Evaluating My Language


Before I get into what I want to talk about I just want to say… I’ve started to get a tiny bit more traffic on this blog than I think I’ve ever had, which is both exciting and a little scary. So a bit later I’m going to attempt to put up a basic commenting policy. Don’t worry, I’m not going to operate this blog like a fascist… yet… 😛 . Just some basic decency and respect stuff, why I always moderate first-time posters, and so on. Just something to refer too. The policy will probably get more stringent if activity/readership goes up, but we’ll start basic and easy.

The traffic is also a small inspiration (among one or two other ones) for what I want to write about here.

I want to start with a content warning: this post discusses cussing as well as slurs, especially ableist slurs, specifically the word “stupid”. I do use a lot of these words in this post. I actually dwell on the word “stupid” for a while. I ask that before passing judgment on my writing here, you read the whole thing, because it is meant to be an illustration of how I realized I was wrong, not an excuse for why I used words like “stupid” and why I want to continue using them (I don’t, BTW). Please feel free in your comments to use the words/slurs as well, as long as they are used in the context of illustrative purposes and so people have a reference as to what slur you’re talking about. So… warning: (discussion of) strong language ahead.

Language use has actually become a bit fascinating to me. It’s largely born out of my promise not to use the word “stupid” again. I’m trying to apply that not just on my blog, but in my personal life, as well. Doing so has been a heck of a fascinating exercise for me. I’ve also, especially recently, been called out on my use of crass language on this blog and online in general, as well as in meatspace… I cuss like a sailor, to be honest. “Fuck” and “shit” are, apparently, my two favorite words (and I wouldn’t be surprised to find, if I were to do a word count, that this was actually the case 😀 ).

Indeed… “fuck” was essentially my first word. Basically, when I was still in my baby seat, we were on the highway when a truck started passing us. I was trying to say “truck”. What ended up coming out of my mouth started out as “ffff”… “kkkkk”. That repeated a bit until I, with the air of someone having a “eureka!” moment, shouted “fuck”, and then chanted it over and over again for the longest time. Mom and Dad were laughing so hard they had to pull over.

I mean… okay… my first word was something more like “mah” or something like that, but then I never understood why we count those as “words” when they’re obviously just sounds the baby’s making that we associate with “mom” and “dad” due to audio pareidolia and/or perhaps wishful thinking. A baby’s first word should be, like, an actual word, not just a sound that resembles a word. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the words “mah” & “pah” and “mama” & “dada” were basically added to the dictionary because babies make those sounds and there was audio pareidolia all over the place. In other words, “mah” and “pah” may just essentially be mondegreens born out of baby gibberish.

So it’s probably not a stretch from that to me cussing like a sailor today. Originally I tried limiting my cussing to only when I’m angry, but then it just sort of morphed and cuss words just became an everyday part of my vocabulary, largely because they’re just so good at describing things. For example… I love “bullshit” in reference to things that are clearly false because saying “clearly false” just feels like too much of an understatement in these cases. Something that’s bullshit is beyond being just “clearly false”; it’s a blatant and obvious lie. “Shit” is the perfect descriptor of something that’s just really bad, and “fuck” is great on two levels:

a) It describes a form of sex (“sometimes, people just wanna fuck”)

b) For some strange reason it’s just the perfect short-hand exclamation for “I’m pissed off!” How a word meaning “sex” became such a good exclamation of anger is probably a fascinating and revealing story… 😀

The thing is, there are people who look down on cussing. For a lot of people, cussing in everyday language is just wrong. It’s considered “lowbrow”, like, if you had any self-respect or basic knowledge, you wouldn’t need to cuss.

I disagree with this highly. I don’t like the idea that the words you use can tell others about who you are and your class and your intelligence and your maturity and so on. Indeed, to me that viewpoint is classist, ableist, racist, ageist, and even sexist… just bigoted all around, really. So that’s how I generally feel about people who complain about “too much cussing”.

But then… does cussing really get across a point?

If you‘re really angry, I really do think it can. Honestly, when I’m mad, cussing just makes me feel better. I actually feel like the words themselves just release some of that anger. Like, when I use a cuss word when mad, I can actually feel a tiny bit of that anger leaving me as the cuss word does. Cussing is useful, and I do think reasonable, when you’re angry. Because when you’re angry, tone is the last thing on your mind. When you’re angry, being “nice” or “temperate” or “not alienating people” is simply not important to you. When you’re angry, you just want the world to know why you’re angry. I think cussing when you’re angry is a basic human right, in fact. I wish more people cussed when they were angry.

But what about when you’re not angry? What about when you’re just joking around or just having a casual conversation where anger really isn’t there?

My understanding of the language I use is constantly evolving, and the same holds true in this case. I think that, maybe, I do cuss too much. I think I overdo it, and that it dilutes my message too much sometimes. So I think maybe it’s time I started practicing self-censorship.

