So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

26 April, 2008

The Quality of Language is Strained

I just watched a bunch of writers seriously arguing that the usage of the word "gay" to mean, more or less, "something I don't like", is not homophobic.

Because, you know, that usage indicating sub-par quality has gotten so general in the culture that it's unremarkable, it clearly doesn't refer to actual gay people, and its spread and usage has absolutely nothing to do with any sort of underlying flow of homophobia in the culture such that the shape of things might be predisposed to using a word aimed in the generally queer direction as a generalised slur.

I'm ... boggled.

This is a bunch of people supposedly sensitive to word nuance - many of them professionally published - and several of them are seriously arguing that it has no homophobic connotations. "Oh, no, my kids aren't homophobic, they're using a word they don't know what means."

The usage is homophobic. Whoever uses it. Whether or not it's being chosen consciously as a slur. It buys into and supports a cultural universe in which "gay" is equated with subpar, low-quality, obnoxious, broken, defective. It hooks into the same cognitive space as and partially replaces the equivalent usage from my generation - "lame" - which I never noticed as problematic before I saw someone point out how ablist it was. Which is, again, tapping into the extensive cultural characterisation of people with disabilities as being subpar, low-quality, broken, defective.

The clear direct response to this was made by someone I happen to know is queer. Who got nothing in response but "How horrible of you to say that about someone's children", "some gay people have that usage, how dare you!", "you're being an asshole", "the word means happy!", and the like. Someone seriously brought up "When I was a kid, we were taught to say 'jewed down', and I'm not an anti-Semite".

The assumptions of the culture are homophobic, are ablist, are anti-Semitic; to the extent that one takes those in and breathes them out, one will be homophobic, ablist, anti-Semitic. (Racist, sexist, ...) Because that's the baseline for normal: a steady, grinding, degrading wearing-down of groups with less power with a constant grit of low-level disgust.

I left a response saying that the usage was so blatantly homophobic that I was shocked that anyone was arguing otherwise.

Because I am that shocked.

And because nobody should have to stand alone.


thene said...

Oh fuck. off.

(I spent way too long living in denial because other children had called me 'lesbo' when I was young, and I didn't know what it meant (and I guess some of them didn't either), only that it was a really bad thing you'd never want to be. Do these fuckmuppets not know where internalised homophobia comes from?)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Apparently bloody not!

Dw3t-Hthr said...

A real charmer came in with a delightful little "The PC police have spoken, something calling itself DH has spoken!" bit too.

Praise the gods and programmers for killfiles. That's a fuckmuppet I don't need any more of.

Wanderer said...

I'm interested by the bit about 'lame'...that doesn't feel as prejudicial to me as 'gay' (although I agree that it still has many of the buy-in connotations.) I wonder if that fact that, in most American usage, 'lame' is no longer a word that is commonly used to refer to disabled people makes it less cutting, less prejudicial, both, or neither? It certainly doesn't *feel* as offensive to me, and I'm interested to know what others think.

Wanderer said...

I'm interested by the bit about 'lame'...that doesn't feel as prejudicial to me as 'gay' (although I agree that it still has many of the buy-in connotations.) I wonder if that fact that, in most American usage, 'lame' is no longer a word that is commonly used to refer to disabled people makes it less cutting, less prejudicial, both, or neither? It certainly doesn't *feel* as offensive to me, and I'm interested to know what others think.

Daisy said...

Great post... I work with a backward-thinking fella who considers "That's so GAY!" the worst insult of all, even inferior frozen pizzas are "gay" for instance...ARGH!!!!

Dw3t-Hthr said...

There's a process by which words are denatured, over time; the original concept is lost, while the insult remains, and eventually that wears thin and threadbare.

The person who raised the original objection to the usage of 'gay' let me know that 'buggery' for anal sex derives from an insult to ... Bulgarians. Who knew? (Well, he did, obviously, but.)

And "lame" is not a commonly used pejorative for PWD, these days, but at the same time ... it's still a commonly known word. If someone described their disabilities as 'lameness', well, most people would understand what was being referred to there. Not even most people with a solid vocabulary; it's an uncommon word, not a vanished or obsolete one.

And yes, I think that does mean that it's not as sharp in the general case, because it's not the word that everyone uses for responding to PWD, or at least PWmobilityD anymore. But that doesn't mean that the sharpness has worn smooth -- we're not talking about seven hundred year old insults to Bulgarians here -- just, maybe, a little bit blunted when compared to words used in the constant everyday.

