Saturday, June 23, 2007

Gay/Rape

Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe I'm getting overly defensive. Maybe I need to relax. Maybe it's my problem, but for some reason I absolutely cannot stand hearing people refer to things as "gay" (in the pejorative sense), refer to a disliked person as "fag", or inform me that they got "raped" if they didn't do well in a competition. Yes, friends, I have a new vendetta against language.

Let's address each of these terms one by one, sprinkling in bonus info on less editor-friendly terms like "pussy" as well!

According to the incredibly legitimate academic source Wikipedia, gay became popular as a pejorative term in the 1980s and late 1990s, when homosexuality was becoming increasingly discussed and, as a result, increasingly oppressed by many. Oh yes, I certainly remember that phase of my life when every teenager I knew was talking about "gay" this and "gay" that. I didn't think much of it at the time, thinking it instead to be one of those inexplicable quirks of language that I would never quite understand, such as how for a brief time "bad" actually meant "good". I'll be the first to admit that even I may have uttered one or two "gays" in my younger life, not understanding the implications.

What troubles me is that this term has not died out with the other, more transient elements of the 1990s, like hypercolor shirts or Kurt Cobain (too soon?). It is still in use with abundance and fervor, particulaly in chat on World of Warcraft (I can't speak for other games or chat rooms, as this is the only one I frequent...I am not ashamed). One of my friends surprised me the other day by saying "ghey" with a :P face following it, as though that were somehow an amusing, yet acceptable, alternative. Once again, Wikipedia comes to the rescue, noting that many have tried to use "ghey" as a non-offensive substitute for "gay", as others have tried to use "knigger", thereby only capturing the new meaning of the word without linking it pejoratively to the people it otherwise would reference.

Nope, I'm not buying it.

I can't believe that the BBC ruled that "gay" need not be offensive as a pejorative. I love you, BBC, but you've done me wrong here. There is no way you can tell me that the use of "gay" to mean "stupid" or "uncool" is not a direct (and very recent) derivative of similar connotations against homosexuals. In fact, that use of "gay" directly flies in the face of its original meaning, which suggests "happy", "carefree", and "liberated from traditional constraints". By all accounts, then, "gay" should mean "cutting edge", not "sub par".

I don't think much more needs to be said on the topic of "fag". "Fag", of course, is short for "faggot" and similarly is used in connotation with homosexuals (typically men), although it has always held a more desparaging air. This one I'm not as worried about, because it doesn't masquerade as being acceptable as "gay" now does (according to the BBC, even...for shame). This one is blatantly offensive, and links the offending person with homosexuality and thus, apparently, weakness.

Now, this is just ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. The "N" word is finally all but gone from our vernacular as a pejorative (and the blacks are even reclaiming it!). I doubt these same people run around using racial slurs. So why is it okay to choose homosexuals as the new scapegoat of choice? Oh, right, because they're not being recognized as people yet. Silly me.

I'm not saying that you need to support gay marriage, or that you need to be gay. Maybe I'm dead wrong about language use and it has become separate from the pejorative, demeaning cultural psyche against homosexuality. I doubt it, though. Think about the most offensive terms we have for men: fag is a big one, followed closely by (and pardon my language, I'm just interested in the linguistics here) pussy, cocksucker, and the now-dwindling alternatives of dick and asshole. First of all, I find the obsession with body parts to be remarkable, especially those of a sexual nature. That one, I can't explain. But I do find it frightening that three of these (four, if you want to stretch it) refer directly to homosexuality. Is that really the most offensive thing we can say to a man? That he might prefer the company of other men? It isn't surprising, given our culture's obsession with "manliness". But I've always laughed when a man has been called a "pussy" in front of me, because as far as I can tell, "pussies" have more power over a man than absolutely anything else.

Nevertheless, it seems as though we as a culture are fixated on making homosexuality undesirable. So what do we do? Are homosexuals just the scapegoat of the week? If we move on from this group, do we just pick another? Why don't disabled (differently abled?) individuals get upset at our rampant use of "lame"? Is somebody ALWAYS going to be denigrated?

The Sapir-Whorf stuff about how language defines our reality may have been, well, rubbish in terms of its experimental design, but I think there's some truth to it. As long as we run around saying bad things are gay, we're likely going to think that gay things are bad, too. And I, for one, am not cool with that.

What can we do about it, then? I've had a decent amount of luck just saying to people "Would you mind not using 'gay' to mean 'bad' around me? I find it offensive." There have been three common responses: silence, a surprised "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend", and the oh-so-mature "So you're a dyke then. Lesbo." Classy, I know. But what is the alternative? I ask, dear readers, what I do now? Do I shut up and let this phase pass on its own? Do I politely suggest that people around me not use such language, perhaps reverting to such bland standbys as "bad" or "unpleasant"? Do I get over it and fall into the "it's just language, it doesn't mean anything" camp?

...or do I suggest new, entertaining vernacular!

Now, replacing "bad" with anything else is probably going to offend some people. I've thought of using some objects in that role, since they clearly can't be offended, but I fear the use of "rutabaga" is not only unwieldy, but would also upset environmentalists by saying I am now devaluing plant life and encouraging an anthrocentric mindset. Oops. Sorry, carrots. Okay, how about something that is obviously less evolved? "He's such an amoeba" has a nice ring to it, but people might have trouble spelling it. I think the safest alternative is gibberish: "That party was completely zizzlefex". Perfect. Your submissions are welcome below.

On a more serious note, however, I have failed to address the final, and perhaps most complex, term mentioned above: "rape". Rape is not funny. Rape is not something to be taken lightly. Rape is not equivalent to losing badly in a video game. Rape is a life-altering, psychologically scarring violation of your body and soul. I'm fairly sure you're not going to walk away from a debate round needing years of therapy, hating yourself, fearing all men and unable to enjoy a healthy self-image or sex life. So why do people consistently use this term in video games, debate, and other competition to describe their loss? Is it actually okay, and I'm just getting up in arms? Maybe it's because I'm female, but...such a term makes me shudder, and I think that using it consistently in unimportant settings removes that strong connotation and lessens the importance of that reality. What disturbs me even more, however, is when players or debaters support this act of "raping", getting excited about the prospect of "raping" their opponents. Not only does this devalue the atrocity of rape, it encouragessuch an act. That is something we absolutely cannot afford to do. Am I overreacting? You tell me. I'm curious to know. If I'm not overreacting, though, I think we (especially those in the debate community) need to start doing something about our colleagues and students throwing this term around like a Glow-In-The-Dark Frisbee (tm).

So, there's my opinion. I think these terms shouldn't be used in common speech. I think we need to start thinking about our language choices, because language is probably the most important and pervasive tool of ideology that we have. You may not realize it, but the way we talk about things is directly responsible for how we think, feel, and act about them (check out any number of communication scholars on this topic; Sapir and Whorf are the big ones, but there are others). That being the case, I'm not comfortable with normalizing rape or denigrating sexual choices via my vernacular. Please help me either reconcile these concerns in my own mind, or provide a solution. Until then, I will be celebrating my homosexual friends, avoiding sexual violence in debate rounds, and happily yelling about every zizzlefex fool I come across.

2 comments:

Calvine said...

Keep up the good work.

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