Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Well, not physically anyway. Not unless they’re slurs intended only to psychologically abuse a target, when they often accompany acts of violence.
There are a number of words whose only use is to hurt. There are words that once meant something strong and proud but, through repeated historical misuse, have become tainted by every bit of hate and venom that has ever flowed through them in their use. There are words that might, to some people, serve as a mere descriptive, an adjective to be used in daily discourse, but to others inculcate a fear of the types of violence with which the word has so often been used in parallel.
And then, there are the concerted efforts to retake those words, to rebrand them.
People who want to raise awareness that rape is rape, even if a person happens to have sex promiscuously or happens to enjoy dressing provocatively, march today in SlutWalks, parades intended to protest a culture that makes people ashamed of enjoying sex and tell us that one should not be shamed into silence about being abused.
Homosexuals have mostly retaken the words “gay” and “queer”, and have made some small inroads with the word “fag(got)”. They have gay pride parades to normalize homosexuality by, paradoxically, showing some of its fringe aspects to desensitize people. And at every one, they use the words that were once solely for “othering” them as a clarion for inclusion.
Black street culture has taken a word so taboo that I, in my melanin-deprived state, can only refer to as “the N-word”, and made it acceptable to call one another conversationally. They have taken a word that was (and still is) used to conjure the demons of slavery and have defanged it for their own use. They have also changed it to indicate that you’re part of the in group of people who understand all the history the word has accumulated. Outsiders using the word are conjuring the same images but do not foster the sense of camaraderie that ingroup members do, though the word is exactly identical in both cases.
Even atheists own a name that is a slur today, originated as a slur in its Greek origins (atheos, without gods), and was almost immediately adapted by its members. And the word has been in a state of pejorative-normative tug of war ever since.
Not to mention the name of my blog, Lousy Canuck. Greg Laden once told me that he has trouble saying the name of my blog, because Canuck was not a nickname for Canadian when it entered his consciousness, it was a slur against Quebecers. Most Canadians don’t seem to care if you call them Canuck. I’m certain a greater proportion of Americans would be scandalized if I called them a Yankee than Canadians by Canuck.
Or, for instance, the Skepchicks, who have taken the diminutive “mere girl” label connoted by the word “chick” and made it their own, even despite the sneers from certain members of the intelligentsia (and even some feminists) suggesting that being a “skep’chick’” is somehow counterproductive to being a feminist. Though the word has largely been retaken, it is still in use in labeling items as “chick flicks”, “chick food”, et cetera.
Some slurs can’t be retaken. Some can. And some pejorative words don’t even rise to the level of being slurs. In a conversation with Stephanie Zvan, she and I discussed why, and the biggest reason seems to be the focus of the slur itself. In almost every case, a slur is a way to cast a person as a member of a minority class (whether a real minority statistically, or perceived minority by being a member of an underclass), and to simultaneously shame that person for being a member of that minority class.
The easier slurs to retake are the ones that describe how a person should not behave — “bitches” are forceful, assertive (or aggressive) females, for instance. The word “bitch” has largely been retaken, because women have, quite rightly, recognized that being assertive is not a bad quality. It is, in reality, only a bad quality if you believe the women in question are breaking their proscribed gender roles. People still use it to this day to shame these women for not holding to the gender roles that, through the present erosion of the patriarchy, are weakening their holds. The word has become a mere pejorative, and not even always so.
The word “dick” means very approximately the same thing — though the use is significantly different in that women are the perceived minority, so “dick” has never risen to the level of slur. If you’re “being a dick”, you’re being rude, obnoxious, or otherwise transgressing on someone else. Since the “default” privilege is that of being a man, owning a dick is not a bad thing. The opposite to this slur is not “twat” or “cunt” as some people have suggested, but rather “pussy”. Where “being a dick” means to transgress, to overstep one’s societal boundaries, “being a pussy” means being too passive, lacking the sort of aggression necessary for a particular task. It is an accusation intended to shame a man for acting like a woman, which owing to gender roles is supposed to be a bad thing. The problem with both slurs is that they proscribe how a dick-owner and a pussy-owner should act, and that stepping out of those lines is bad. And worse, they assume that both pieces of male and female anatomy are somehow bad when, frankly, neither is bad in any way.
