October is Bullying Prevention Month, and it can't happen soon enough, given the recent bullying-related suicides in our country. Most people are not bullies, but even the kindest among us can inadvertently hurt others.
Bullying is directly tied to cultural attitudes about what is acceptable and what is not. There are a number of words and phrases that people drop into conversations every single day with no consideration of how the words affect social norms.
Two phrases in particular are so widely used that even little children employ them to express feelings of contempt, ridicule or negativity.
“That’s so gay.”
“That’s so retarded.”
I remember being an elementary school student in the early 1980’s, and every time someone said something that was obvious, we would all point to our heads and say, “no duh” in an exaggerated voice, usually followed by an admonishment not to be “so retarded.”
It was not until I was a middle schooler that I realized what retarded meant. I had assumed it was something negative, but I had no real understanding of the word. And I certainly never thought about the millions of real people who had been diagnosed as retarded. As I grew older, I learned more, and I felt bad for participating in the ignorant use of the word retarded.
My guess is that there are thousands of people out there—good, decent human beings who would never consider themselves the type that are causing others pain—who carelessly toss the word “retarded” into conversations. And they are inadvertently causing harm.
Over the decades, the word “retarded” has become synonymous with a slew of negative associations, but people continue to use it in casual conversations without pause. A fellow ChicagoNow blogger—Nikki from Moms Who Drink and Swear-- recently shared a powerful YouTube video about the word “retarded” on her Facebook page.
Watch this girl’s video, and then ask yourself if you should respond with “don’t be retarded” the next time someone says something that you think is stupid. Question whether you should taunt “what a retard” when someone makes a mistake.
And while you are learning to think before you speak, let’s talk about the word “gay” and the way that people use it to denigrate or scorn just about anything and everything. Do you find yourself saying, “Don’t be so gay,” or “that’s so gay”?
Maybe you don’t say it, but if you laugh along when others say it, you are still giving approval to the use of the word in a negative light.
Are you a teenage boy who feels the need to sprinkle the phrase “no homo” liberally in your conversations, just in case something you said might be perceived as gay? As in, “Hey, man, what are you up to later – no homo—do you want to meet up?” Or “He’s a really great guy—no homo— seriously, we have the best time together.”
Being perceived as gay is one of the overwhelmingly common reasons why boys are bullied. As a result, young boys and teens literally feel compelled to state “no homo” if they are talking about subjects that might be interpreted as feminine, such as feelings, relationships and appearances.
Saying “don’t be so gay” rigidly reinforces the cultural expectation that boys must be masculine and girls must be feminine, with no room for both traits to coexist in people.
For the boys who actually are gay, can you imagine how agonizing it must be to know that their peers are so terrified of being labeled as gay that they actually state “no homo” as a defense mechanism? It must make them feel conflicted and anxious about themselves at best, ashamed and horrified at worst.
Every time people say, “what a retard,” they chip away at the happiness of a mother who has a child with Down’s Syndrome. They bring tears to the eyes of a girl whose brother is severely autistic.
Every time people say, “that’s so gay,” they harm the boys and girls in our country who are trying to be express their interests in a variety of gender-assigned toys, games and colors. They contribute to the stereotypes that keep bullying in place. They make it harder for a little boy to profess his love for the color pink and for a little girl to carry a Star Wars thermos.
In honor of Bullying Prevention month, think before you speak.com.