Matt Damon’s obliviousness

The actor has a persona of an enlightened person so it was surprising to read an interview in which he claimed that he had just recently stopped using a slur term for gays after his daughter had upbraided him about it. His defense for using it was that the term “was commonly used when I was a kid, with a different application”.

He said his daughter had taken him to task after he used the word in a joke at a dinner party. “She went to her room and wrote a very long, beautiful treatise on how that word is dangerous. I said, ‘I retire the f-slur!’ I understood,” he said in the interview.

Damon, who in 2017 apologized for saying sexual assault was “a spectrum of behavior” after a similar outcry, immediately came under fire from LGBTQ+ activists.

The admission is quite astonishing. If he was expecting praise for his newfound understanding, he was mistaken. The general reaction has been “What took you so long?”

Damon was born in 1970, one year after the Stonewall riots which brought to the public’s attention the way that the LGBT community was harassed by the police and the public and acted as a catalyst for the advancing of gay rights around the world. By the time he was a ‘kid’ of (say) ten years of age, the movement for LGBT rights was well underway. But even if he missed it and his family and peers did not correct him as a child, surely by the time he reached adulthood and entered the workplace he had to personally know gay people and be aware that such slurs are hurtful and not acceptable? We are long past the stage when people can use their childhood as an excuse for obliviousness about things like this.

The person who comes out well is his daughter for rebuking him. The only positive thing that emerges about Damon from this episode is that he raised a child who is willing and able to challenge parental authority when they say do something wrong. Most of the time children are more enlightened about changing social mores than their parents and we would do well to listen to them.


  1. says

    Damon gets extra points for oiviousness if it happened after 2009, when Damon recorded the audio version of Howard Zinn’s people’s history. One would have to be especially obtuse to read that book aloud to the public and not understand the importance of language. Homophobic language is political speech -- it’s part of the oligarchy’s system of dividing, othering, and conquering.

  2. Matt G says

    Disappointing. I thought Damon had a reputation for being somewhat liberal -- something not so common for a tough guy actor.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    ‘I retire the f-slur!’

    The one which rhymes with “moot”, the one which rhymes with “Mary”, or the one which rhymes with “maggot”?

  4. garnetstar says

    He used it “with a different application”? What?

    The one that rhymes with maggot had a use in the middle ages and for some time after: it meant a stick of kindling wood, used to start a fire going. One can read it used to mean that in books written some centuries ago.

    How would Matt Damon know that? You think he reads a lot of medieval literature?

  5. John Morales says

    garnetstar, nah, like ‘lame’ is used. Just a way to be demeaning and insulting, the word is divorced from its actual meaning.

  6. consciousness razor says


    The one that rhymes with maggot had a use in the middle ages and for some time after: it meant a stick of kindling wood, used to start a fire going. One can read it used to mean that in books written some centuries ago.

    I guess there’s some dispute to be had about it, but it probably derives (somewhat indirectly) from the Latin words fascis or fasces — also where fascism got its name. In ancient Rome, that was the name for the bundle of wooden rods (sometime with an axe blade attached) carried by lictors, who were bodyguards for various officials, which came to symbolize their power/authority…. Thus it also came to represent fascism, which ultimately isn’t really about anything more than that.

    In a bunch of other European languages, that’s also the word used (with various spellings and pronunciations) for what we call the “bassoon” in English.

    I had to think about it for a minute, but I’m pretty sure he means “fruit.”

  7. Holms says

    #6 garnetstar
    Centuries ago, or in The Lord of the Rings, written in the 1940s. But then, Tolkien was always a fan of a certain old fashioned style of writing.

  8. mnb0 says

    “The actor has a persona of an enlightened person …..”
    Huh? That’s in the eye of the beholder and certainly not in mine.

    “Most of the time children are more enlightened about changing social mores.”
    Yeah, sure. That’s why racism (including homophobia, islamophobia and misogynia) in The Netherlands has increased last two decades. When Dutchies turn 30 something in their brains clicks.
    Or not.
    In Poland and Hungary it’s the youngsters who support authoritarianism iso the democratic rechtsstaat. Etc. etc.

