“That’s so gay. You’re such a faggot.”
Did you mentally wince when you read that?
Many people have realized that derogatory words like homophobic or ableist slurs are irrevocably damaging. These slurs can be traced back to layers of historical oppression. These titles were used to label their perceived inferiority—a mentality that still persists today.
The LGBTQ movement and similar social justice movements—such as the one attempting to dismantle ableism (discrimination against mentally or physically impaired individuals)—seem to be gathering steam, and it’s evident in everyday conversations.
“It depends on the social circle,” says Jared Mae Flores, a first-year criminology student. “But if you’re out in public, then yeah, you wouldn’t say [those words]. It also depends where you’re coming from. In Australia everyone calls each other a ‘c***’, but it’s not meaningful. And in some circles, ‘b****’ is something you call your friends, or to praise an empowered friend.”
People now seem to understand the power of derogatory words. Many who drop one on purpose or by mistake hush up when someone gives them a look.
The realm of triggering words has expanded to include words like “crazy”, “handicapped”, “deaf”, “homosexual”. Members and allies of social justice movements, including UTMSU’s Ministry of Social Justice, mediate the use of these words in public spaces. You might have heard the encouragement of “you guys” being replaced by “you folks” around campus. That’s called political correctness.
University students seem to be at the forefront of the change. Is it a result of the atmosphere in postsecondary education or is society as a whole changing?
“I think it’s both,” says Michael Ruhs, a first-year theatre and drama studies specialist. “We’re out of that [high] school setting. I found that we said those words a lot in middle school, but that’s because we didn’t know what they meant.”
Political correctness made waves in the 1980s and 1990s when, as Neil McDonald wrote in his CBC article, “Bellicose progressives tried to excise from language what they saw as sexism, racism, otherness, homophobia, or wording that recognized the existence of gender.” But is it an educational zeitgeist or something here to stay?
If anything will keep the trend going, it could surprisingly be the Internet. While much as the Internet is known as a hotbed of the worst human manners and insults behind the screen of anonymity, Meghan Garber of The Atlantic Times argues that social media has increased our sense of empathy. We are immersed in the lives of others: what motivates them, delights them, terrifies them, and hurts them. The voices of the unheard, particularly those oppressed by traditional media, are allowed to represent themselves.
This has led traditional media to open up and acknowledge other lifestyles and situations, too. With the growing awareness and interest in equitable representation we see more shows like Glee, with its popular representation of gay lifestyles and relationships, and others that study the complexity of otherness like Legend of Korra with its terrifying one-armed villain and a series finale (spoiler alert!) that suggested that the protagonist was bisexual. Surrounded by this culture, some might argue that derogatory terms no longer hold much gravitas.
Is there a point at which deference becomes censorship? In 2012 the New York City Department of Education wanted to ban 50 words from standardized tests. The list included “Hallowe’en” because of its supposedly pagan undertones, “birthday” because of its exclusion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and “dinosaur” for its implication that certain beliefs about the origin of the world are false.
One more reasonable act of “censorship” was proposed by a UTM student. Arynn Marchant is a third-year biology and biological anthropology double major. In the fall term she put up posters on consenting people’s doors with the dictionary definitions of words like “faggot”, “dyke”, and “gay” and a link to ThinkB4YouSpeak.com.
“I wanted to create a safe and open space for everyone on our floor,” says Marchant. “Almost everyone consented to having a poster on their door, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of these posters have trigger words, and people raised the concern of seeing or having those words repeated every day. But the purpose of the posters is to start a conversation against discrimination.”
Where do we draw the line on censorship? It should be drawn by the people who are actively oppressed by the mentalities propagated by the slurs. We should put inclusion and empathy first.