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[personal profile] sunflowerp
A number of intersecting incidents in the past week, including (but by no means restricted to) responses both in comments and privately to my last post, have been smacking me over the head to tell me it's time to stop chewing on this and write about it.

A few months back, I had my attention called to a couple of "Don't Be An Asshole" 101-type things that were lists of inappropriate terms - "inappropriate" in context of the specific sort of anti-oppression they referred to, that is (IIRC, but I might not, one listed homophobic terms and the other listed ablist terms). Unfortunately - and this is part of why my intersectional e-quaintances were pointing them out - they were a bit too context-specific. The errors weren't quite as egregiously bad as, "Don't call something 'gay', that's homophobic; call it 'lame' instead," but that illustrates what kind of error was involved.

It occurred to me at the time just how often, when lists of inappropriate words are presented, they're accompanied by a corollary list of words to use instead - and on the rare occasions they're not, such a corollary list is asked for demanded by commenters: "But if we can't use those words, what words can we use?!?" they wail.

Zounds! What a pressing problem of social injustice! However shall we manage to do our insult-throwing, disparagement, and name-calling, if the words we're accustomed to using for this task are forbidden?

I didn't spot that right away; initially, I just had a strong but inchoate sense that there was more wrong there than just "the gay-rights folks screw up and use ablist language; the disability-rights folks screw up and use homophobic language." It was only after quite a bit of reflection that I realized the problem was with the very notion that substitute insults are necessary.

Observing the problem from up in Theory Tower (a useful perspective, as long as one remembers to come down from the tower), the idea that name-calling, insult, and disparagement are natural, inherent, and inevitable is a kyriarchic assumption. Such things are used to reinforce the kyriarchic pecking orders, to police others to ensure they "know their place", and to identify things as good or bad according to a cultural norm (when "gay" is used in popular slang, it virtually always identifies some person, object, idea, or activity as "my class/culture/subculture looks down on it, therefore I look down on it"). More, they're geared to make it unnecessary to think about why a person, object, idea, or activity is disparagement-worthy and/or needs to be "put in its place" - and I don't believe the discouragement of thinking is accidental.

Coming back down from the Tower, I'm not saying all is lovely in the garden and it's inappropriate to distinguish between that which you approve of and that which you disapprove of. Some things are disparagement-worthy. But I find that, if I wish to disparage something, I can do so far more effectively by considering it in some detail, determining what about it I disapprove of and why I want to put time and effort into active disparagement, and constructing my takedowns accordingly, than I can by simply throwing insults at it and calling it names.

Occasionally, I do in the end throw insults and call names - they're likely to be insults and names chosen to be accurately descriptive As a bonus, they're also more likely to be funny. (To nod back at things related to my last post, [political alignnment] + [reference to a once-common way of writing off the neurodiverse, both officially/medically and as a playground insult] != wit. Choosing a political alignment, even dogmatically, is not an indication of developmental disability; neither having a developmental disability nor being non-neurotypical in a way that might be misdiagnosed as developmental disability is an indication of propensity for political dogmatism - the lack of descriptive accuracy belies the purported cleverness, and defeats any possibility of wit.)

I'm doubly careful when what I'm considering disparaging is a person, rather than an object/idea/activity - because even when someone is being a grade-A number-one dyed-in-the-wool asshole, they're still a sapient, feeling being. OTOH, assholishness doesn't get a pass; sometimes ya gotta say, "That sapient, feeling being IS BEING AN ASSHOLE."

So, yeah, to some extent name-calling, insult, and disparagement are natural and inevitable. But doing so inconsiderately (and I mean that in the broadest sense, without considering) is not. In particular, relying on the language of oppression - whether sexist, racist, ablist, ageist, looksist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, religiously-biased, etc - as a source of names to call and insults to throw is not inevitable, it's intellectually lazy. Even - especially - casual use of common slang without considering (there's that word again) the *ism/*phobia in which it originated: the user may not intend offense, may even be genuinely shocked that s/he gave offense, but hir shock is a direct result of not thinking. Those sort of "good intentions" are well-known for their usefulness as paving stones.

Corollary lists of substitute insults aren't what's needed; compassion, a few brain cells and the willingness to use them, and a good thesaurus do a better job.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-04-07 12:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] (from
A post I made on related topic can be found here (

(no subject)

Date: 2009-04-07 01:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
i'm not quite sure how i feel about this. i mean, yes, yelling "asshole" the moment someone says something that you don't like won't make you any friends, and using slurs that have a meaning that oppresses a group has got to be off the table, so i am agreed on those points.

but, if some radfem is questioning my right to self-identity - or even my right to exist, as has happened - no, i'm sorry, i'm not going to try to reason with hir, sie doesn't even consider me worthy of humanity. tone be damned, i will get pissed and call an asshole an asshole.

i guess i am not quite understanding what you are aiming at. i know that you are not intending to make a "tone" argument, but i can't shake the feeling that i am being asked to watch my tone wrt those who have privilege over me. certainly, "asshole"-slinging can be used *by* those with priv to make oppressed people shut up, but i'm not sure what direction(s) you are aiming your post in - towards those with priv? without it? both?

it's cool.

