Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slate doesn't understand what offensive speech is


Over at The New York Times, Jeremy Peters has an interesting article on the decline of the word 'homosexual' as self-description by those who identify as gay or lesbian. In the header of the article we are also told that "for many gays and lesbians, the term 'homosexual' is flinch-worthy."

In response, Slate's J. Bryan Lowder contested the thrust of Peters' piece. Most critically, Lowder writes of Peters' article, "let's not get in the habit of letting the overseers at GLAAD, on whose authority this article hinges, rescind access to words that really are innocuous." Unfortunately for Lowder's case, Peters does not at all hinge his authority on GLAAD.

GLAAD is brought up as an example of an advocacy group that finds "homosexual" to be an offensive term. Other reasons suggested for disfavoring the term include:

  • It contains the syllables "homo" (a common anti-gay slur) and "sex" (which puts more emphasis on the sexual aspects of gay life than might be desirable)
  • It invokes a period of time in which "homosexuality" was a mental illness
  • "Homosexual" is the term of choice for most anti-gay groups
To this last point, Lowder argues that we shouldn't let the Rush Limbaugh's of the world determine what words we use. But this objection gets to the heart of Lowder's confusion. The New York Times' article was not meant to forbid use of a word or declare it a slur. It was exploring a position taken by many gay advocates, and explaining the way words are used and the choices behind them.

Sometimes it is not immediately obvious why we choose the words we use, but these reasons can be revealed to us. When this happens, we discover that a word had connotations we did not expect. Peters uses this example: consider the phrases "homosexual activist", "homosexual community", and "homosexual marriage." Few gay advocates would ever use these phrases; I know I would not. There is a pejorative ring to each phrase, which disappears as soon as "homosexual" is replaced with "gay". This suggests that "homosexual" carries more negative connotations than we might have initially realized.

It's clear that Lowder does not appreciate that this is the level of analysis at which the NYT piece is working, because he writes, "As a member of The Community in Question, I’m willing to grant you...permission to use homosexual when the occasion calls for it." Even if this is meant as a joke, it shows that he misses the point. We don't avoid slurs because we lack permission from a particular community, we avoid using them because they carry connotations and implications that are damaging to the individuals in question. Words our powerful because the shape our shared understanding of the world, so we should choose the words we use wisely.

Making this about the author's identity, in this case, was unnecessary. It's fine if Lowder wants to share the fact that the word "homosexual" does not offend him--but this does not support his thesis. People of any community will have a variety of reactions to a word, but this is not the sole determinate of a word's status as a slur.

There are a few reasons to question Peters' analysis. One is that "homosexuality" serves as a useful term for which "gayness" is an awkward substitute.  And second, it seems "homosexual" is an appropriate word to keep around to describe the same-sex sexual behavior of non-human animals. (However, this second point might actually bolster the Peters' understanding, as in this context it would likely be exclusively used as an adjective, rather than as a noun.)

But I would not be surprised at all if "homosexual" went the way of the term "oriental." This, in my opinion, is likely a better parallel to draw than to analogize "homosexual" with a really hateful term like "fag". "Oriental" was never exclusively a hateful term, but it represented a very misguided and deficient understanding of a group of people. If it is heard these days, it is not necessarily perceived as an insult, but it is more likely seen as an outdated and inappropriate term for a group of people. So too, I believe, we can plausibly that "homosexual" will one day share a similar status.

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