On words and actions

i’ve spent a lot of my day thinking about what i want to say about this, since i saw it on my dash earlier.

here is where this argument goes spectacularly, blindingly, gloriously flamingly wrong:

words are actions.

there is no such thing as the thought police in the real world, because nobody can possibly know what you’re thinking, or control it. in fact, i’m a big proponent of not condemning people for what’s inside their head; my thoughts are pretty fucking impure and judgmental a lot of the time.

where you go wrong is when you open your mouth and turn your hurtful thoughts into words.

using the word “retard” to mean stupid or bad or wrong is A SLUR. there is no way around it. you are equating a word that means “a person with mental handicaps” with “something that sucks.” if you take away the idea that a mentally disabled person is stupid, the word simply has no punch: it relies on this assumption, however buried.

and when you use it so casually, someone else comes along and reads it and unconsciously absorbs it into the acceptable vocabulary of their world, too. and then they casually repeat it again later, in part because they saw you use it and it was okay. and then it’s repeated again. and again. it becomes part of our lexicon as a culture by insidious, subtle, unthinking repetition. nobody thinks that “my words rang forth across the internet, and now somewhere there’s a classroom full of special ed kids crying into their helmets because I used the word retarded.” that’s patently absurd.

and words like cunt, nigger, faggot, and retard do not have power when somebody who is not marginalized by them uses them to mean something negative. unless you are, respectively, a woman, a Black person, a queer person, or a mentally disabled person — AND USING THEM TO REFER TO YOURSELF ALONE — you are not giving these words power by using them. you are reinforcing the exact fucking reasons that they are harmful. you are part of the problem. you are actively working against the solution. i reject your claim that “not one of us cunts, niggers, faggots, or retards is ever above catching a little shit.” without identifying with these words and using them to self-identify, you are not part of the ‘us.’

hate speech can be insidious. it does not have to be somebody screaming at you on the street. it can be hearing someone casually call a guy a faggot just because they don’t like him. it can be hearing somebody call their friend retarded for making a small mistake. it’s hearing a word that refers to you used to insult somebody else.

you do not act in a vacuum. your words are powerful. they are your actions. and you may “know your heart” and you may be “putting pen to paper with a pure heart,” and guess what? that gay man still isn’t going to feel better because your intentions were pure. that mentally disabled person isn’t going to feel more accepted because you were fine with what you said.

fuck you too. fuck you right in the face.

You make a strong argument, quite noble in its intentions, and I respect you for being one of the few people to take the time to respond with such eloquence to what I knew would ultimately be a very controversial post.

In fact, I would right now at your request be fucking myself in the face if it weren’t for one very important thing:

Words are not actions.

It’s clear that you spectacularly, blindingly, gloriously, and flamingly disagree, but I must insist. Words are not actions. They are not even intentions. Words are merely symbols, ones that have no inherent meaning until they are imbued with definition by both the writer and her reader.

My point here isn’t to shift the argument from sociology to semiotics, not at all. It’s just that your entire argument is based on that simple premise, and I’m sorry, but you’ve built a castle on sand.

A lot of your anger and rage is based on the assumption that powerful and loaded words like nigger and faggot can only be used for harm unless they are being “taken back” by those they marginalize. I couldn’t disagree more.

That kind of thinking is short-sighted and self-limiting, and of course, it’s reinforced by your mistaken belief that words are actions when really they are beautiful and dangerous symbols with a rich history, a unique etymology, and a potential for poetry that people like you ignore for the sake of politics.

I’m not going to deny how inflammatory those words can be. Only an idiot would suggest that those words don’t come with the power to inflict a great deal of emotional damage, but come on, man. Fire is hot. Knives are sharp. A great many things in this world can inflict pain, but not all of us are arsonists and slashers. Some of us are just chefs at Benihana.

It’s not that I don’t understand where you’re coming from. You and those like you have been trained by every liberal arts professor from here to Boston to pounce on these hot-button words in the name of ending oppression. Shit, it’s practically a Pavlovian response, but the words themselves are not the problem. They are not the action. The underlying intent is what’s important. How and why was the symbol used? Did it inflict harm? Was it deliberate? Accidental? And of course, this is where things get sticky.

Now, did I get letters from people with mentally retarded siblings who were offended? Absolutely. Did I also get letters from people with mentally retarded siblings who were overwhelmed with joy that I finally put into words how they felt about this kind of shit? Quite a few more, actually.

That’s the sticky part, because who among us ultimately gets to determine what’s offensive?

Had I used the phrase “are you a fucking moron” instead of “are you fucking retarded,” no one would have said shit in the first place. Here’s the thing, though. Both of those words define the exact the same mental condition, and by your logic, both of them are therefore slurs. Clearly then, we live in a world where some words are deemed more acceptable than others.

So I ask you again, who gets to determine the acceptable vocabulary? This is where I draw my line in the sand. I refuse to allow anyone else to determine for me what is acceptable language. I won’t ever let anyone ban words. Call it the thought police. Call it private censorship. Call it whatever you like, but nobody gets to chip away at my lexicon.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and everyone may freely choose for themselves what they deem to be acceptable language. Yeah, I know. This is where all you ethnic and gender studies majors start screaming about privilege, but I’m sorry, a lot of you twits are confusing privilege and freedom. When I say everyone is entitled, I mean everyone. Equally.

When I say I have a pure heart, it’s because I do. I’m not a hateful person, but that doesn’t mean I’m not fully aware of how much shit I talk. I know damn well my language is offensive to some, but I fully understand both the implications and the consequences.

In other words, tough shit. I’m okay with it. Does that make me an asshole? For some, yes. The worst kind. If you are one of those people, so be it. Like I said, you are entitled to your opinion.

I will say this though, to all the people who sent crazy hate mail, it is my sincerest hope that you eventually learn to chill the fuck out. After all, I’m a ridiculous target for your anger.

Nobody wants to be around someone who’s constantly offended.

Lighten the fuck up.


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