Date: 2009-04-08 03:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
i just needed some clarification, is all.

in that I'm suggesting that anyone, whatever their oppressions, has an ethical obligation to avoid oppression-related slurs

this, specifically, is in my mind not a tone argument; it's more "don't use a person's oppression against them, even as argument / self-defence / retaliation"; for ex, if someone is calling me out for racism and calls me a "she-male", well that won't exactly make me receptive to their argument.

Well Said

Date: 2009-04-07 03:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

it's entirely too unfortunate that the great majority jsut plain don't think. then again.. why should they? Their friends do it for them.. that having been said, I do wholeheartedly agree that there should be no reason for substitute insults.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I have greatly missed our discussions over coffee. Perhaps we could arrange something for sometime soon? say.. sometime this month.. ;P?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-04-07 06:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"But I find that, if I wish to disparage something, I can do so far more effectively by considering it in some detail, determining what about it I disapprove of and why I want to put time and effort into active disparagement, and constructing my takedowns accordingly, than I can by simply throwing insults at it and calling it names."


(no subject)

Date: 2009-04-07 07:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for posting this (and glad I could contribute to the synchronicity pressuring you to do so :P).

Two things I very much agree with: firstly, the idea that resorting to common slang and oppressive language can and tends to be intellectually lazy. This is the reason I've always used against swearing, though I've never applied it to other (discriminatory) words. The ubiquity of profanity often gives me the impression of people blowing off steam without really evaluating their emotions and reactions. Plus it sounds dumb.

Second thing I agree with is that people should be more aware of the language they use, just as we're more aware of the food we eat nowadays. That includes having a sense of its kyriarchic implications and oppressive connotations -- however, I'd add to that that people should also have the courtesy, and intellectual integrity, to acknowledge the fluidity of meaning. What I mean by that is that I accept that definitions can be contested, and that language is 'democratic' in that anyone can make a particular claim about a word which isn't inherently better or worse than a claim by others, and so I expect others to not act as such.

Hence, for example, I'm fine with people wanting to ban 'retard' as slang, just as people wanted to ban 'nigger' and such -- but they should demonstrate that they understand, over time, that the oppressive connotations can fade. And they should make clear that they are trying to ban the word because they find its connotations offensive, NOT because the word itself is offensive, because that just isn't true and more disturbingly implies that the 'disability' in question (be it black skin or mental disability) objectively detracts from the worth of a human being. Which I won't accept.

Still, that's so much hair-splitting. In practice what it comes down to is that I'm fine with whatever people want to do as long as they don't sound like self-righteous pillocks. :)

Have more to say, will make another post now in case I get cut off!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-04-07 08:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Right. I've also been thinking more about this issue since I last asked you, and I want to raise something which I don't think you've mentioned so far, namely words as art.

I'm very big on the aesthetic effect of words, which sometimes sits in tension with respect for social semantic effect. To go back to the link in your previous post, it's true that 'libtard' and 'theistard' aren't particularly original or witty, but for me they have other significant effects, e.g. they create a unity in disparagement, they contribute to the gritty, caustic feel of the writing as a whole, they succinctly and strongly (because of the double-stress) designate both an ideology and contempt for it, and the 'tard' reminds me of 'turd' which adds to the overall effect.

Because I perceive these effects -- whether or not they were intended -- and because I'm pretty sure no other words can mimic these effects if only because they sound different, I'm reluctant to support blanket bans or strong discouragement of words in general, whatever they are. It's analogous to the place of Holocaust imagery in Plath's poetry; critics rightly knock it down for being self-aggrandizing and insensitive, but at the same time it contributes to a very distinct and effective aesthetic in her work.

That's not to say that all use of oppressive words is art or has artistic effect, nor is it to say that even if it did, it would justify the oppressive implications of usage. People who use such words for rhetoric effect should be just as aware of the potential for offense and accept responsibility for using them, BUT IMHO higher tolerance should be extended to oppressive words within a rhetorical non-oppressive context, especially if it noticeably contributes to the aesthetic, because a) I like rhetoric, and b) integrating a word into a specific artistic context can detach it from the overall kyriarchic context.

Anyhow. That's a lot of overthinking. Probably the most pragmatic and sensible rule of thumb is just to know what words piss the other party off, and if you care about them enough or simply need something desperately from them, then it's a good idea not to use those words.

November 2009


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