I’ve already started, in a way. I don’t use racial slurs. Indeed… using them is really out of sight, out of mind for me. I cringe, even get mad, when I hear them, and using them myself is almost alien. Using them is like a chore. I found excising gendered slurs almost as easy. I used words like “bitch” and “cunt” and “dick” and “prick” and “slut” and so on, but when I decided to temper and then stop my use of them, I never missed them…

But then I was confronted over my use of the word “stupid”.

This one has proven to be a struggle for me, because “stupid” is a word I used all the time. I honestly probably used it more than I use any cuss word. And it’s largely because I honestly can’t think of any better word to describe willful or otherwise inexcusable (that is, with no excuse) ignorance. How else would you describe walking into a Kentucky Fried Chicken, staring at the menu for five minutes, then asking for a hamburger and getting angry when you’re told that they don’t have hamburgers (working for a KFC-wannabe chain called Mrs. Winner’s, I got this a lot)… or… really… any of these…?

I had already, long before, excised words like “retarded” from my vocabulary because that was always obviously ableist. But it had never been obvious to me that “stupid” was ableist simply because I didn’t associate the word with “disabled”. To me, “stupid” was synonymous with “ignorant”. I didn’t consider someone who I thought of as “stupid” to be in any sort of way disabled, mentally or otherwise. I didn’t associate it that way. To me, a “stupid person” was someone who just didn’t think a lot. They would ask questions with answers so blatantly obvious you’d find yourself incapable of answering because your jaw’s hit the floor and you can’t pick it back up (like “why doesn’t KFC sell hamburgers?”… because it’s not called Kentucky Fried Hamburgers). Stupid people, in my mind, did and said and asked the kinds of things where the only response you could muster is “duh!”

Like Creationists. I had always considered Creationists, for example, to be stupid, because the idea itself was, in my mind, stupid. Same went for conspiracy theorists (Truthers, Birthers, etc.), like Alex Jones, and flat-earthers, and so on.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that “stupid” was such an integral part of my vocabulary that giving it up is honestly hard. There’s a hole where the word used to be. I still find it near impossible to think of Creationists and flat-earthers and conspiracy theorists and people who go to KFC for a hamburger and so on as anything other than “stupid”.

But the thing is, I was wrong. Stupid is an ableist slur. So excising it is something I must do. And honestly, my quest for non-ableist replacement words has been fun, because it’s actually helped to expand my vocabulary. Thanks to people at Atheism+, I’ve started replacing “stupid” with words like careless, thoughtless, hasty, rash, impulsive, foolish, ill-considered, asinine, absent-minded, irrational, credulous, fatuous, inane, inappropriate, ill advised, poorly conceived, silly… and also phrases like “well that was clever”… actually, I’ve decided to steal one from one of my educators on this topic that I like a lot: “shining beacons of cluefulness”, and also “shining beacons of rationality”… really, the whole “shining beacon(s) of…” is just rife with snarky sarcasticness, which I do so adore. 😀

Indeed, there’s a very good list, and a rather amazing discussion about this kind of thing, here. I know! It’s frickin’ Reddit! Reddit! But it’s actually the “Shit Reddit Says” discussion group, which is described as “a progressive-oriented forum for discussing issues of social justice. Our goal is to foster a welcoming space for the perspectives of minorities and marginalized people.” So it’s one of the good places on Reddit.

Actually, searching for new, better, less inherently bigoted words can be fun if you’re willing to put in the work.

Here’s a challenge to my readers: Try excising from your vocabulary a word you use a lot for about a week. I’d recommend a bigoted slur, myself, but you can use whatever. Try to find synonyms that mean exactly the same thing, and use those instead. Growing your vocabulary in this way is actually kind of fun! Who knows… if you do use traditionally bigoted slurs (bitch, cunt, slut, whore, dick, prick, stupid, retarded, moronic, dumb, gay, fag, etc.), maybe you’ll discover how much fun it is to get rid of them and find non-bigoted replacements. I’m finding it fun, anyways…

As to the general cussing… so I’m going to start tempering my use of them. I’m not getting rid of them completely. I do think there are times when they are useful (especially with anger). But I also use them way too much. So I’m going to cut back. I’m also seriously considering going through all my old posts here and excising the cuss words I feel are simply out-of-place.

Language can be a fascinating thing, and expanding your vocabulary can be so much fun.

I’m doing it! And it’s rewarding!

Will you join me?

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About Nathan Hevenstone

I hate straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men. I also play guitar and sing, and I'm an atheist and anti-theist. What now?
This entry was posted in Bullying, Homophobia, Misogyny, Sexism, Social Justice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Evaluating My Language

  1. Content note: this comment discusses insults and and ableist slurs, including the words “retarded,” “idiot” and “stupid.”

    You raise some important points, and express very well some issues with which I still grapple as a writer and IRL.

    The idea of excising potentially harmful language from one’s older posts presents a conundrum for me. On the one hand, I would very much like to make my writing inoffensive to everyone (well, everyone except conservatives, to whom I have dedicated my blog to mocking and ridiculing, although I can and often do accomplish this without splash damage to marginalized groups). But the fact is that I cringe when I read over some of my older posts: if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen my language much more carefully. I’m particularly disappointed in myself when I think the piece is otherwise good, but I hesitate to cite to it elsewhere because it does not comport with my current (and evolving) standards. The urge to revise is almost overwhelming.

