Friday, October 23, 2009

Words hurt.

Although many of us are taught as children that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us, words really do hurt. When words are used for the express purpose of denigrating an individual because they are a member of a certain class or group, it is clearly immoral. But what about terms that were once clearly offensive but have transformed in meaning to such a degree that many people who use the terms have no idea that they were once used in a pejorative sense? Does the intention of the speaker govern the moral analysis, or do the effects on the listener?


I want to at least scratch the surface of these questions. I believe that effectively challenging people to think about the harmful effects the words they use depends on responding effectively to the natural human desire to justify our own behavior. I must admit that when this topic came up in a recent class discussion, the very convincing arguments against using words such as “lame” and “suck” really threw me into a state of cognitive dissonance. I felt that almost instinctual need to protect myself from self-reproach. “I use these words all the time, and I’m a sensitive person, so there must be some reason why it's OK.” As I will discuss, I do believe that the use of those terms is wrong, but it took some reflection to realize it. Recounting my reflection process may elucidate a common potential response to arguments against using words with offensive alternative meanings, thereby allowing proponents of change to better formulate counter-arguments.


As I attempted to justify my use of terms like “lame” to refer to something bad, I first looked to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a moral theory which asserts that the morally correct choice among all alternatives is the one which brings about the most happiness for all affected beings, balanced against any pain or suffering caused by the action. I considered the following hypothetical:

Imagine a world where everyone used the word "X" to refer to a class of people in a pejorative sense. For example, when a group of school kids saw a member of that class, they would walk over and call them an “X” in order to insult them. Utilitarian theory comes in myriad different forms, but most would hold that this use of the word “X” is morally wrong. No matter how you choose to define and measure pleasure and pain, the pleasure the kids got out of using the term is likely quite small in comparison to the pain inflicted on the person referred to as an “X.” Therefore, the use of the term “X” in this way is immoral, according to utilitarian theory.

Now, compare the situation in the above hypothetical with the following:


The word “X” was once used to derogatively refer to a class of people, but a great deal of time has passed and now no one uses the term to derogatively refer to members of that class, or any other class. In this hypothetical world, no one in fact is even aware that the word was ever used as a pejorative term for a particular group. Even the group of people who were once referred to as "Xs" are unaware that the word has any negative connotation. The word now has a completely different meaning, and its offensive past has been forgotten.


In this situation, it seems to me that this use of the word “X” would not be immoral. Because no one is aware that the word has a pejorative meaning, nobody's feelings are hurt by the use of the word. There is therefore no harm to weigh against the pleasure experienced in using the word for its new purpose, whatever it may be.


But how helpful is this second hypothetical in determining how to behave in the real world? I think the answer depends on whether there are any words in our lexicon that approach matching the condition of the hypo in that they once had a pejorative use, but that use has been almost completely forgotten. (Obviously, if society as a whole completely forgot that a word once had a certain use, that use could not be identified, because we wouldn’t have any record of it. If we did, it wouldn’t truly be forgotten.) One example I found that is somewhat close is the use of the terms “master” and “slave” in computer parts. A computer with more than one hard drive for example, will have a “master” drive that runs the operating system, and a slave drive that is used only for storage. I do not contend that most people have forgotten about the use of the terms “master” and “slave” to refer to the institution of slavery. I think the example is similar to the hypothetical only in the sense that, intuitively, 92% of poll respondents did not find the use of those words in the computer context offensive because that context is so far removed from that of human slavery. Because the context is so different, it probably never even occurred to most people that using the terms "master" and "slave" is offensive.


Maybe "lame" is another good example, or maybe it isn't- I would be very interested in your comments. Although I wanted to avoid personalizing this post too much, I have to say that I never even thought about the possibility that the way I use “lame” (to refer to anything undesirable) would register with some people as a derogatory reference to people with physical disabilities. Amazingly, I have heard and seen the word “lame” used to refer to a disabled person many times before, but I never linked that use of the word to the way I used it, probably because my use was for a different purpose. Intuitively, there are probably many other people who use the term “lame” simply to refer to something being bad who are oblivious of the relationship between the word and its once common pejorative function.


Ultimately, I think that the real world is much different from my hypothetical one in that there are very few, if any, words with an all but forgotten offensive use that are now used for a different purpose. Utilitarianism demands that all suffering be taken into account when deciding whether an action is right or wrong. Use of the word “lame” would seem to have the potential to hurt the feelings not only of any disabled person who heard the word, but anyone who is cognizant of the connection between the word and its potential derogatory meaning. The harm in hearing the word “lame” being bandied about may be easier to appreciate if you imagine having a disabled family member or friend. “Suck” is another word commonly used to refer to something bad, but doesn’t it also connote something much more offensive and denigrative of women? Returning again to utilitarianism- is the pleasure we take in using these terms as slang really worth the potential negative consequences of hurt feelings or the perpetuation of misogyny?


I have certainly not delved deeply into this topic. I have not addressed the reappropriation of offensive terms by members of a group to whom the terms applied. I have also not discussed all the possible ways in which one might defend their use of terms like “suck” or “lame.” For example, utilitarianism does not traditionally factor in the intent of an actor in determining whether his or her action is right or wrong, but most people find intentional wrongdoing more blameworthy than unintentional. Nevertheless, I think the utilitarianism poses a strong challenge to the use of terms that may seem harmless but stem from an offensive past. Utilitarianism forces us to take into account, and be sensitive to, the pain that these words may still inflict. Given the multitude of other ways to express ourselves, it seems like the potential harm outweighs the good. If people can be convinced of that fact, we might be on our way to building a more caring and sensitive society.

1 comment:

Erin S. said...

There's an interesting blog post here about men's lack of freedom in publicly examining masculinity.