Words that hurt

So, in summary, and after a frank and view-altering exchange, here are two types of words that hurt that I agree it’s a good idea to avoid:

  • Using words that are commonly used to refer to particular groups as insults (turning “mentally handicapped” into a pejorative, for example);
  • Repeating words (and their derivatives) that marginalised people have regularly experienced as abuse (eg “retard” or “retarded”).

Unless you don’t give a damn about hurting people because it makes you feel all big and rebellious and tough to further grind down the already marginalised.

I do, and it doesn’t, which is why although I have previously used the word “retarded” on the grounds that (a) it’s already pejorative, (b) nobody uses it to identify themselves and (c) it has a specific meaning that has nothing to do with human beings (it means “slowed”, and we use it to describe objects with particular properties), I am going to stop. Because regardless of what I mean by it, it is used as a term of abuse directed at people with particular disabilities, for example, and thus hearing it again unnecessarily and cruelly compounds the injuries previously suffered.

And I’ve got some ideas for other names to use as synonyms for “stupid”, anyway.

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16 responses to “Words that hurt

  1. Splatterbottom

    Your comments are sick (an that isn’t an affront to sick people everywhere).

    People have the capacity to understand that words have many meanings and many shades of meaning. Most can work out when someone is trying to offend them or put them down.

    Sadly some people go about, ears pricked, waiting to berate people for real or imagined slights. The worst and most intolerant of these are those on the lookout for slights to people other than themselves. These jumped-up thought police have no place in polite society.

  2. Either that, SB, or there are people who have had to defend their loved ones against exactly those type of taunts, and can’t hear the word without thinking of the look on their loved ones faces. I can’t separate the word “Retard” from seeing my uncle being hurt by those taunts.

    But hey, rather than ask why people think the way they do, let’s go the strawman and tell them they have no place in polite society.

  3. Sadly some people go about, ears pricked, waiting to berate people for real or imagined slights.

    You might want to think about your own privilege, SB, and the fact that I doubt very much you’ve ever been on the receiving end of relentless, oppressive abuse by random strangers for something like an intellectual disability.

  4. People have the capacity to understand that words have many meanings and many shades of meaning.

    Friends do. Those who know you well do. But “people” do not.

    I tend to agree with Jeremy that using pejoratives like “retarded” or “homo” in public discourse is fairly unwise. It is, at least, a relatively insensitive act since you can be fairly certain a portion of your audience will be offended.

    Although if you don’t care about offending that particular segment of society then that’s a different story . . .

  5. Splatterbottom

    Keri: “there are people who have had to defend their loved ones against exactly those type of taunts”

    I am not condoning taunts against your loved ones.

    Jeremy: I doubt very much you’ve ever been on the receiving end of relentless, oppressive abuse by random strangers for something like an intellectual disability.”

    Obviously I am not defending that type of abuse and, as far as I can tell, that was not what Hildebrand was doing when a baying pack of thought police rounded on him.

  6. Splatterbottom

    Mondo: “Friends do. Those who know you well do. But “people” do not.”

    No. Most people know about shades of meaning, context and irony. Officious bystanders often jump into the argument well knowing that a word was being used ironically or that it was being used in a particular context. Yet in spite of this they feel the need to call out and shame the miscreant and strut their impeccable moral sensibilities for all the world to see.

    “Although if you don’t care about offending that particular segment of society then that’s a different story . . .”

    Offending professional offence-takers is a commendable and socially useful passtime.

  7. Pity you utterly fail to address the rest of the comment, SB.

    Salient point being, there are people in between these imaginary “Thought Police” and people who don’t give two hoots about how they’re hurting, and most of those people have had the experience of having to try and shelter their loved ones from us of those words. We can’t separate them.

    You, however, would portray us as do-gooding thought police in your effort to criticize everything vaguely Leftist. It’s undignified, and quite frankly beneath you.

  8. Splatterbottom

    Keri, undignified is definitely my thing. And you have been around here long enough to know that I don’t criticise everything vaguely leftist.

    The approach I take to good manners (and that is what this is really about) is to understand comments in context. If someone is not trying to insult me but making another point or making a a joke then I don’t get my hackles up and I don’t start berating them, which would be even worse manners.

  9. Obviously I am not defending that type of abuse and, as far as I can tell, that was not what Hildebrand was doing when a baying pack of thought police rounded on him.

    Empathy (and comprehension) fail, again. Nobody is claiming that Hildebrand was setting out to taunt the mentally handicapped. What people would like is that you not use the words that are most often used to taunt the mentally handicapped to describe other things. This is along the same lines as not using words commonly used to taunt gay people to describe other things, particularly bad things.

    It’s not about your intention, it’s about the effect you have on other people who aren’t able to defend themselves or don’t have as thick of skin as you do. Whether you intend it or not, your words hurt other people. Declaring that they harden the fuck up only shows you don’t give a shit.

    There’s a reason there’s no slang for “well-off white male”, but they seem to be the loudest group shouting accusations of “thought police” whenever they’re pulled up on their derogatory language.

  10. Splatterbottom

    Ben: “There’s a reason there’s no slang for “well-off white male”

    Keep overtly sexist and racist comments to yourself.

  11. zaratoothbrush

    You might want to think about your own privilege, SB, and the fact that I doubt very much you’ve ever been on the receiving end of relentless, oppressive abuse by random strangers for something like an intellectual disability.

    Hang on, I’ve been doing my best; can’t always find the time ;-)

  12. zaratoothbrush

    I realise my last comment may have violated the spirit of this post, but can’t help remaining skeptical. There are already too many “don’ts” and “shouldn’ts” in this world; we need a more positive spirit, IYAM.