    On the other hand, I think it is honest and potentially valuable (if personally embarrassing) in deliberately leaving the record intact, and explicitly admitting I was wrong about this, I know better now and I appreciate having it pointed out, I am sorry, and I will keep endeavoring to do better going forward. I have thought about it, but have not been able to resolve this conflict satisfactorily one way or the other.

    Beyond that, I have the additional problem of having a legacy blog feature called “Iris the Idiot’s Kitchen,” which routinely gets more hits than any other section of my blog. Yes, it’s entirely self-referential and self-deprecating, but that does not in any way preclude splash damage. I also happen to think the present meaning of “idiot” is more akin to “numbskull” or “bozo” than, say, “retarded,” which is of course undeniably an ableist slur. And I, like you, have used “idiot” (and “stupid”) to mean nothing more than willfully ignorant or inexcusably clueless. But what I think isn’t what’s at issue here: I’ve seen people sincerely object to “idiot” on ableist grounds, and so for that reason alone I have endeavored to stop using it. Frankly, @$$hole works just as well on most occasions, and I agree with you that the exercise of finding better language is an enjoyable one. Still, somehow “Iris the @$$hole’s Kitchen” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

    I’d be very interested in what you (or anyone else, particularly the disabled and anyone who has given this matter much thought) thinks of excising such language from older posts vs. making explicit representations about learning and growing since then.

    Thanks for posting about this.

    • That conundrum is actually what’s kept me from doing it so far. On the one hand, I know that a lot of those older posts will simply read better when they’re cleaned up. On the other, Erasing a mistake from history (as best one can) can make one look dishonest, even if one has apologized for it already.

      So yeah, I’m facing that same problem and trying to decide which path to take, there.

  2. Heidi G says:

    I also cringe when I hear bigoted and/or ableist language. “Retarded” is probably the one that gets my hackles up the most. I had never considered “stupid” to be an ableist slur; I had always considered “stupid” to imply willful ignorance. I will have to reevaluate it in my lexicon. I also LOVE to cuss. The world fuck punctuates the intent of a statement with such voracity. It can be a beautiful thing. It should be used sparingly – never more than once in a sentence. A light sprinkling throughout a conversation is good; if you sound like an angry Smurf, it is bad.
    I was once gently called out on my use of the word “douchebag” on a feminist group wall. I was advised that it was sexist and degrades women to use it as an insult. I disagreed. Douche is a product used to make women feel inferior and have body shame over something natural and non-offensive. It can cause serious bodily harm. It has no practical purpose. Therefore I find that “douchebag” often describes exactly the kind of behavior that I am against. The objector had never considered those points, and in the end did agree that it was a good word.
    I have never had racial slurs in my conversational vocabulary (certainly I was aware of them, so they do exist in my intellectual vocabulary). I do still like “bitch”, and I know I should dispose of it because of the sexist connotations. It is just so USEFUL! I will work harder to find an equally effective noun.
    Congratulations on your increased viewership. Do not feel pressure to be anything other than yourself. You are awesome.

    • “Bitch” is an interesting case, as it has long been a target of reclaiming by feminists/womanists in much the same way the N-word has been by African Americans. One of my favorite bloggers is Samantha at bitches gotta eat; she uses it sarcastically and as a term of endearment. I generally avoid using it (not always successfully…), but I do consider the context in which it is being used as important as the word itself. Like other words, it’s always worthwhile to consider whether one is deploying them to punch up or punch down.

      • Reclaiming is one thing. If women want to reclaim “bitch”, that’s your prerogative.

        But as a man, I shouldn’t be using “bitch” for the same reason that as a white guy I shouldn’t be using “nigger” and as a straight guy I shouldn’t be using “fag”.

        I think that makes sense…

        Heh…

        😀

    • Here’s the thing with gendered slurs (like bitch, cunt, dick, prick, etc)…

      The state of being an asshole isn’t gender-specific. So when someone’s being an asshole, why attack their gender for it? Everyone’s (even other animals!) got an asshole, so I much prefer that over one of those four gendered slurs.

      And bitch is worse because it means “female dog”, so not only does it attack her for being a female-gendered asshole, but it dehumanizes her by calling her a female dog asshole.

      On that level I actually think is could be reasonably argued that “bitch” could potentially be a worse slur than “cunt” because at least “cunt” doesn’t imply that the woman is not a human but a dog.

      As to “dick” and “prick” (only because I brought them up)… I personally don’t care if someone calls me these; I’ll usually just respond with a sarcastic smile and say “yup. I do have one of those. Thanks for noticing.” I just removed them as well for the sake of consistency, not because I think they’re anywhere near as offensive (“bitch” and “cunt” have a historical baggage that “dick” and “prick” simply don’t).

      • It’s 20 days later, but I realized I needed to qualify this…

        This is for me personally. I just don’t feel like, as a guy, I should be using it… at least, not in a derogatory sense, if at all. If you’re looking to reclaim it, I have no say in that, so… yeah…

        😀

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