And I started to work on wiping the word from my vocabulary in the non-denotative sense when it was pointed out to me (I think 'in my hearing' rather than 'in my direction') that it could be construed as bigoted, because, well, when someone points out that one's being an asshole by accident, I figure the best response is, "Shit! That is kinda being an asshole! I should stop!"

And at the same time, I really suspect that the people who use "gay" and don't think it's homophobic at all feel exactly the same way as many of the people who use "lame". I've seen 'it just means "bad"' without any cognitive awareness of why that might be the case, even when it's pointed out directly.

WordK said...

I knew the bugger/Bulgaria connection -- the context I stumbled across it was as a derogatory name for members of a Medieval gnostic sect believed to have originated in Bulgaria.

I have a friend and an acquaintance who were doing work on the attitudes toward GLBT persons on my college campus as part of their senior projects. Both of them asked about how frequently "That's so gay!" was bandied about by students. (The answer -- frequently.)

A kid in one of my classes went on a delightful homophobic rant earlier this semester about how the gays were "shoving their lifestyle down his throat." "That's so gay" seems to be the opposite to me -- heterosexist attitudes reinforcing themselves.

I also agree that most frequently, this process -- as with lame -- is mostly unconscious.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Wanted to stash this partial comment from my participation in this conversation over here, as it speaks to the general case and things I didn't go into in this post:

One of the things that's gotten increasingly clear to me as I've observed power-imbalanced dynamics is that these unconscious bigotries are a big problem, and that yes, it still counts as bigoted behaviour when it's not conscious, deliberate, with malice aforethought; sufficiently advanced incompetence being indistinguishable therefrom.

Darker said...

I see a reasonable argument to the effect of "the individual using the word may not, themselves, have any negative attitudes towards homosexuals"; humans can have distinct thought-spaces for homynyms, though bleedover between them is common.

However, that's a completely separate question from whether the term promotes negative attitudes towards homosexuals. Like you, it seems "duh"-level obvious to me that it does so.

ie: It's not that the word is an infallible indicator, but that it inevitably shapes associations and attitudes.

Admittedly, this may be hypocritical, as I have a harder time with the 'lame' thing. Perhaps this is because I associate the descriptor more with horses, perhaps because....

...hey. I finally came up with a mental "what if" which kinda got that one across to myself on a more intuitive level. Neat.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I would say that the usage is sufficient evidence for a particular form of unconscious bigotry and privilege: the ability to not notice that one is inflicting wounds.

This is something that people get by breathing in our culture, the stuff that causes wounds; while it's not, in the abstract, difficult to go, "Woops! Accidentally being an asshole! Better stop that!" about one's language, the language is still evidence of an unconscious bigotry, a capacity to let hurt to others flow freely through one. That one doesn't notice that one's being a conduit doesn't absolve one of the responsibility to shut off the tap.

Maybe it's in the wound rather than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, a stab to the heart, or similar more obvious bloodlettings, but have you seen the mess abrasions cause?

Graydon said...

If words have broad implicative meaning, people have to think about what they are saying in the abstract or the general case.
That's not the default; the default is "what are the status consequences of this?"

I get driven mad by this in meetings at work, where half the people in the room are trying to figure out how to make something work and half are trying to avoid loss of face, and who is in which half can change without warning. It's not very productive.

What acknowledging systematic disdain would do, should anyone choose to do that, would be—eventually, in consequence—to require an acknowledgement that they need to construct the social hierarchy in a new way.
That's tough; hardly anyone is truly confident about their social position in a positive way, there's a real lack of examples of hierarchies constructed on some basis other than distance from the single central ideal (I suspect ground ape wetware hardwiring on that one), and everyone who is currently high status is likely to be opposed.

I suspect that the more effective way to counteract the disdain is to spread the idea that it's a symptom of weakness to speak unconsciously, rather than to address the harm it does; given a choice between diffuse harm to strangers and immediate loss of status, it's very hard to prefer to worry about the strangers. Given a choice between loss of status and status-affirming behaviour that just happens to avoid harm to strangers, it's easier to avoid harming the strangers.

This is of course one of the major reasons the Neocon movement pounds on the idea of "PC"; it's a threat if someone is pushing toward a status system that says you're weak if you speak unconsciously.