Friday, April 5, 2013

Why I Try To Avoid Insulting People At All

Warning: This post contains oppressive language.  Usually I blank these out, but for the purposes of this essay I've decided to leave them intact.

I wish I'd gotten to this sooner, really I do.  I guess the original post was sucked into Tumblr oblivion, and I can't find a copy of it anywhere.  Instead I'm forced to rely on articles about the original list and the responses to that list, such as this one entitled "The Revolution Will Not Be Polite."  I like the premise of this article a lot.  One of the main points strikes me as similar to the whole "nice guy" phenomenon where men use niceness to attempt to seduce women, complaining that they all want "men who treat them like shit" when the tactic fails.  The article is definitely worth a read.

I still try to avoid intentionally using insults.  Yeah, I do it, (if I recall right I called people "fuckers" in my last post, didn't I?), but generally speaking when I'm talking about oppression I use pretty straight-forward vernacular.  "Racist," "misogynist," "homophobic," "bigoted," and the like.

The reason isn't because I necessarily have a problem with people insulting their oppressors.  It's because there just aren't that many insults out there that aren't based on an oppressive mindset, and it's easy to try switching your insults only to wind up using one that isn't actually better.

I started thinking about this stuff when I was maybe fourteen years old.  "Gay" had become the predominating way of saying "stupid" at that point, so pervasive that even my teachers were using it (you know, to be edgy or something).  In a discussion with some friends online I said something quite regrettable about the subject which embarrasses me to this day: "Using 'gay' to mean 'stupid' is just fucking retarded."  I was called out pretty fast and went through a few days of "Yeah, but... yeah, but..." before I realized how right she was.

After a while of trying to switch to a more appropriate insult (remembering I was 14 and Tumblr didn't exist) I realized that most of the insults and descriptors we commonly use are ableist, with a fair amount of other oppressive language as well.  For example, the words "moron," "imbecile," "feeble-minded," "stupid," and "idiot" were for a very long time used as legitimate classifications for intellectual disabilities.  "Dumb" refers to somebody who cannot speak.  The labels people use in psychology for such conditions necessarily keep changing because popular society appropriates those words as insults.  (By contrast, I should mention that "ignorant" usually refers to somebody who doesn't have knowledge despite having the ability to gain that knowledge).

This has, of course, been the case with other issues than disability.  "Homosexual," for example, isn't really considered appropriate as a noun because it has been specifically used to pathologize and denigrate gays and lesbians (anybody else remember when a Christian website was filtering its news feed to replace "gay" with "homosexual" and it wound up changing a guy's surname to "Homosexual?").

Well, we all know these things, so we can tell, right?  I think it's somewhat arrogant, though, to expect that just because we're progressive/liberal/feminist/left-wing/anti-oppression/whatever else we'll "just know" that the insults we're using are based on oppressive thought processes.  For example, Kathy Griffin went on a rampage against Willow Palin for saying the word "faggot," but when I saw her live--at Pride, no less--she mocked a disability advocacy organization for asking her to create a routine about why the word "retarded" is offensive, and then went on a long tirade about how awesome the word is.  This is an extreme example, but we all have varying degrees of this problem.

And that's just counting words that are fairly obviously oppressive.  Some words are arguable... reclaimed words, for example, and words with contradictory uses.  Is "douche," for example, a misogynistic term or a term that could best be applied to misogynists (considering the obligation to douche shames and physically harms women)?  After a while, though, most insults strike me as playing into oppressive power structures.

Is "fucker" anti-sex?  Are variations on "fucker" shaming consensual sexual acts?  The use of animal-derivative insults is often oppressive to people because it implies some other form of oppression (sizeist slurs like "whale" or "pig," misogynistic slurs like "bitch," "dog"), but some have argued that using these also leads to unrealistic and harmful views of animals that contributes to poor animal welfare standards.  I wouldn't argue that a cow is offended when people call each other cows, but if there is a give-and-take between perception and language this could certainly be argued.

One of the places I see this most often is when a group of people is associated with political beliefs we don't agree with.  Words like "redneck" and "hick," for example, are often used to refer to right-wing politics.  But they also refer to the rural poor.

But there's one reason above all that I think needs to be stated:  Using the straight-forward vernacular I referred to at the beginning is often viewed as just as insulting if not more insulting than coming up with some creative insult.  I recall being in an argument with a walking stereotype (a trans person who switched between male and female depending on what benefited her the most; I always met her as female) who objected to being called "privileged" because it was a "slur."  Being called "racist," "misogynistic," or "homophobic" pack far more of that angry-punch than calling somebody an "idiot" does.  Barring the ableist associations, "idiot" doesn't carry that sort of connotation.