I have been thinking more than usual lately about the power in language. I don't mean in any deeper, more mystical sense, although I do lean toward giving that end of word power some creedence, but in a more social sense. The words we share with others can have effects ranging from positive and constructive to negative and destructive.
Others have covered this topic well, such as Tanis at Attack of the Redneck Mommy in her piece "Dear Internet: I’m Placing You on Notice", and it is something I've given thought to ever since I began writing when I was seven years old and kids in the playground were using words such as retard, fag, and pussy in place of the truly verboten words ass, shit, and fuck, but something about what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the Atlantic in "More Thoughts On Being PC" made me remember more clearly why I was so aware of the power of language at such an early age:
When I was kid in Baltimore, it was common for me to refer to the corner store as the "chink store." It was common for me to use the word "faggy" to dis one of my friends. I don't really have much of a defense of any of that. In my neighborhood, it was just how my peers talked, and I accepted it without any questions.
Words like fag and pussy made us kids feel powerful for the simple reason that they were not condoned by our adult overlords. I doubt that many, if any, of us really grasped what they meant when fights broke at recess in the fifth grade, but the power in them was palpable. Faces were punched and coats were torn over them. I accepted our casual, misguided use of these words, because this was how everyone talked. The behaviour seemed normalized, and I revelled in the thrill of tossing one out into conversation now and again.
Retard, though, did not sit well with me at all. My older brother was born with several physical and mental handicaps, which made his difference highly visible. The label was personal to me, and the meaning all too clear when a group of young ball players spat it out while laughing and banging on the car windows in a parking lot one afternoon where my brother and I waited for my parents. My brother was seen by them as laughable, little more than a de-humanized example of a homogenous subset, and the hatred behind their laughter terrified me. I sobbed and felt a terrible tug in my chest that I would later recognize as the first signs of a broken heart.
And with that deep personalization of a hateful slur, the real power in language became painfully clear to me. Where it once made me uncomfortable, it now made me sad and angry. These words applied to real things, to real individuals. These words applied to human beings, whole groups of people, that I knew were not deserving of such broad, sweeping derision, and as I grew older, I began to understand how even more of these words related to me. I possessed a vagina and I was realizing my queerness, so along with retard, hearing fag and pussy used to mock and incite anger took their own little bites out of my heart. I was suddenly associated with every bad thing.
I have grown up since then, and those words no longer hold sway over my self-perception, but before I had the maturity and wisdom to see around them, to see that their use is more often thoughtless than pointed, they made the back of my neck burn with anxiety. I was not right. I was not good enough. I was things that no good person would want to be. That message was brought home to me countless times a week, usually overheard in playground conversations, jokes like the one my music teacher made in the form of a play on the word retard, and on television. I was Bad with a capital B.
This history and a deep sense of each person's humanity is why I no longer waffle about the importance of so-called "political correctness". Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates says it best:
As awkward as it may be, it at least demonstrates an attempt to see the world through another lense. This is a daunting task, and failing at it is so much more honorable than not even trying.
To continue to use slurs against entire classes of people is either to admit to believing in the hatred behind your words or to admit to an ignorance that you willingly continue. Even in private company where others might not be around to overhear you, such use of language still carries the power to perpetuate hatred. It lends to the us-and-them mob mentality that has lead to so many good things like riots, lynchings, and forced sterilization programs. So, I watch my mouth whether in public or in private. There's no reason to keep that hate-ball rolling.
Slurs, no matter how casually expressed, are passwords to clubs of which I do not want to be a member. Why would you?