BY CYNDALL MCINERNEY
Most people rarely mean what they say. Not surprisingly, when Google searching the phrase “if you don’t mean what you say”, the search engine aptly suggests “then shut the fuck up”. Society hath spoken. But what happens when what we say reinforces a negative idea that someone else intended several hundred years ago? As the human race evolves, so too does the meaning of many words that we use. However, instead of evolving our vocabulary to include new words to explain what we mean, it seems that humankind often choose to instead change and develop the meaning of presently existing words. In a society where human rights are at the forefront of social awareness and public debate, the consistently casual yet derogatory use of words such as “n*gger”, “c*nt”, “fag” and “pussy” appear to contradict the very moral framework we are paving for ourselves and future generations.
Last year, Maine High School in Illinois launched a campaign to speak out against the use of derogatory words that reinforce negative perceptions of groups in society. This campaign, called “Backbone” features a series of posters that juxtapose images of traditional definitions of words side by side with their current definition. For example, the image above depicts a cigarette, stating “this is a fag”, contrasted with the image of a young boy with the phrase “this is a guy who annoys you.” This advertising is a highly effective means of presenting the catalyst issue at hand. So often we find ourselves using phrases like “That’s so gay” to describe an undesirable situation. The heart of the campaign rejects the notion that it is ever okay to insult someone using words that identify a particular, targeted group in society. Most individuals using such phrases would insist that they mean no direct offence to the parties in question. However, where society’s attitudes as a whole towards affected groups is still the source of human rights debate, has the originally negative connotation of the word really been lost? The series of posters within the ‘Backbone’ campaign were created by a group of high school students who were bullied, and they suggest that it is irrelevant whether or not the words are still seen as derogatory. Where sections of society are grouped together casually with insults, negative stereotypes will surely become further entrenched.
A shallow observation of this project may suggest that the world is one giant eggshell that we must all tread on. Political correctness is a grey area of morality that most people tread carefully, never quite sure of where the line should be drawn. Yet, if one is to delve deeper into the issues at the heart of this campaign, the message seems clear: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will continue to hurt hundreds of years later.
Australia can be described as quite relaxed towards political correctness when compared to the cultures of the UK, Canada and the US. Personally, I feel a strong dislike for the words “c*nt” and “pussy”. I choose not use either word, and I politely ask that people do not use them in my company. My dislike stems from the fact that the traditional definitions of the words demean women and their sexuality. However, when people use the words either in my presence, I would not assume that they literally mean the traditional definition of the words. I would assume that they think I’m a jerk or a wuss. When someone calls a man a “fag” for annoying them, or a “pussy” for missing an important tackle in a game of football, one would like to assume that the majority of people don’t actually mean that gay people or women are weaker or lesser in any manner. However, where such terms are thrown about as insults, the meaning of the words fails to blend in with an array of other English words that have changed meaning. Surely, amongst the 1,019,729.6 words available to us, we could think of a suitable substitute to avoid the whole debate altogether.
As a pinnacle of pop culture, rapper Macklemore is sadly probably a more insightful source into human rights issues than many current Australian politicians. In his song ‘Same Love’, Macklemore proclaims “We become so numb to what we’re saying/ a culture founded from oppression/ yet we don’t have acceptance for them…it’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!” This suggests that the use of words without regard to the negative connotation revokes the rights of all individuals, regardless of whoever the persecuted group are.
However, if the person using the words is always the bully, what about when the terms are used by people of that very group? When one coloured person uses the word “n*gger” to describe another coloured person, or when a female calls a male a “girl” for crying, society appears to think its okay. In a world where someone’s basic human rights are still a source of debate, there is certainly a need to empower these individuals. However, even where these persecuted groups use these words to suggest that someone is lesser than another, there appears to be no difference – the word is still numbly perpetuating a negative image.
Interestingly, amongst the many words targeted, the word “bastard” is not a source of conjecture in ‘Backbone’s’ campaign. Perhaps this is because having a child outside of marriage no longer holds a negative or demeaning connotation. Herein lies the problem. Homosexual, racial and women’s rights are still (somehow) a source of debate and contention in society. Therefore, the use of such words still carries with them a widely negative insinuation, unconsciously connecting the word and the negative response in people’s minds.
One could suggest that the answer is to ‘know one’s audience’ and use words only when we know they will be received in jest and with good humour. However, when the use of words like “fag” and “pussy” are still hurled at someone in order to offend them, a line is drawn between what is politically correct and what is not.
Whilst you may not mean to offend or perpetuate animosity within groups of society, the usage of words will continue to do so whilst people exist that actually believe that these words are insulting. Unfortunately, society will never be rid of groups that believe in oppression and hatred. However, the line to be drawn within the shades of grey appears to suggest that the continued use of such words will certainly not aid the path to acceptance and equality.