Thursday, October 1, 2015

Words as Weapons

The other day, I got into an argument with some people on a comments thread.

Which... my bad. I ignored the golden rule of the internet.

"Don't read the comments." -Golden Rule of the Internet

The problem is I sort of can't stop thinking about this argument because it was about words.

See, I'm sort of obsessed with words. I have to be. I'm a writer, and a reader, and an actor, and a podcaster, and all of those things involve words.

If you read a lot of fantasy novels (and you should read a lot of fantasy novels), magic systems frequently involve words. "Harry Potter" for instance has magic words like "expecto patronum" or "wingardium leviosa" (which makes this former student of Latin's heart flutter a bit). Ursula LeGuin's "Wizard of Earthsea" has a magic system that works by knowing something or someone's true name. The idea is that everything has a secret name and knowing that name gives you power over that thing.

To me, both of those are pretty cool. We use words to define reality. Naming something, having a word for something, allows us to communicate with each other about that thing and understand said thing better. So it makes sense to apply that principle to magic too. 

Back to words. We have words for lots of things. We have nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, gerunds, prepositions. We have words for colors, animals, plants, buildings, planets, and people.

We use words to describe and define people. You have a name which defines you as an individual. You also have other words that describe groups you belong to like male, female, black, white, Irish, Polynesian, actor, lawyer, etc.

This is where words can get tricky. The words we have for people are very powerful because they form the basis of their identities- how we think of ourselves. I am a white, straight, cisgendered male from Massachusetts who lives in Chicago. I am a writer and a husband and a soon-to-be father. I am strong, smart, creative, kind, and funny.

I use all of those words to give my life structure and myself power. That's what these words are for. This is sort of the... light side of the force when it comes to words. 

However, there's a dark side of the force when it comes to words too. Words can be weaponized. They can be used to insult individuals, to harm them. They can be used to support and enforce institutional oppression. They can be used to stifle dissent.

This is why I got into an internet fight. I was writing about Frank Miller's "All-Star Batman," and I referred to an infamous scene from that comic that I found (and find) objectionable. In talking about said scene I used the term "the r-word" instead of using the word itself. 

It was like I lit the beacons of Minas Tirith and internet trolls answered.

"Ugh, I hate censorship."
"Just say the word."
"It's not offensive if you don't mean it to be. It's the intention that matters."
"Everyone is too sensitive these days! You can't say anything without offending people." 

Most of these comments are pretty dumb. Like, Censorship Guy was clearly of the school of thought that me saying "I don't like it when people use that word" qualifies as censorship as compared to like, actual censorship when books get burned and people get thrown into prison for expressing their opinions. For that guy, censorship is anytime a person uses their own free speech to criticize him or people he likes.

Everyone is Too Sensitive Guy is probably someone who's never been made to feel subhuman over time by a thousand societal slights large and small. That word is offensive. It's meant to offend. That is what the word is for- offending. Sorry, Everyone is Too Sensitive Guy.

Just say the word guy? I don't even know where to start with that guy.

But Intention Guy. Let's talk about Intention Guy, because there are tons of people out there who think like that guy, that meanings of words are... meaningless. It's a seductive argument. 

Let's dismantle it.

Think about when you say a word to a person. There are a few things that make up that word:

1. Your intent (Good job, Intention Guy!)
2. The actual meaning of that word (Sorry, Intention Guy! Word meanings do actually matter.)
3. The context of your immediate situation
4. The broader cultural context.

There are bad words. There are weaponized words. They are words that were created to do harm.  I don't use the r-word because that word is a loaded gun. It was designed to hurt individuals, and also a whole group of people. That whole group of people- people with special needs- are a group that's generally been treated very, very poorly by society. When you say that word (and I have to be honest, when I was younger, and dumber I did use that word- often) you are contributing to the systemic oppression of a whole group of people.

The purpose of a gun is to kill. Guns were created to kill people or animals. That is the meaning of a gun. You can certainly use a gun for other things. Guns can be paperweights, I guess. They can be props or decorations. But their purpose is to kill. If you wave a gun around in a room, even if you have no plans to pull the trigger, or the gun has no ammo in it, it's still an instrument of death. You don't get to say "oh this gun isn't a gun. It's actually a potted plant. That's what I intend it to be." You might still elicit reactions of fear, or anger. Your intent matters, but the meaning of the gun matters too, as well as the broader context of guns as part of our culture.

So if you use the r-word, or a sexist slur or a slur for minorities- even if you have no intention of insulting those groups of people, you're still waving a gun around. You are still hurting people by creating a situation where the oppression of an entire group of people has been woven into language- and woven so deeply that you don't even think about it most of the time. 

I don't use the r-word because I don't want to contribute to a world where some people are treated as second class citizens. I want the language that I use to lift people up, and empower them the way that it's lifted me up and empowered me. I want my words to be tools, and if I'm going to use words as weapons, those weapons will be aimed at destroying oppressive systems and not reinforcing them. 

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