    I don’t think that prosecuting people’s vocabulary is the way to do it, but it seems that a lot of people do. After all, the world is a really stubborn, stodgy sumbitch to get moving at a pace that’s best for the people in it, sometimes taking a shortcut makes us feel better; that’s what I think the current obsession with words is about. It makes people think that they’re making a difference.

    The thing is, you can’t really make people better by badgering them into changing their vocab: they’re still the same people. Polite vocabulary can make excellent camouflage for the haters out there, and people using abuse words naïvely get caught in the same nets that the real haters in this world learn to avoid. Look at the Stephanie Rice incident: she was just celebrating her boyfriend’s team’s win with playful mock abuse, the way young people do, and before you know it she’s advocating the strangulation of homosexuals everywhere. Funny, ’cause the gay community scored a big victory over haters when they reclaimed the word “queer”, investing it with their own positivity, such that real homophobes can’t now use the word, because of the positive connotations it now has. This happened not as a result of policing people’s language, but by letting the language live, which is what it does anyway, regardless of attempts to constrain it.

  13. As a person with a psychiatric disability who is obsessed with language and its usage AND is a personal acquaintance of Joe Hildebrand, I feel I should have something to say here. Hmmm lets see.

    1) Joe is a fundamentally decent guy but he does say shit thoughtlessly sometimes – kind of comes with the territory of his persona, since saying what pops into your head come hell or high water usually leads to both hilariousness and offence, depending on circumstances.

    2) Its noble to try to get people to use language in a way that protects the sensibilities of the marginalised. But it is HARD. There is a phenomenon called the “euphemism treadmill” that is well worth reading up on. Suffice to say, if you try to stop people using certain words in a hurtful way, language will evolve around you to meet the “demands” of bigots – they will change the meaning of old terms or coin new ones to continue to be offensive. More radical tactics are usually required than “please don’t say that”, for instance the gay community’s reclamation of “fag”, “queer” etc as positive terms.

    3) Personally I don’t like people without psychiatric disabilities policing pejorative terms for the mentally ill. If for no other reasons than that they often do a bad job. I would much rather people be free to use traditional and vague terms like “mad”, “crazy” etc as much as they like, for instance – because if those choices are shut off people tend to revert to “bipolar”, “schizo”, “psycho” etc which are derived from real clinical terms that have well-defined medical meanings. And its unfortunate when people use a word with a very specific clear meaning in a vague way, it creates confusion and misunderstandings about mental illness. Psycho is especially unfortunate, because it conflates psychosis and psychopathy, which are VERY distinct concepts.

    4) I don’t pretend to speak on behalf of people with other disabilities, physical intellectual etc, or their families.

    5) Anyone who advocates in favour of language policing here, I reserve the right to call you out when you use any of the words I’ve discussed in 3) or their synonyms :P :P

  14. There’s a reason there’s no slang for “well-off white male”

    Well there’s “Cracker” – although I suppose that’s more just a white person rather than a well-off white person. Then there’s the local Australian version “Skip” – although again it doesn’t denote wealth just racial background.

    All groups of people have pejorative nicknames for other groups of people. The problem isn’t the word so much as the intention of the person using it.

    Anyway – on topic – a friend of mine works with the mentally handicapped and he recently told me a story of the end-of-year dance where he chaperoned the kids. He said he started to cringe when he heard the first few bars of the Black Eyed Peas “Let’s get Retarded” getting played but apparently the dance floor went wild.

    There was no singing the ‘safe for radio’ lyrics – just a full throated celebration of getting retarded.

    Dunno if that’s significant, but I thought it was interesting.

  15. narcoticmusing

    Prohibition of words leads to greater use as it is no longer confined to merely ‘bigots’*. The word becomes associated with rebellion because it is naughty and thus its use is cool and fashionable. Consider, for example, the use of the word gay to mean bad/wrong/disfunctional. Gay has a proper english meaning (happy) but ‘that is so gay’ does not mean anything pleasant anymore than cool means low temperature.

    That doesn’t mean if you are a party who has experienced such abuse or had to defend others can’t call people out on it. I’ve certainly called people out on using certain words – but that comes with people taking responsibility for what they say. Hell, I hate it when people cuss for no good reason, but that doens’t mean there isn’t a role for cussing. A cuss can create a really strong point when used well and in context. Yet, some people use them merely for the reason above – to appear ‘cool’.

    There are particular words, for example, that offend me especially if used in an inappropriate context – these effect me, personally (or someone who cannot defend themselves), so I’ll call the user out on it. That doesn’t mean I want the person censored, I just want them to understand the impact – they can reflect and make a choice.

    I also admit I’ve used terms that might be offensive (such as retarded, or ‘screw loose’ or whatever) and used them to mean ‘diminished mental capacity’ because that is how the person was behaving, as if they had a diminished mental capacity. It is an adjective. I am not merely meaning someone who is stupid or behaving stupidly.

    There’s a reason there’s no slang for “well-off white male
    Are you suggesting ‘WASP’ and ‘whitetrash’ are not insults now? The former now has very negative connotations and the latter has become confused with ‘bogans’ but still applicable if you are a person from a non-’white’ background.

    *I use ” there because I don’t think only bigots use terms that could be offensive. Often people just say things spontaneously and there is no malice.

  16. jordanrastrick

    Here’s a term to insult a rich, high class, straight, successful, cis, white, middle aged, non-disabled, Anglo, etc male.

    Patriarch.

    There. Plenty of good Latin history behind it. Patriarch, the one who acts like the boss of everything. Patriarch, who treats his own adult family members as chattels. Patriarch, as in patronising. Patriarch, everything a pater (father) should not be.

    Use it wisely kids! Even the patriarchs will have a day come where they have cause to regret their privileges…….

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