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The Power of Words

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I’m gonna’ admit something here… after some thought, I think I’ve been wrong in my view of offensive language.  Let me warn you up front that some of the things I say in this blog will be horribly offensive. It’s not gratuitous, though. The horrible things I’ll say are to illustrate a point. Okay, with that out of the way, here we go…

Up until very recently, I’ve had a pretty firm stance about words like “nigger” or “faggot.”

My stance: They’re just words. Don’t give those words power and they can’t hurt you. When you freak the hell out over words, you’re giving the speaker power over you. Listen to the advice you got as a kid. “Stick and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

Put simply, my stance has always been, “They’re just words, people. Get the hell over it.”

But the more I think about that, the more I think I was wrong to take that position.

They’re just words?

Well, if we’re being honest here, words are quite possibly the most powerful weapons on the planet.

If words have no power, why do we protect them in the very first Amendment to the US Constitution? Every war started because of words. Every protest is powered by words. The Constitution of the United States of America – which we revere as if it were a religious document – is just words.

So maybe… just maybe… the “sticks and stones” saying is complete and total bullshit.

Words matter.

Let me put it this way…

Let’s say you have a 6 year old daughter who died of cancer. If, a month after her death, I came up to you and said, “Hey man, how’s that rotting corpse of a daughter doing?” what would you do? Would you punch me in the face? And if you did punch me in the face, how many people would think you were totally justified?

At the very least, my question would hurt you. Deeply.

So if we’re willing to defend you punching me in the face because of my question, why do we tell a 65 year old black man who lived through the racial injustices of the 60s to just “get over it” when someone calls him a nigger? Who are we to say that man doesn’t feel pain when he hears that word? And why do we tell a 25 year old gay man to “get over it” when someone calls him a faggot, even though he took several beatings in high school while hearing that word over and over and over during those beatings? Why do those guys have to “get over it” but we think it’s totally justified to punch someone for asking about that “rotting corpse of a daughter”?

Now, I’m not saying people shouldn’t have the right to say those words. Of course they should have the right. This isn’t about rights. I’m just saying the “it’s only words” argument is horseshit. Words are intensely powerful and we should stop pretending they aren’t.

The Westboro Baptist Church protests the funerals of dead soldiers. The church members hold signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers.” I’ve never heard someone tell the families of those dead soldiers, “Look, they’re just words! Get over it.” But when Paula Deen said “nigger”, the “just words” argument was rampant. Hell, I admit I used it to defend her.

Why do we draw the line at nigger and faggot? Why do we defend those words when we don’t defend other words?

If I publicly said I think we should call all Jews “The Oven People”, folks would flip the hell out. They would demand I apologize. They would demand I lose my job. If I were to call the victims of 911 “plane magnets”, people would go apeshit. Nobody would defend me in either of those situations. But if I say the word “nigger” people will defend me. People will say it’s because of my upbringing. They’ll say it’s “just a word!”

Again, I’m not saying we should make these words illegal. Freedom of speech is vital in this country. Why is it vital? Because words matter.

I’m just saying I think we should stop defending people who say “nigger” and “faggot.” They’re hateful words that can cause pain. Why do we say “get over it” with those two particular words, when we go apeshit over other words? It’s inconsistent and disrespectful, in my opinion. Every time we defend Paul Deen for saying “nigger” or Alec Baldwin for saying “faggot”, we’re singling out those words as being okay. Sure, they have the right to say what they want, but do they really deserve legions of straight, white people defending them for saying these things? I’m not bashing Deen or Baldwin, by the way. I have no problem with either of them. I’m just saying we should stop singling out bigotry as something to be defended. And make no mistake, it is bigotry, whether it’s intended or not.

Again, I’m not talking about rights here. Of course they have the right to say whatever they want. That’s really not in question. I’m talking about cultural acceptance. When Mel Gibson went on his drunken rant about Jews, it cost him his career. Because of his rant, most folks consider him a complete wacko. But when Paula Deen said “nigger”, we all stood in line to get our chance to defend her. We acted like she was the victim. She was a victim of her own upbringing. And earlier this week, when Alec Baldwin called a man a “cock sucking fag”, people defended him… They said he just has anger management problems.

What is it about the words “nigger” and “faggot” that warrants defense but every other example I gave is pretty much universally despised?

Well, I admit I was wrong. I have officially changed my stance. I have accepted that words do matter. Words do have the power to cause pain. And when someone says something hurtful, screw ’em. They can defend themselves. I’m not defending them anymore.



2 responses »

  1. Jerry,

    I think you’re selling yourself short here. Whether they used offensive language or not, I can’t think of a single time that you actually defended someone who was as far “wrong” as the people you mentioned.

    Even in your article about the cure to the “N-Word Controversy”, you said that we should all just stop using the word because it hurts people. And that’s what it boils down to – it hurts people. Whether it be nigger or faggot or stupid or retard or what have you, it hurts people.

    Recently you and I have talked about the Incognito/Martin thing going on with the Miami Dolphins. Team “hazing” is one thing, and we both said that we couldn’t understand how Martin had reached as far as he had in the NFL without having had to deal with people like that before, but not once did you defend Incognito.

    Yes, they’re just words. And most of the time, words can’t hurt you unless they’re said by someone who means something to you – a loved one, a friend, a teacher, etc. But – and I’ll again use your example from your previous article – why do we have to say them at all? Do some words hurt worse than others? I’m sure they do, especially when, using the example you gave, you’re a 65-year old black man. That doesn’t mean that you’ve had 65 years to “get over” being called a nigger. Nobody should have to get over something like that, and I doubt many people actually can get over something like that.

    So don’t beat yourself up. You haven’t changed your view on anything – you’ve simply strengthened and clarified it.

    Thanks for reminding me why we’re friends.

    Clyde O. Watson


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