Why Words Matter, The “R” Word Included.
This morning at work, I overheard two of my co-workers discussing a big project they developed.
Coworker one: “This is so retarded.”
Coworker two: “Well if they [the warehouse workers] are too retarded to figure it out, that’s their problem.”
When my first co-worker used the “R”word (which he does often) I cringed, but ignored it. When the second one chimed in, I spoke up.
“Don’t say retarded.”
“Oh,” said co-worker one, “are you offended? Well, we can’t just toss out half the language just because some people get offended too easily.”
“Yeah”, said the other, “some people just need to get a thicker skin.”
I seethed. They walked over to my cube, and I said to both of them, “What if I told you I had a brother with down syndrome? Who has been called this his whole life? And it really hurts me when people use that word?”
“Well do you?” said one of them.
“No”, I said, “but that’s not the point. Just because you’re not offended doesn’t mean it’s not offensive.”
They both took turns mocking me, not listening to anything I was saying, so I just returned to facing my computer. I used it to express that anger the way I do best – on Facebook and Twitter. What resulted was a lengthy debate with a friend whose opinion I greatly value, who mostly seemed to agree that people in this society get offended too easily*.
At this point I was beyond angry. I was hurt, upset, and feeling attacked. All for daring to express my offense. People were angry with me, for being offended by their language.
In this scenario, the thing that made people the most angry, was not a word used to degrade others, but the act of being offended.
But you know what? There is nothing wrong with being offended.
I am offended when people tell me that words don’t matter.
Words absolutely do matter.
Words are what bring change. Hate. Fear. And Love. Words are what start wars, and end them. Words can both bring knowledge, and perpetuate ignorance.
I didn’t always feel this way. For most of my life, I thought like my friends and co-workers did. That nothing comes from being offended.
Then my best friend told me he was gay, and the word, “faggot” became real. It wasn’t just a word anymore. It was a dagger thrown at someone I loved, for the purpose of inflicting pain.
Then I heard all kinds of words differently. “Gay”, and “Queer”, words I used to say almost daily to express my displeasure with something, no longer seemed, “just words.” Because suddenly, they had meaning. Only, this wasn’t exactly true. They always had meaning. They just never had meaning to me. But they surely had meaning to some of the people who were around me when I carelessly used them.
Words can kill. Historically, people have used words to degrade, dehumanize, and demean people so that the murder of them is not seen as injustice. This was done to “nigger” slaves in the 1800’s, and Jews in the 20th century. Yes, guns, whips, and gas chambers are the tools that carried out these executions. But the words used to dehumanize the victims is what allowed so many people to not care, for so long.
Words still kill. Gay and Lesbian teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. This is not because these kids don’t have “thick” enough skin. This is because there are people in this country who believe their first amendment right to say whatever they want is more important than the lives of those around them.
I’m glad that people throughout history got offended. I’m glad they didn’t just, “grow a thicker skin”, but stopped staying silent about what offended them. If it weren’t for these people, we would still have segregation, Jim Crow laws, and women who aren’t legally allowed to vote.
Just as it is my co-workers right to say whatever they want (within limits), it is my right to be offended. And I will continue to be offended when people use words for the purpose of demeaning, insulting, or attacking others. And when the “R” word is used not how it was intended, as a medical term describing impaired cognitive functioning, but as a lazily hurled insult, I have every right to be offended. And I have every right to speak up.
Words matter. As a writer, I know this. As a woman, I know this. And as someone who has the ability to look beyond my own privilege, gained by the color of my skin and socio-economic status, I know this.
I just wish my co-workers knew this as well.
I guess it’s my job to make sure they do.
*After I told my friend on Facebook the context of the comments made by my co-workers he apologized and agreed they were out of line.