It's okay when *we* say it.

2011-11-28 00:16

For years, the general rule that some words are deeply offensive for most people to use, but perfectly okay for members of the group offended to use, bothered me. It still does.

But I recently had the (mis?)fortune to watch a movie called The Hebrew Hammer. It’s a blacksploitation movie. Well. It’s… almost a blacksploitation movie. There is a subtle difference.

At one point in the movie, one of the hilariously-stereotyped blacks refers to the Hebrew Hammer as “my main kike”, and is referred to in turn as “my main nigga”. A nearby white man (his desk has a little nametag reading “WHITE ACCOUNTANT”) is confused, and after a moment or two, one of them says “well, it’s okay when we call each other that.” This, of course, is not how it actually works.

But thinking about it, I think I finally get it. The double-standard really isn’t. The key here is that I assumed the rule was that it was somehow declared not-offensive for some people to say these things. It’s not. Rather, it’s that when you are dealing with people you know don’t mean something in an offensive sense, offensive things are a kind of friendly teasing.

For instance, a couple of my friends (who are close enough that their parents used to helpfully mention that if they had anything to say about their relationship, their parents would still love them) like to have fake fights in public. This led to a dialogue, briefly excerpted here:

Luka: Yeah, that’s what your mom said. Last night. When I was having sex with her.
Rain: Yeah? Well, your mom’s dead.
Luka: <laughs>

Well, yes, her mom’s dead. Had been for, at the time, several months. This was something that would totally not be okay to joke about… Unless you were a very good friend. Note that the rule here has nothing to do with whether Rain is Luka’s dead mom, only that they’re close enough that the comment can’t possibly be meant to hurt.

And the reason group membership is generally taken as “good enough” is that, in general, people are assumed not to despise their own ethnic group. (Not sure this is a particularly good assumption, but it’s there regardless.)

There are some weird boundaries. I have known gay guys who call other gay guys “faggots”, apparently meaning nothing hostile by it. I probably couldn’t get away with calling random gay strangers fags, but no one seems to be inclined to complain if I call my spouse a fag.

Writing creates its own set of weird problems for this. One of our friends is writing a story in which a number of characters are in a mental institution. One, who has a clearly established problem with self-esteem, referred to himself as crazy. Cue outrage; how dare the writer use this insulting word? And yet… It was true to the character. Should writers be restricted from writing characters accurately? Does it matter whether the writer has a mental illness, or the character does, or what? I dunno. In any event, it struck me as a little silly.

I think people are a little too fast, in practice, to take things negatively when they don’t really have to. On the other hand, you don’t lose much communicative power by not using racial slurs and the like. (Exception: As anyone who’s met Jesse could tell you, trying to talk about Jesse without using the word “fag” is basically impossible.)

Peter Seebach

---

Comment

  1. It’s not quite so simple. If people A and B make a racial slur to each other, and they are not members of that racial group, it’s offensive, since it is a sign that they are racist.

    It’s best thought of in terms of power dynamics. You have two groups: the empowered (E), and the disempowered (D). Since we are talking about people’s feelings, it doesn’t matter whether or not E has more power than D, only whoever is judging thinks that this is the case.

    The implication of being empowered vs. disempowered is that a member of D cannot properly defend him/herself against an attack by E (or a member of E.)

    The important thing here is that people are thinking about each other with abstractions (stereotypes), rather than as individuals. Thus there is not a clear mental distinction between D and a member of D. That is, we’re thinking in terms of blacks and whites or men and women, even if we’re dealing with Fred and Joan. Note that even if Fred and Joan know each other quite well, the emotional power of a slur can cause them to momentarily forget their relationship and think in terms of stereotypes.

    It is offensive for a member of E to use a slur against D (or a member of D), because D cannot defend him/herself. Whether it’s intended as an attack or not, it may be interpreted as an attack, so it’s not allowed. A member of D can use the slur, because it is nonsensical as an attack, since it would equally be an attack on him/herself.

    There are no hard and fast rules here: it’s all about the emotional impact of the slur. Thus, how strongly you should avoid a slur depends on (1) the emotional strength of the slur in general, and (2) the probability that the slur will be understood as a threat.

    The slurs are most potent when there is a real and credible threat, not just a verbal slight. That’s why racist and sexist slurs are so powerful. Men have a history of physically overpowering and raping women. Whites (a.k.a. the majority or normative group) have a history of enslaving non-whites. In the workplace, there is a credible threat of discrimination leading to job loss, wage loss, or a demeaning work environment.

    This is true wherever there is a power dynamic. Managers aren’t allowed to use offensive terms for their employees. Teachers aren’t allowed to use offensive language to describe students. Same with educators, police, and so on.

    Thus, slurs are avoided because they may be interpreted as a threat. The threat may be abstract, and may or may not be backed by real power to threaten. The emotional impact is the key.

    Dave Leppik · 2011-11-28 15:41 · #

  2. Here’s another way to think of it. A slur is a proxy for a threat. Just as in a hospital, blue is a proxy for a note that says “this is sterile”.

    Human minds are lazy. A doctor or nurse can’t reliably go through all the mental steps to determine if a cloth is sterile every time he/she needs a sterile cloth. He/she just grabs one off the pile of blue cloths. And will refuse to even look at the pile of white cloths.

    But outside the medical context, the same doctor/nurse would not be confused by, for example, a blue dress or a blue car. However, a blue napkin might give him/her pause— especially if it looks a lot like the blue cloths at work.

    Stereotypes involve a similar set of proxies. Since you can’t tell just by looking if a person is biased against you, you look for proxies. Just as in one context, the blue cloth is sterile, and in another it’s a plain napkin, slurs are a threat in some cases but not in others.

    Unfortunately, things that are safely out of context are funny. Thus, you could make a comedy sketch about a blue cloth that a doctor thinks is a sterile cloth (but really isn’t) being used in a manner completely inappropriate for a sterile cloth. For a similar reason, people are constantly playing with slurs in order to find just the right spot where it’s more funny than offensive. And the closer you get to that line without crossing it, the funnier it is. Which makes everything a confusing mess for autistic observers.

    Dave Leppik · 2011-11-28 16:00 · #

  3. I’m not totally sure I buy the power analysis, simply because it’s very clearly possible for people in “low-power” groups to nonetheless exhibit the same sorts of insulting language, and mean similar things by it.

    So I think in some cases, it’s not so much a proxy for a threat, as a proxy for a statement of contempt, or something like that. Which is possible regardless of power, because power and sense of self worth aren’t always the same thing. … And in a way, I think, it’s an attempt to shift the frame of conversation to one where both parties have power.

    seebs · 2011-11-28 19:22 · #

 
---