One of dictionary.com’s definitions for the word “slur” is a disparaging remark or a slight.
This is a broad category than can include all sorts of insults such as “loser” or “ugly” or other hurtful comments; however, there is a category of slurs that I hear around campus that particularly concern me.
I hear students saying “that’s so gay” referring to a disappointing football game in which the team they were rooting for lost.
I hear “I must be retarded” when a student does poorly on a test or doesn’t quickly understand something that is supposed to be easily understood.
I hear “that was crazy” to describe negative and positive events and people, and “so-and-so is an insane grader” to describe a professor who has difficult tests and/or strictly grades said tests.
All of these phrases are a common part of many students’ vocabularies. Many think nothing of saying them because, as is often said, everyone uses these words.
However, a troubling aspect of words like “gay,” “retard,” “crazy,” and “insane” is that they are harmful to minority groups who are often targeted for bullying and other kinds of violence simply because they are not heterosexual, have a learning disability or a mental disorder.
Of course, this list does not take into account all identifiable minority groups, but the words I listed are the words I most often hear around campus.
These slurs, and others, are used to label people in minority groups as “other” and thus basically slap a sign on their backs that says “kick me” to the rest of the population. While this does not necessarily mean physical violence all the time, words are also a vehicle of harm that many people sometimes forget about.
I do not think that most students intend to harm someone when they say “that was so gay” or “I must be retarded.” I do think, however, that many are not as careful with their language as they could be because words are too often seen as harmless.
A punch thrown is immediately felt and a black eye is easily visible as well as remembered.
However, words, too, can cause lasting mental and emotional anguish that stay long after the black eye fades away.
I often hear the sentence “but it’s just a word, you’re being too sensitive” or that the First Amendment says that people can say whatever they like in response to being asked not to use hurtful words.
First, when people say “you’re being too sensitive,” they are saying “my right to say this word matters more to me than your pain” to the person their hurtful words harmed.
This is a stance of privilege, where the person saying hurtful words believes they can say, or do, whatever they want no matter the cost to others.
Secondly, when quoting the First Amendment as an excuse, one should actually understand what the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Yes the First Amendment includes the words “freedom of speech,” but who must respect this freedom of the people?
The government. This means that the government may not tell the people what they can and cannot say, but this does not mean that a regular citizen, such as myself, cannot speak out against the use of these slurs.
People always seem to forget that “freedom of speech” is a two-sided sword that cuts both ways. If it is acceptable that people can use their words to hurt with impunity because of “freedom” than others can also speak out about this practice by the same token.
Truly, is it all that difficult to simply open a dictionary and choose another word that is not only not hurtful to minority groups but also more specific in describing how one is actually feeling? I think not.