There are many words I like the sound of, really enjoy saying out loud, that offend and hurt people. I was once quite addicted to the word “spaz.” When it was pointed out to me (I was young) what it actually meant and how it could hurt other people I tried really hard not to use anymore.
I slip though.
I used to use “gay” to mean uncool. Despite having grown up with lots of gay and lesbian friends. I didn’t even make the connection till I started hearing people at school use “gay” in deliberately hateful, homophobic ways. I stopped using it pronto.
I have used the word “girlie” and told people not to behave like a girl. I am a girl.
“Spaz” and “lame” and “mongy” and “crip” and “gimp” are all words that say being able-bodied is in every way better than not being able bodied—that the non-abled bodied people aren’t as human.
And these are just the obvious words. There are so many ways in which assumptions about sexuality, gender, able -bodiedness, skin colour are woven into our everyday metaphors. “White” is good in a million different ways. The “white hats” are the good guys. (And all too often white actors are the good guys in movies. Don’t get me started on the casting of the Avatar movie.) White lies are less bad lies. “Are you blind?!” “Are you deaf?!” are often asked in situations where there is a moral failing in not seeing and not hearing. It’s not far off implying that there’s something morally wrong with being blind or deaf.
But I have gay friends who use “gay” to mean uncool. I used to fence with a paraplegic guy who called himself “mongy”, “para” and “crip”. If they use those words that then way why can’t I?
Because they have earned that right. Because they are the ones who are hurt by those words. Because they are mocking themselves, which is entirely different from being mocked by someone else who does not understand or care about them. Who is saying these words makes all the difference in the world. And, yes, white, straight, affluent men should be held to a different standard. They should be more careful about what they say. They have far more power to hurt and discriminate.
The problem with talking about hurtful words and language is that so often it’s contextual. There are times and places where you can deploy these words without causing offence. Although I am fond of swearing I don’t on my blog because I know it offends some of my readers. Of course, I still run into trouble over what constitutes swearing. I have offended people using words I don’t even think of as swearing. It’s tricky. All of this stuff is tricky. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all work hard not to offend people. Especially people who are in weaker positions than we are.
I have no problem with people calling me a honky or calling me an Aussie as though that’s a bad thing because there’s no long history of discrimination for being either of those things. Nor do I feel even slightly bad about referring to English people as “Poms”. That is not a word with a long history of oppression. English people are not being beaten up, kept out of jobs, and denied their civil rights because of their Englishness. And, yeah, I do think people who whinge about it should get over themselves. Besides, you pommy bastards, you know we Aussies say it with love and affection and no Colonial resentment whatsoever. Some of my best friends are Poms . . .
I still love the sound of “spazmatron”. I love how it feels exploding out of my mouth. But that pleasure pales compared to the pain it can cause. I wish “spaz” had a different origin so I could keep using it. But it doesn’t and it really does hurt people.
My real world policy on hurtful language is that I try to avoid using it. I try to avoid causing offense. Sometimes I fail. Probably often I fail. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I don’t think anyone is a a bad person for saying thoughtless things.1 I think you’re a bad person if you don’t care that your words hurt people.
How does all of this translate into my fiction?
I have seen many authors attacked for deploying words in their fiction that people are offended by. Often there seems to be a confusion between the views of characters in a book and the author’s views. Many people seem to think that authors believe every single thing every character in their books say.
That view is absurd.
In Magic’s Child Jay-Tee and Tom have a debate about religion. Jay-Tee is a devout Catholic, Tom is an atheist. If authors’ views and characters’ views are identical then I must be a devout Catholic atheist. And my head must explode several times a day.
I have created teenage characters who use “lame” and “spaz” without thinking. Just as many do in the real world. They say and do things I don’t approve of. My foremost responsibility in writing stories is that they be true. That I avoid as many false notes as I possibly can. Sometimes my characters use hurtful words and behave badly. And frankly, if they were perfectly behaved at all times it would be a lot harder generating any plot, and the books would be extremely dull.
Although many of my books have fantastic elements I work very hard to ground them in the real. To accurately reflect the world I live in. Using words that some people find hurtful is part of that. Writing about the ways people hurt one another is also part of that.
You could almost say that’s what my job is.
- You can be thoughtless and hurtful and out and out vicious without using a single word one of these words. [↩]