Sticks and stones

Person with tears on face in front of Pride flag

We tell children that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That sentiment may be admirable, but the reality is far more complex.

Two weeks ago the North American Scrabble Players Association announced that they will ban derogatory slurs that target people based on characteristics such as race, gender and sexual orientation. Professional players expressed outrage, claiming their right to use words that cause pain and offence, arguing that their use is acceptable if it means gaining a point or two. They said that these words are part of the lexicon and therefore should be playable, conveniently ignoring the fact that Scrabble doesn’t allow all dictionary words anyway. They claimed that playing these words in a game removes their context. They glossed over the fact that as professionals they play these games for money, and as such are profiting from other people’s distress. The problem that those proponents fundamentally fail to address is that some words have the power to cause pain, and whether or not they understand it they have the opportunity to lessen that pain for others.

Part of the problem with the argument that words mean nothing out of context is that the power of our language’s most egregious words is only truly apparent to the people they are directed at – it’s easy to disassociate yourself from the impact of a word if you are not the one targeted by it. As an able-bodied white man I can never truly know what it feels like to be verbally abused on the basis of my race or gender or disability, but if someone tells me that a word or phrase causes them personal pain and humiliation it is important that I listen. For those of us in a position of privilege our instinct is to recoil and argue that we a right to say what we want, but if I continue to use language that I have been told causes other people distress, my causing pain is no longer unintentional but rather an informed choice.

This evolution of language to lessen unnecessary offence is often referred to in the tabloid press and popular parlance as “political correctness”. In reality, that phrase is just a rallying cry for people who have historically had the privilege of saying what they wanted to, to whoever they wanted to, regardless of the pain they caused, and are now being asked to treat others as equals. There is a reason that society doesn’t have grossly offensive terms for those with the most privilege (straight people, white people, men) and it’s because those that held the power shaped the language. The least we can do is to attempt to reset that balance in the way we speak. That said, while we can aim to change hearts and minds we cannot ban words – but should the law recognise the wounding nature of some of them?

In his 2002 book N*****: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (asterisks mine) Randall Kennedy reviews historical and contemporary legal precedent in the United States, whereby defendants on trial for murder have argued that use of the n-word against them acted as provocation and as such their sentences should be reduced or their crime diminished (for example, to manslaughter). Kennedy discusses two associated schools of thought, that these are either “mere words” or otherwise akin to inciting assault. At time of the book’s publication the situation varied throughout the US, but the majority of jurisdictions did not recognise the provocation of a racist slur as warranting any lesser punishment for retaliation. Closer to home, I spoke to a barrister friend to understand the current situation in English law, and he explained that the use of such language could be a mitigating factor taken into account in sentencing after a guilty plea or guilty verdict, while specifically for murder there is a defence of loss of control where (based on specific criteria) defendants can show they were provoked and argue for a reduction to manslaughter. He also pointed out that the provocateur themselves could be guilty of racially aggravated harassment.

I cannot condone violence on principle so I instinctively had some trouble reconciling my feelings here, but I realised that this was partly rooted in my white life experience because I can never feel the pain that word can cause. Ultimately, I cannot blame someone if they do not manage to maintain their composure in the face of what is a profound and unequal assault where they have no possible verbal response with equal power. In using a slur designed to hurt at a deep level the aggressor has effectively thrown a punch, and it is right that legal judgement of any response should recognise this shared liability while not absolving the defendant of appropriate responsibility for their crime. Anything less than a recognition of this perpetuates institutional racism in the justice system by framing the law primarily for the white people who have historically written it.

While I can’t understand what it’s like to be called the n-word as a Black person, I can empathise with the stomach-churning reaction that comes with an insult designed to attack your very existence. For me personally, as a gay man, to be called a faggot makes me feel sick to my core. I am lucky(?) enough to have only been called that word a handful of times, but when someone uses your sexuality against you in the most hurtful way our language allows, it’s like a punch full of hate hitting you square in the gut. In that moment you realise that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, and whoever you’re with, you are vulnerable – and not only that, you are vulnerable because that person so detests a fundamental fibre of your being that they want to cause you as much pain as possible. It makes little difference whether the insult is directed at you or someone else – to hear the word hurled at someone in anger is akin to hearing it hurled at you, because if that person despises someone simply because he is a gay man, they despise you too. Hearing that word reminds you that to some people you will always be less than human, and it has an enduring emotional impact.

I want to pause to note at this point that there are concerns to be aware of where it is perceived that the previous two insults are being compared. Commentators note that the n-word has a unique history that makes it inappropriate to equate them. As such, I want to be clear that while as a gay man while I vehemently detest the word faggot, as a white person I could never objectively compare the two. My intention with the preceding examples is not to make any assessment or claim to equivalence, but simply to provide them as two separate examples that have the power to deeply wound.

These are, of course, only two two of the myriad slurs aimed at minorities. What struck me when researching this topic was that throughout the many possible insults, the visceral hurt expressed by victims was starkly similar. In a recent article in GQ Magazine, Ciaran Thapar movingly described his partner’s reaction to being called a P*ki: “Afterwards, she rang me. Her voice was shaking. She said it reminded her of how small and alone she felt when she was called the slur by a man while dancing at a nightclub in Guildford in her teens.” Emphasis mine. There are many other examples, but ultimately when you are attacked because of an inherent facet of who you are, it is not only deeply upsetting in the moment but lingers long in your memory, and can make you question your very being.

