Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's all about context

Stephanie Rice is in trouble for using A Bad Word. She’s been dumped by her sponsor and under fire for being homophobia as a result... but a teammate, who is gay, defends her by saying she isn’t. How can these be reconciled?

It’s easy if you understand one thing: it’s all about context. Offensiveness always is. Absolutely anything, no matter how innocuous normally, can be offensive in the wrong context... and absolutely anything offensive can be passable in the right context.

To expand on that: I use the word ‘faggot’ with some frequency. Other words, too. The context in which I use them is one where the people who hear me know that I mean them as parody more than seriousness. When I call my friends ‘faggots’, they know that I am making fun of the sort of people who use the term, not of the people who are usually targets.

However, if I used the same word in the same way in public, the context would be different. The people around me might know what I meant... but many would not. Not only would some of those who hear take offence, but they should; because some of those who hear and do not understand what I mean would be emboldened by hearing me. They would not be offended because they like using whatever word I just came up with. The more people they hear using it, the more likely they are to have their views reinforced and not only use that word, but act in a way consistent with its mainstream intent.

Too often, our discussion of racism, sexism and homophobia focus on the words we use instead of the ideas we express. This is why ‘Dr’ Laura Schlessinger was attacked for using ‘nigger’ 11 times, when the far more offensive statement she made was to tell her female black caller (who was complaining about her husband’s friends using the same word) that if she was so easily offended, she shouldn’t have married outside her race. She got away clean from that truly repulsive statement because most of the onlookers (though fortunately, not all) were too distracted by ‘The N-Word’. This gives her clearance to say that she was attacked for simply using a word... when she was actually attacked for being horribly racist. She probably wouldn't learn anyway, but this would be a good moment to talk about the attitudes in society that lead people towards racism... instead it was just about the Word.

I say: words, by themselves, are not offensive. The ideas they conjure and the contexts in which they are uttered make them offensive. Words to put down women, homosexuals and minorities are offensive not simply because they are designed to put people down but because they reinforce cultural memes of inferiority. They are a means of propagating not only prejudice, but prejudice that results in unequal access to society for those targeted by it.

For this reasons, I find nothing truly offensive about terms like ‘cracker’. The word might betray some crassness in the speaker, and I might decide I don’t like that person on some principle or another, but it lacks the sting that ‘nigger’, ‘kike’, ‘boong’ or ‘faggot’ do, because there is no societal prejudice leading towards unequal access to society for white men like me. Or rather, there is... but the inequality is in my favour. So the least I can do is to be a big man and suck up the occasional insult.

So I can understand where Stephanie Rice is coming from. I’m willing to believe her teammate and accept that she was tone-deaf rather than prejudiced. I think she should refrain from using certain words in public, but also that we should talk about why offence is caused, not simply use ‘That Is Offensive!’ as a politically-correct fire blanket.

1 comment:

  1. Frankly, I am suspicious of people who DON'T call me a fag. It means they are a self-hating closeted homophobe and probably a communist.