In most cases, men are praised by society for amping up their aggression, being assertive, “making the first move”, being bold, taking risks. All of these are practically synonymous with “being a dick”, but nobody calls these people dicks solely on the basis of their being assertive, aggressive, or otherwise transgressing societal mores. Men who are not these things are “being pussies”. And women are expected to “be pussies” and remain passive, pliant, and exist in supporting roles only. Both of these labels fit me — I can be both over-assertive in some things, and over-passive in others. I dislike both terms. Society doesn’t seem to mind the male gendered one, though — mostly because being male is the “default” in a patriarchy, where everything is first framed in terms of “what manly men want”, with non-manly-males a mere afterthought. Regardless, the word is well on its way to being owned — how often do you hear “I am such a dick”? Even from women?
The word “dick” has not historically implied that the person is nothing but their penis, though the metaphor of becoming turgidly prominent and inserting one’s self forcefully into places where they may or may not be wanted is salient, and I’m sure some people have attempted to use it that way, myself included. Nor has the word “dick” implied that a penis is a necessarily bad thing, though in a sense reproductive organs have been tainted definitionally by the Puritan roots of Western civilization so any reference to a naughty bit is somewhat taboo (ergo “naughty”). The interesting thing is, because “man” is considered the societal default as a manifestation of privilege, at no point has the word “dick” ever risen to the level of slur — because calling someone a member of the privileged class is surely not a bad thing in and of itself in most of society’s eyes. Except when an MRA gets hold of it and tries to make political hay with it, I suppose — usually in an effort to fight for free use of the next few terms.
There are some words that are synonymous with genitals that as far as I can tell mean absolutely nothing but the genitals themselves though; words I’ve already mentioned, like “twat” and “cunt”. These words shame women for owning vaginae, suggesting that owning a vagina is somehow a bad thing. They reduce women to only the primary reproductive function of a vagina, which is to accede to the demands of a dick — suggesting that it is the proper lot in life for a woman to allow a man to put his penis in her, and she must allow this because that is all she is there for. Of the gendered slurs, this is the most egregious. It takes away the target’s sexual self-direction, their identity, their free will, and states that this is all they are — a life support system to a receptacle for a penis.
These words have a different meaning in the UK, though. There, a twat is a stupid or contemptible person, and a cunt is an objectionable person or object. However, in the UK, both these words additionally carry the exact same connotation as in North America and can be used identically — as a slur against a class of people, specifically women, who are, like here, specifically members of the “underclass” by virtue of not being men. And anyway, the fact that the slurs have a different meaning in a different culture does not excuse their use in this culture, and pretty well anyone arguing for the right to continue to use it is looking for a loophole to go on shaming women for being women. Once the difference is pointed out, people no longer can use that excuse, and should frankly be more readily able to provide a mea culpa for underestimating the culture difference.
Slurs should not be used in any case to devalue or silence another person, but you’re going to keep hearing them regardless. Not every pejorative term rises to the level of slur, though people sometimes like to pretend that every pejorative is one to draw false equivalences and decry perceived (but imagined) hypocrisies. What counts as a slur depends wholly on the cultural zeitgeist and the implications behind the words themselves. When they are used to demand that a member of an underprivileged class remain underprivileged, they are almost certainly slurs, and when these slurs are accepted as self-identification by members of that underprivileged class, they lose much of their bite. But not all of it. Especially not in cases where they focus laser-like on some aspect of a person’s being, rather than their behaviour.
I don’t advocate attempting to own every slur. Some slurs are only good for one thing: identifying people who have no interest in egalitarianism and excluding them from the conversation so the rest of us can get on with fixing the fractures in society. In a way, it is silencing the silencers. In another, it’s a convenient method of determining who’s actually interested in helping humanity, and who’s interested only in helping themselves at the explicit expense of others.