At a convention a few weeks ago, I heard one of the attendees use both "gay" and "retarded" as slurs. Mind you, this was attending a philosophy convention, populated with people who hold individual rights as inviolate and are, at the core, rational people.
I was so stunned that, quite unlike my usual habits, I couldn't even scold him. It boggled my mind that in 2016 we are still using these words as ammunition for our verbal assaults.
A quick primer in the specifics of this issue: "gay" and "retarded" are often used as slang to mean "stupid" or "weird." Before the advent of the internet and social justice, this practice was far more widespread than it is today. We're taught from an early age that, no matter what your beliefs are, you respect the right of a person to live the life they love.
Yet, it seems that this ugly weed is digging its roots into the soil of our lexicon once again, and the issue needs to be revisited.
Using "gay" or "retarded" as slang is a way of dehumanizing the people who are homosexual or have developmental and mental issues. It is stripping them of their dignity, reducing their identity to a curse word thrown in faster haste than Paula Deen running out of The Apollo Theater.
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: you are an ardent Christian, attend church every Sunday, pledge yourself to God, and find a true sense of worth and community within your congregation. Now, a trend starts where the word Christian is being used by school children as a synonym for "motherf***er." Every child in the school doesn't think twice and it spreads like wildfire. How would you feel at that moment, where the guiding force of your life is decimated and sullied?
This is the scene that true LGBTQ and disabled people come across every day. They hear these words being tossed like Kanye West at a Trump Rally and feel a chunk of their true self being chipped off piece by piece. It is reducing them to a joke, and for what reason?
The roots of this linguistic conundrum are a mystery but, like most slang words, evolves from extended and frequent use. The Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia notes that "in order for the [slang] expression to survive, it must be widely adopted by the group who uses it.” Often, I believe, slang stems from a child's parents and their views. If a father is homophobic, he may casually rattle off slurs against gay people, thereby transferring to his child that "gay" can be used as an embodiment of the ideals held by his father.
Our language, in every aspect, is an important tool in understanding the world around us. We write and speak to gain greater knowledge of the mysteries of life and affirm those we know well. Yet, language is dangerous due to the fact that it can be used as a weapon. In the words of novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu, "The pen is mightier than the sword."
So, I ask you all today to do the following:
- If you use these words as hateful slang, STOP. It's as easy as that. Choose to reassess why you use these words derogatorily and correct your behavior before it permeates your world-view permanently.
- If you don't use these words, CORRECT IT. If you hear this sort of language from friends, family, and even strangers, politely talk to them and suggest that they might change their behavior. Connect with them and, without vehemence, assert your position and educate them.
These simple steps will put us all on a faster track to accepting the people who populate this world, no matter who they are, what they believe, how they look, or what they think.
In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent!"
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