“That’s so gay.” “I got raped by that final.” “You’re so retarded.”
These are words I often hear around campus exchanged between friends, either to evoke a few laughs or simply to fit in with the crowd. Words said by people who have never given these phrases a second thought and who don’t mean to harm anyone with what they’ve said.
That’s little consolation to the groups targeted by these words. To them, these words still hurt. And they’re only a fraction of the groups subject to insulting language.
It goes without saying that our society is far from establishing true equality. There’s a reason why LGBT youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to their peers, 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported and thousands of cases of mental illness go unreported and untreated each year. Every day, people struggle with who they are, trying to reconcile their identities with the unaccepting and judgmental community around them.
It’s because of these people that we need to stop using those words. Even if such words are said jokingly, using others’ identities and experiences as insults only trivializes the struggles these people face, deeming them as inferior and worthy of being laughed at.
Rape survivors have revealed that hearing the word “rape” out of context serves as a trigger for their assault and make them feel ashamed, used and violated all over again; LGBT students who heard phrases like “that’s so gay” were more likely to feel isolated and socially excluded; and Special Olympics Virginia athlete Joseph Franklin Stephens admitted that hearing the word retarded“hurts and scares” him by making him and others like him feel as if “we are something … that none of you would ever want to be … I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here, alone.”
Ultimately, then, even in casual contexts, using these words sends the message that our society condones such discrimination, culminating in a toxic environment that makes it difficult for people to seek help, maintain their self-esteem or even feel safe in their own communities.
Language shapes the way we view the world and influences the issues we find important, and using these terms allows them to be harnessed beyond a joking context and for truly malicious purposes. Because of this, simply ceasing to use these words can have a powerful impact. Of course, language isn’t enough. Concrete policy fixes, increased media coverage and a more accountable justice system are also needed to instigate meaningful change. But language serves as a crucial first step toward recognizing the rights that these people are due, and it can catalyze the changes that are needed. Moreover, sometimes laws are in vain in the absence of a cultural shift; since they are instituted to reform an aspect of society, they can be rendered meaningless if a society’s culture doesn’t appropriately adapt to them. Language — a crucial part of any culture — is therefore essential in solidifying a law’s eventual impact.
There has unfortunately evolved a certain stigma around being overly cautious with words, with some claiming that this obsession is tantamount to censorship because it stifles the views of others and that it doesn’t solve the root problem but instead prevents meaningful dialogue under a pretense of avoiding offending people.
These objections, however, fundamentally misunderstand why it is important to stop using these words. It’s not about avoiding controversial topics altogether, nor is it about preventing others from voicing their thoughts. It’s also not about avoiding any mention of someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, history or background whatsoever. Rather, it’s about fostering a culture of respect around different identities and experiences, so that when important discussions about underlying problems are had, they can truly accommodate all views on the issue. Ultimately, then, it’s not about what is said, but rather how it’s said.
Still others say that I need to loosen up and gain a sense of humor. But although I understand how some people find it irritating to be corrected when they have no ill intent, these words have a negative impact on others regardless of whether or not they are said facetiously. Even if these slurs are directed at a friend, they can not only still hurt others who overhear them being used, but they also simply normalize the idea that it is acceptable to make fun of those who are “different.” And even if it may be overdone at times, I’d rather live in a society in which people are overly concerned with being respectful toward others, rather than the other way around.
On a societal level, there’s a lot of difficult steps to be taken to institutionalize equality. On an individual basis, though, it’s easy: Stop using these words as insults. Just taking that one step can automatically shift our community in a far more constructive direction.
Contact Kimberly Tan at KWTan@Stanford.edu.