Free Speech, Political Correctness and Feelings of the Other

Flickr photo by marsmet541

Flickr photo by marsmet541

Content Note and Trigger Warning: I do use some colorful language and make a few sexual and violent references as I talk about phrases that I no longer use.

Not a day goes by when I don’t see some reference in one of my newsstreams to a situation when someone gets called out for saying something that someone else deems as offensive. Often the offender says something like, “It’s a free country, I can say whatever the hell I want to!” makes some reference to the “political correctness police” and/or offers up an apology not for content their words, but for the reaction they triggered.

And while I trust that there have been times when the offender and the offended have found a space for reconciliation, honestly, I have not seen it happen . . . and I am not surprised. It seems that at the center of these debates about words that offend, sits our ability or inability to take seriously the reactions of others, even and especially, when we do not feel the same way.

For instance . . . I used to use the word “lame” all the time: in my writing and my everyday conversations — basically whenever I wanted to communicate that something was not what I thought it should be — you know, when something was, well . . . LAME.

Oh how I miss that word.

But I no longer use the word “lame” because, on more than one occasion, folks who live a physical reality different from my own: in a wheelchair, amputee, etc. have expressed to me how that word makes them feel. Again, I love that word and it never bothered me before, but now, because I know that some may be made to feel “othered” by its use, I simply do not use it.

Do all people in wheelchairs feel the same way about the word? Obviously not. Was my intention to make someone feel uncomfortable when I used it? I hope not. But nevertheless, once confronted with the reality that some were indeed offended by my usage of it, I had a choice to make about my language in the future: I could dismiss the stories shared with me or I could change how I express myself. In the end, the use of the word “lame” is just not that important to me. This choice is not about caving to complainers or being “politically correct*” In the end, I simply put a few people’s reactions above my own need to express myself in a particular way.

Be it the forces of political correctness or because of prodding from family, friends and strangers, here are a few others that I have struck from my lexicon over the years:

  1. “Lame”
  2. “Retarded” simply because of the connotations that it has for those who must deal with emotional and educational difference. Sadly, I still hear this a good deal.
  3. “Bitch” in any form because when use by men, it is inherently demeaning to women.
  4. “Wimp” because it reinforces gender assumptions around weakness and strength.
  5. “Fag” Yep, I remember using this a lot in high school. I can’t imagine what harm that did to those around me struggling with their sexuality. *sigh*
  6. “I’d [blank] her.” Another high school common statement that my friends and I use to use ALL THE TIME as we were observing the girls around us. Again – *sigh*
  7. Anything that has to do with my penis doing something to you as a sign of power. Telling you to do something to me or that I am going to do something to you as a way to demean you only encourages rape culture, reinforces gender norms and inhibits the development of people to develop healthy understandings of sex and sexuality.
  8. “Kill myself” because I know too many people for whom suicide is too close to home.
  9. “Shoot me in the head” because my brother-in-law was murdered, by being shot in the head.
  10. “Fuck you!” not only because of #7, but I think it’s just rude and rarely a conversation starter.

To be clear, I am not calling for censorship or the sanitizing of our language – a well-placed curse word can have great impact –  but I think we should give ourselves permission to lose some tried and true statements that create unnecessary offense. We must give ourselves more credit than that. I do not believe that by removing a few words we will be greatly limited in our ability to communicate what we are feeling. I have faith that we have the ability to find other ways to express ourselves, in fact, I am willing to bet that we will be more effective in communicating our point by embracing language that is new and creative.

I am also not discouraging people to use language that is not authentic to who they are – some of my best friends are huge potty mouths – but at the same time, we get so caught up in defending our right to offend other people or trying to convince people why they shouldn’t feel the way they are feeling that we lose sight of the fact that our words have indeed created pain, marginalization and emotional discomfort in another human being. In many ways we want all the benefits of freedom of expression and individualism, but are unwilling to acknowledge any accountability or ramifications from exercising that freedom.

In the end, it seems that too often, we just don’t care how we make other people feel.

Now I know that some of you are going to think that people just need to toughen up, not be so sensitive and learn that the world does not revolved around them. And while there will be appropriate times when elements of those postures may be included in the conversation, it seems that, used as an initial responses to another’s emotional struggle, these are not the most helpful ways to achieve healing.

Whether or not I feel that reactions to the words that I use are justified, I must decide if I even care that my words have created a negative reaction in another person. Each of us will make these decisions depending the understanding of our privilege, the nature of our social context, the points we are hoping to make and the audience to whom we speak, but in the end choosing how we treat the emotional “other” must not be ignored.

As language and culture changes, be it around race, gender, class or who knows what else, I know that there will be many more times when I will use language that offends. It is bound to happen to us all. So while I do not want us to tiptoe around others always living in fear of offending, I do hope that, the next time we find ourselves in the middle of another moment of offense, we may seek to understand the pains of the other rather than rush to the defense of ourselves.

* Labeling something as “politically correct” has been a way to easily discount the concerns of people for decades. It will be hard to shift the meaning of that word on a large-scale, but I don’t mind claiming “political correctness” if  it means that are compelled to stay vigilant about the language we use and the reactions of those who might be hurt by it.

2 comments

  • Guinness Girl  

    My husband and I grew up in the ’80s and occasionally joked around and said that “Valley girl” thing: “Oh mah gah. That is so queer.” What’s horrible is that I just slipped up and said this in jest in front of our teenage daughter, who is gay. She was gracious and just rolled her eyes and said, “MOM. Seriously? You need to strike that from your vocabulary.” Of course I do. It’s just a (terrible and insensitive) unthinking thing that came out of my mouth. It never will again. But I’m pretty sure the worst parent award has my name all over it.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Just one more for the story book ;-) We all have those “Whoa, where did that come from?” moment. Thanks for sharing yours!

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