Thursday, February 17, 2011

Teh Gays Are Stupid

I heard some banter on the radio this morning regarding some public service announcements circulating in the NY area with celebrities trying to call people out for using the term "gay" to refer to something they don't like - or something that is unacceptable. It looks like they are set up as little sketches with said celebrities calling the would-be-haters out on their horrible social gaff. The specific one I was treated to was one involving the comedian Wanda Sykes - berating a couple of customers for using "gay" to refer to something "stupid" or "dumb."

Now, my personal ethical view isn't particularly thick in regards to issues like this (refraining from offending others). I understand where people are coming from when they think it's unbecoming to speak a certain way or use certain terminology that might be offensive - and I have no problem with those people disassociating themselves from said parties. But I've always kind of felt that the crusade to socially punish or excommunicate people for the words they use is a little over-the-top (and not in the Sylvester Stallone trucking around the country while entering arm-wrestling competitions kind of way). Contrary to popular belief, I don't think pressuring people to speak one way or another pushes us further along in any way socially - in fact I think it makes people dishonest and vengeful, slowing progress if anything. If there's someone out there who is an unapologetic bigot, I want that person out in the open - I can choose to withhold my associations with that person much easier this way.

Regardless of how you feel about social pressuring with regard to language usage, the ad really struck me as ironic if nothing else. Why is using the term "gay" bad in this context? It's bad because it's a term that describes a human characteristic. And it's using that broad human characteristic to denote something "bad" or something contemptible. This usually rubs people in the West the wrong way even when it's a characteristic we choose - but it seems much worse to us when it's something that we're largely born with. This is why race and gender are excellent social fire-starters.

Did you catch where the makers of the commercial messed up?

They explicitly implored people to stop using the human (and possibly genetic) characteristic of "gay" to denote something that's "stupid" and/or "dumb." But "stupid" and "dumb" are not etymological synonyms for "bad." Their usage has had a similar trajectory - ascribing "bad" or "contemptible" properties to a human (and largely genetic) characteristic. "Stupid" is a term that has been used for centuries. It can mean stunned or astonished - but more often than not it's been used to describe mentally "slow" people - this includes people with all kinds of mental disabilities (particularly before we started pulling different disorders apart). "Dumb", before being lumped in with "stupid", "gay", and "retarded", meant someone who doesn't have the physical capability to speak - usually due to injury or genetics.

So what are us passersby supposed to gain from this little exercise? That it's not OK to use the language of personal characteristics like "gay" and "retarded" as negative connotation but for other language of personal characteristics like "stupid" and "dumb" it's perfectly alright? Don't get me wrong here; I think people can be wrong in simply mis-using words (in that way I can probably be the grammar-police sometimes) - but I'm a firm believer in language being fluid and changing. Sometimes words come to mean completely different things, even when easily traced back to roots that suggest its social mis-use (currently or previously). Language is a subject that's beyond my personal expertise, but it doesn't strike me as unconventional to realize that words mean, in large part, simply what people mean by them. If I start using the term "shoe" to mean "bad" and it catches on, culturally, it won't mean that people using the term "shoe" in 50 years to describe bad things have anything against shoes. It's possible that a word can be completely divorced from its etymology - in fact, an awful lot of English words and phrases have been and are currently.

So, my point isn't that people don't mis-use words, or that they don't sometimes use them for bigoted reasons. My point is short and sweet - but threefold:

  • Policing someone's language does not police their mind. You're not going to get rid of irrational hatred by keeping people from espousing it
  • The meaning of words can change over time; as such, terms can completely disconnect themselves from their original meaning in casual usage
  • If you want to berate someone for walking on thin ice, it's probably a good idea to make sure that you too are not on comparably weak ground

1 comment:

  1. No harm done; saying that something is gay shouldn't be offensive. I mean, its not like you cant go by any other name. How do you know I dont mean that someone seems so happy they're stupid.