Thapar’s article also addresses the reclaiming of the P-word by some British Asians, a process that has been reflected with racist terms used against other people of colour and homophobic insults used against LGB people. Regardless of the word or the targeted group, this reclaiming of language is usually about taking control from the oppressors to the oppressed, and in some cases progressing towards an environment wherein those words are seen with a degree of affection or, at least, acceptance. When it comes to homophobic insults, the two most prominent examples are queer and faggot, but the extent to which ownership of the two has been embraced is markedly different. The former has largely gained acceptance as a mainstream word when used by queer people to describe themselves, and of the common acronyms used to refer to sexual orientation and gender most now include the letter Q. Personally I embrace the word queer, finding it increasingly relevant in a world where we see the need to smash binaries and embrace a more nuanced understanding of sexuality. Faggot, however, is less universally-accepted. While some gay men have embraced it, many have not. I’ve described the visceral feelings the word embodies, and I cringe when I hear one gay man use it to another, even in a playful way. I recoil even more when I hear the adjective “faggoty” used to describe someone who is perceived to be feminine or unmanly, which simultaneously manages to mix a vitriolic insult with a perpetuation of harmful gender and sexual stereotypes. Unlike queer, it seems to me that the word faggot has no use or relevance in everyday speech, and is best consigned to the margins of history rather than being embraced as a word we want to hear. Philip Ellis said it best when he wrote in GQ magazine (emphasis mine): “For me, the word ‘faggot’ is so specific in its violence against gay men that even when I hear it used in jest it is hard not to feel rendered powerless – as if it had been shouted at me from a passing car.”

The idea that words can never hurt you may be true in the children’s rhyme, but life is not that simple. Ultimately, the people who have the right to make the decision on whether or not a word is hurtful are the people who it is used against. If someone says that a word is deeply hurtful to them, whether or not you understand it, then the right thing to do is not to use it. Even where words have been reclaimed either in part or in whole, that word still has its roots in the pejorative, and as such it is never acceptable for someone outside of that group to use that word as if it were their own. And as for Scrabble, of course we should not censor language in academic debate or political discussion or other forms of rigorous free speech – but Scrabble is a game and slurs are not necessary for that game to exist. Including them trivialises the use of painful words and perpetuates the normalisation of loaded language by people from outside of those marginalised groups. If people want to continue to play bigoted words in the privacy of their own home then that is their choice, but in professionally-organised tournaments it is quite another. It really doesn’t matter whether it upsets me or not, though – it matters that some people are upset, and if the hill you choose to die upon is your right to use the word faggot even when you know it causes real pain and distress, then that says more about you as a person than any triple word score.

8 responses to “Sticks and stones”

  1. Such an insightful and well spoken post. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your experiences.

    1. I didn’t realise I hadn’t replied – thanks Emily 😊

  2. Very, very well written and nuanced. Thank-you!!

    1. Thanks Kay! Appreciate that 😊

      1. Such a brilliant read, Guy.
        It made me think about my experience as a teacher hearing children being verbally abusive to one another. I talk to my kids about how words can hurt, sometimes using an apple to demonstrate – on the surface, the apple appears to be like any other apple but when you slice the apple, you can see damage has been done (I drop the apple a few times prior to the lesson). It shows them that even if they cannot see the effect of their words on another person, that does not mean they have not caused harm.
        I’m amazed and reassured to see children as young as 8 understanding this, being self-aware, showing empathy and practicing kindness. I often wonder what kind of teenagers and adults they’ll become. I’m forever hopeful for these future generations.

        My favourite part of your post and what I almost want to print and frame for my school is this:

        “Ultimately, the people who have the right to make the decision on whether or not a word is hurtful are the people who it is used against. If someone says that a word is deeply hurtful to them, whether or not you understand it, then the right thing to do is not to use it.”

        Looking forward to your next post already.

      2. Gemma, I meant to reply to say that I thought this was a wonderful way to teach children about the power of language! Is this something you came up with yourself?

  3. Russell Dickinson-Deane avatar
    Russell Dickinson-Deane

    Another great read.
    The notion that we can’t say things that might upset someone is a tricky one. There must be examples where to not say it causes more harm than to say it… In France the government never collects racial data on the population as that is considered in itself racist, but now they can’t say whether coronavirus is affecting more people of BAME background, so in their effort to be correct they may be causing actual harm.

    1. Hi Russell! Thanks for you comment, and apologies for not replying in a more timely manner 🙂 I agree, it’s not a cut and dried question, and it is context-dependant. The point about collecting data is a very interesting and I wasn’t aware about BAME data in France. I do have some understanding however around similar laws that apply to sexual orientation data in many European countries, such as Germany and Belgium (I think – from memory) which means for example that companies cannot ask employees to provide even data anonymously and in aggregate, and therefore it’s very difficult for employers to understand whether they have a sexual orientation bias at hiring, at promotion, at exit, etc. However, all that said, I think data collection is a different discussion vs. free speech/harmful words. There is a big difference between unnecessarily using language that has the power to hurt, and collecting aggregate data in order to improve the lives of minorities and women.

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