    As for MattD: rather jerkish to neglect “better late than never” -- there are not too many 50+ years old people who are capable of openly admitting that they were wrong. How often have you done that last 15 years, MS? As for me, not as often as I should have. It’s always easier to judge others than yourself.

  9. mnb0 says

    For this reason non-jerks welcome MattD’s admission. It makes the world a bit better than it was a month ago.
    But condemning is soooo much more fun. It makes you feel intellectually and morally superior (yup, I got banned by PZ for rubbing this fact into his face -- I never thought much of “don’t be a jerk” as a moral imperative).

  10. sonofrojblake says

    “wasn’t “fag” also UK slang for cigarette?”

    Very much common present usage.

    Also fagging in English public schools only stopped relatively recently (20 years or so).

  11. cartomancer says

    Regarding the etymology:

    We do not use the word “faggot” in the UK to mean gay people. We understand its usage in US English from your films and TV programmes, but we don’t use it for that ourselves. To us it is either a cigarette, a bundle of wood or a processed meat product popular in the North of England. All of these reflect the derivation of the word via Norman French from the Latin verb “fascinare”, meaning to bundle up or bind together. In Medieval siege warfare a fascine was a bundle of sticks thrown into the moat of a castle to fill it in so you could cross to get at the walls. The word “fascinate” also derives from this, meaning to enwrap or tie up in a psychological sense.

    A folk etymology for why this idea ever came to be used as a term for gay men is that it conjures up images of burning at the stake. This is unlikely, however, given that the English-speaking world never did that to gay people (or even to witches -- hanging was our preferred method).. It was known on the continent, though, and burning-related terms for gay men do exist in other languages. The Italian finocchi (fennel) as a slang term for gay men seems to refer to the practice of throwing fennel stalks onto the pyres to cover up the smell. The Italian-American insult finook appears to derive from this.

    The actual derivation for faggot is probably a feminising one. It is cognate with “baggage”, still used to refer to old women, who were originally the people who tended to gather bundles of sticks for firewood.

    In England we tend to use other insulting slang terms for gay men. The usual ones include poof, queer, fairy, shirt-lifer and arse-bandit. Fruit is a quaint cockney one from fifty odd years ago.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve been in Damon’s position more than once. Someone has pointed out that a word I’ve used as an insult is offensive, and I’ve corrected myself. The last time was a couple of years ago, and I’m 66. Luckily, I’m not famous, so I don’t have half the internet crowing about my obliviousness.

    Marcus mentioned Howard Zinn. He was (fairly gently, I think) criticized for neglecting Latinx and gay/lesbian folk in his magnum opus, and corrected that in later editions, saying that he was “a work in progress”. Aren’t we all?

  13. Katydid says

    Mano, all talk of Matt Damon aside, in 1970s in the USA:

    * restaurants had just legally been desegregated, but in fact were still very much segregated, particularly in the south and there was still a huge amount of violence against Black citizens of all ages

    * women could not have a credit card or bank account in their own name, even if they were working or (rare) owned property

    * there was a huge, vicious, angry backlash in the USA against women going to college or holding any sort of job that would allow them to support themselves

    * there was a huge, violent, vicious anti-gay sentiment

  14. sonofrojblake says

    @mnb0, 16:

    I got banned by PZ for rubbing this fact into his face

    Meh, it doesn’t take much. Point out that writing a blogpost entitled something like “Amazon is evil” while on the SAME PAGE shilling your own book with a link to buy it from everyone’s favourite tax-dodging river-themed bookshop is a tad hypocritical? Banhammer. Hypocrites gonna crit hippos.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    @cartomancer, 18: “shirt-lifer” should of course read “shirt-LIFTER”. All terms that were thrown at me during the period of school where I was subjected to a great deal of homophobic bullying. (Note: I’m straight. The reason I was bullied for being queer was… I talked to, and was friends with, girls. This is what passes for logic among teenage homophobes. Suffice to say when I first heard the term “toxic masculinity”, it struck a huge chord. When I heard via Facebook that one of my more persistent bullies had since come out, I was at once enormously amused and a little sad. He’s a much nicer bloke now.)

  16. KG says

    Ah, yes, that was it. I knew it wasn’t what he claimed but I couldn’t remember what it was. Thanks.

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