Thinking about words

This post may come off as sort of stream-of-consciousness. More of a few scattered thoughts than an “article.” Sorry about that, but I was just having a bit of inner dialogue that I wanted to share.

Generally, I’m not one to be offended by much.

I’ve always considered something I was told by my mother at a young age — “Take it from the source.” Most of the time whenever something possibly outrageous is said I just roll my eyes (or write a light article!) and move on. While I might not like or appreciate the humor in a joke or the purpose of a statement, I generally just shrug and walk away. While that attitude lets me be a fairly chill and relaxed individual, it also has let a lot of things I’m only now becoming aware of into my personal speech.

It’s never fun to point the finger at yourself, but I realized how much I was using words that were offensive or demeaning to people literally right next to me. Now, of course, I had no intention of malice — but that was part of the problem. I had become so desensitized to the words from hearing them in daily conversation (on TV, online, from friends, relatives, etc.) that I never even considered them twice. Keep in mind that I wasn’t using anything out of the ordinary from “regular” speech in this country (and age group, I suppose), either. I sounded just like everyone else.

It has become socially acceptable to mark things we don’t like as “gay” or “retarded” — and while it could be argued that the very definitions of these words have changed due to modern use, wasn’t it their social association with “negative” things that pushed them in that direction?

Now, I’m not blaming society here nor am I trying to claim the moral high ground. I know I didn’t really consider the impact myself, so it wouldn’t be fair to push that expectation on others — but I do think it is something that we need to think about.

I feel sort of especially close to the issue simply because I’m a gamer. It’s not really a secret that gamers aren’t really the most accepting bunch in the universe sometimes. The young male stereotype hasn’t really helped much either. Anyone who has been on Xbox Live or a game of Counter-strike can tell you the sort of audible assault that tends to go on. While I’m personally proud of a lot of things that have come out of the gaming subculture, there still is a lot of questionable stuff there.

Bringing this post back to the point, there is a whole lot of misogyny, racial and sexual epithets and just general hate amongst the benign comments. While these sorts of things have never directly bothered me, I wonder if there is some malice there? Is it just a way of speaking that is accepted in certain circles, or is there a sort of inner demon that has been constructed by society to defend various forms of privilege? Is it a method for segregation and marginalization?

I’d love to rule all of that out and say that 99% of the time that isn’t the case — but I can’t.

Sometimes even the stale jokes that get thrown around make me wonder. I can’t help but feel a modern sort of “black face” vibe going on. I’d love to believe that these terms and jokes are directed not at the “victim” but at the ridiculousness of the situation but I just can’t.

To be perfectly honest, I feel like this is a perfect segue into an article on the power of words…

Guess I know what I’ll be touching on next — for now though, I’d love to hear your opinions. Are the negative connotations of words like “gay” and “retard” important? Has the meaning just changed? Is there something malicious there? For the gamers among you, do you feel like the gaming community harbors intolerance at times toward certain groups more so than “real life?”

3 thoughts on “Thinking about words

  1. Our socialization as men/women, at home, in school, at work and at play each creep into each other in unexpected ways.

    When an individual steps into a different arena of their life, they bring the things they think they need and leave behind the things they don’t. Not many want games to feel like labor (like going to work), or attending a party with friends to feel like going to church – I think people come to terms with what each thing requires and compromise on the rest. If you proselytize at work, others may take offense. The vigilance displayed in one area of your life may not be appreciated or appropriate in another; so you must consciously keep your traits or characteristics in their proper places. But I think the theoretical ideal – a life without restraint – where you can behave the same at home as you can at school/work/church, with peers and with superiors, is an alluring thing.

    Your father laughs at the same jokes your friends do, your boss is as reasonable as your parents are – work is as fun as play: the barriers in your life are lessened. The restrictions you place on yourself and expend energy to think about evaporate. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people would like their lives to have that sort of harmony… and so sometimes they carry their ideal with them, even across barriers they may not mean to.

    It’s no secret that homosexuality is considered by many young men to be the antithesis of masculinity. And so “gay” is a terrible insult to a young boy – a challenge to his manhood. It’s schoolboy vernacular because they know it is the last thing many boys are socialized to want to be. Any permutation of the word as a derogatory stems from this. It may be a young boy becomes a young man, and acknowledges the word being used for what it is: and it rankles him. But amongst other young men? Friends and peers – even ones who have the same feelings about the word that he does? “Gay” or “fag” can become a comfortable throwback.

    Maybe because it’s nice to not feel restricted amongst friends – maybe because it’d be nice to say the word even to a gay person and never fear the thought that you’d crossed a line. You think, “The meaning has changed,” you know it, he knows it… but maybe for him, even when said in jest, it takes a part of him back to a cruel schoolyard.

    He’s been socialized in a place completely unknown to you: though he shares work, play, school and church with you, he doesn’t share your sexuality. And you may not have the sensitivity to know your theoretical ideals don’t match up.

    Now the internet is a peculiar place, because of all the social circles we’ll find ourselves interacting in, it is the least restricted. It doesn’t need to accept the things we bring with us, because *we* are the masters of what comes and doesn’t. For many, it’s pretty close to that ideal of “say what I want, do what I want.” But that won’t stop young men or women from having some common gender stomping ground despite it. Or racial, cultural, economic, marital, social commonalities. It’s easy to let them show through if you want them to, especially with people who have no actual power to judge you.

    But the internet doesn’t make your subconscious ideal any closer to someone else’s, whether they say it to you or not. Truth of it is, freedom of speech such a part of online culture that people often forget that the internet is as much an agent of socialization as our families and anything else. The internet gives the illusion of that ideal harmony that doesn’t exist: in making you who you are, it falls in line with your home, school, and job – it doesn’t eschew them.

    So far as the gaming community is concerned, I think intolerance is largely born of its acceptance within the culture, and society’s general disdain for anyone that would consider themselves part of “a gaming community” (traditionally an outcast culture) – which results in a strange sort of solidarity for better or for ill. The gaming community brings that luggage with it, however loudly it tries to claim it doesn’t. And so a lot of gamers in the name of group harmony will keep quiet through the baggage of an “ideal harmony” that isn’t really there. Men will hit on the women, tease the gays and coloreds and rednecks, and crack jokes about the mentally-ill and not give a whole lot of afterthought to what they left behind for the rest to carry, because those groups weren’t as large part of their own socialization – as the internet.

    A lot of factors at play, I think. But I figure our comfort level with our social norms is the biggest.

  2. Stealing the spotlight. :p

    I’m really glad you wrote this and I’ll respond to it tomorrow, but I honestly just saw it now… at 4:18 AM.

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