The Power of Words and Rising Above the Hate
Alternative Title: Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Blog Something Controversial....
Recently on website I frequent for Magic: The Gathering articles there was a particularly interesting one concerning the prevalence of homophobic rhetoric that occasionally arises among players. While the article itself was fairly textbook material (e.g. homophobia is bad. stop using words like 'gay' in a derogatory manner), the comments revealed just why the article was necessary. Dozens of people chimed in saying that they shouldn't be asked to stop using homophobic slurs. In their eyes the problem wasn't with them. It was with others. They should not be offended.
Their assertion was laughable in my eyes. It seemed so inherently wrong to me that nobody should even make the effort of reproaching them. But nonetheless it simply must be asked. If someone is saying something that is offensive to me, is it my fault for being offended? Should the person be asked to stop, or should I get over it?
It's worth noting that I'll be using homophobia as a blanket all inclusive term. Really this can be applied to all hate speech ranging from homophobia to racism to transphobia to any other sort of hateful language directed at a group of people for reasons outside of their control.
The question sounds silly. Obviously the person being offensive is in the wrong and should stop. The person being offended is innocent and should not be forced to do anything. The offender is making the other person uncomfortable with their words. The burden of action lies on the offender, and the required action is to cease and desist. There is no other option.
But as obvious as the answer is, it is not simply enough. It is not enough to know the answer. Of utmost importance is to understand the why of the answer. Just why is it wrong? Why must the offender be forced to change or at the very least stop? The journey is just as important as the destination, and the path reveals several truths.
Perhaps the most important is that words have power. There is the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword, but the impact of the truth is so much more than just a pithy statement. Words have a power that is hard to grasp. When used wrongly they can be devastating. As a bisexual, I cannot begin to comprehend just how terrible homophobic rhetoric has been to me. Hate speech has a hard to overstate negative effect to those who come in contact with it.
It is for this reason that homophobic language must not only be avoided but actively engaged when encountered. By using homophobic language one hurts the homosexual person. In using those kinds of words you are essentially saying that being a homosexual is a bad thing. You are using the label of homosexuality in a negative sense, and therefore equivocating it to something wrong. In doing so you are demeaning homosexuals across the globe, and nobody should be put in a negative light because of something they are and can't control. However the crime is far greater than that. Every time somebody calls something gay they are perpetuating a culture of hate. They are proliferating a culture that says that it is not okay to be who you are. Whoever supports this kind of society is only fooling themselves into thinking that it is a good one.
Now returning to the argument at hand, the offender offers a new counterpoint. While it is true that words have power, the question must be asked where do words get their powers? It is readily apparent that words are not self sufficient on their own. As a man created tool they receive their power from men. But from which catergory of people do the words receive their power, or meaning? Is it the offender or the offended?
The offender would claim that the offended is giving the words a power that they did not originally intend. When they say something like, "Wow Thragtusk is so overpowered it's gay." they're not using gay to refer to homosexuality as a negative thing. They're just expressing their hate for Thragtusk by essentially calling it dumb. They're not trying to make homosexuality to be a bad thing. After all, they're all for the homosexuals and what have you. The offended just need to get off their high horse and not be offended and taking their words the wrong way.
There are of course several problems that arise with this, and I think now would be a grand time to go off on something of a rabbit trail on this subject. I am loathe to speak of it for numerous reasons, but something must be said of privilege. Privilege is a kind of prejudice, but it is a much more subtle one. Where as discrimination is an extremely overt form of prejudice, privilege is a much more covert one. Essentially heterosexuals have the privilege of not having experienced the hate directed towards homosexuals. Rather than viewing themselves in an advantaged position that must be maintained at the expense of others, privilege dictates the experience of the heterosexual is the norm that every does and should experience.
It is this privilege that in my eyes allows the continual abuse of homosexual labels in a negative light. They simply don't and can't even begin to comprehend the pain that comes along with the culture of hate that they inadvertently perpetrate. It's not that I can try to explain it to them by using the word heterosexuality as a synonym for a negative word in popular discourse. While they might get an inkling, they can't understand the baggage that goes along with centuries upon centuries of hate and discrimination that goes along with being a homosexual.
It is when someone is told not to use words like gay in a negative light and they counter by placing the blame on the homosexual that they pass from the realm of willful ignorance and into the realm of hateful bigotry. They are no longer unknowingly perpetuating the hate culture. They have been informed of how it is wrong and why. They then choose not to change their ways and perhaps shed part of the blinder of privilege. They choose to desperately cling to what they have said at the expense of others. It is a crime of the gravest sort. Perhaps unintentionally putting an entire group of people down for the sake of expressing a passing remark of dislike on an object is forgivable. I find myself much less forgiving if the crime is intentional.
And of course it all comes down to why. Why does this matter? Why am I choosing to write this blog entry rather than grinding some more MTG or playing some video games? It matters because the offender is not simply being offensive. Whether knowingly or not the offender is taking away my ability to identify myself. I identify as bisexual, and telling me that I am not allowed to be offended by homophobia, that I need to grow up, that I am too thin skinned, or that I just need to get over it is beyond absurd. The fact that such an opinion is widespread and so accepted as to be the norm is completely baffling to me.
Ironically at the risk of completely invalidating everything I have just typed, it is up to me to rise above the hate. I cannot simply wade in self loathing for my entire life. As much as I like I cannot dwell on self pity, cursing and shaking my fist towards the sky as I condemn the homophobic. Every day I must rise and enter once again into a world that not only loathes be but seeks to oppress me at every turn. I work with people who wish to take away my rights. I talk with people who can't understand the pain I feel. I attempt to reason with those who see differently and will never admit that their homophobia is doing disastrous things. I do it not because I enjoy it or I want to. I do it because there is no other option available to me.
Sometimes just forcing myself out of bed is the hardest part of my day, and one day I hope to wake to a world that accepts me for who I am.