part of the mechanics of privilege. Patriarchal types use sexist slurs; racists use racial slurs; ableists use words denigrating those with mental or physical differences; classists think that those who make less money are less worthy human beings than those who are wealthy. They are meant to remind the marginalized person of his or her Other status and to put that person back in place. And then if someone objects to the word’s use, then the excuses come streaming out: aw, you’re just too sensitive, you’re just too politically correct, oh you’re such a little Social Justice Warrior, you’re just too thin-skinned, all of them designed to make the target of the slur feel like the one who did something wrong and not the person who said the awful thing, all of them designed to normalize oppressive behavior and excuse it.
So when Paula Deen admitted that why yes she’d used some racial slurs against people of color, I heard people–especially Christians–get all baffled about why anybody would get upset about that. “It was a much earlier time,” I heard. “Everybody back then talked that way.” And I had to say that I was raised in the Deep South by a Southern mother and never heard anybody decent talk like that. And when I hear of a person getting angry and insulting people using similar slurs and insults, the overwhelming response from other prejudiced people is that everybody talks like that when they get mad, implying that gee whiz, haven’t we all been there, and I think more people need to say that no, actually, not everybody talks like that. Only prejudiced people do. I cuss like a sailor sometimes. And I still absolutely do not use that sort of language–because I care about not being “that guy.” It’s not about catering to thin-skinned people; it’s about not being an asshole and refusing to let bigots think that their behavior is normal at all or that people can do that kind of thing and still revel in the illusion of being good people.
That’s why calling out this type of hateful speech is important: because it puts a big question mark on how “normal” it really is. Just as rapists need to feel that rape is a perfectly normal thing for people to do, and just as people who commit domestic violence need to feel that domestic violence is a totally normal and common thing that people do, bigots need to feel like their words are words that anybody would use in situations of anger or impairment. When a behavior is seen as normal and typical, then someone’s going to have a harder time seeing the damage that it does and an easier time justifying his or her own participation in that behavior. I don’t seek to silence people, because I think it’s good when bigots out themselves that way and I find it useful to identify those people early, but I make my opinion clear when people use that language around me whether I was the target of the slur or not. Doing so might be uncomfortable for everybody involved in the short term, but can reap unexpected dividends, according to one study.
Even those who think they’re free of that kind of thinking have room to improve sometimes. When I began noticing how slurs can wound and dehumanize people, my personal challenge became moving away from using even socially-acceptable slurs. Even when I was obese, for example, I viewed obese people as inferior to lower-weight people. I had to grow past that thinking. The size of a given person is very rarely actually the issue, but I was taking the most offensive, the most damaging, the most destructive, the most hurtful word I could find and hurling it at that person as an attack. Obese people may well be one of the last socially-acceptable targets left in society, but that doesn’t make weight-based slurs okay. In the same way, words that denigrate mental illness or atypical functioning are slowing becoming unacceptable as well, and I think that it’s just amazing to see people start to become aware of how their language can ostracize and “other” people with those traits. Despite what Christians often say, I think humanity’s progressing and getting better, not worse!
The important thing is to keep moving forward and to keep learning and growing. We all make mistakes, but if we can learn from them and move on past them, that’s what’s most important. And if decent people speak up when slurs get used, this behavior will no longer be seen as something that “nice” people can engage in and still call themselves good people.