Thursday, December 29, 2011

When Are Words "Just Words?"

Are words ever “just words?” This idea has perplexed me for a while. On one hand, I believe that words are extremely powerful and should be used appropriately to avoid hurting others, but on the other hand I have this urge to believe that words have no actual meaning, given the fact that society determines what a word means. So, which is it, or is it both? And what does this mean?

I was having a conversation with a Hispanic friend about a local store here called Food City. I had never been to this store before, and so I had no idea that the store was Hispanic based. A lot of their signs are in both English and Spanish, and they have a lot of great items there that I hadn’t expected to find. It was a general surprise. So, there I was discussing going to Food City with my Hispanic friend, and he made the comment “Really? Kinda beanerish.” I was taken aback and informed him that I thought the use of the word “beaner” was offensive. I asked him not to use to it, and the rest of our conversation went like this (edited a little bit for clarity and professionalism):

Friend: “You are Caucasian, you taking offense to a derogatory Hispanic slang term is kinda like me getting pissed off at a Midol commercial for claiming that it fixes your personality defects.”

Me: “I don’t have to be Hispanic to be offended. I am not African-American, but the word ‘nigger’ is offensive to me.”

Friend: “But it doesn’t apply to you. How am I supposed to understand…the plight of women without ever being one? It just doesn’t apply.”

Me: “It’s called empathy.”

Friend: “I'm not saying you can't [care]. I'm just saying that it is absurd. It's the intent behind something that is more important, anything less just counts as censorship to me.”

Me: “I disagree. Language is rooted in perceptions and impressions.”

After that, we realized neither of us was giving in and we moved on to a new topic. But the concept stayed with me, and it was discussed in some of my graduate courses briefly during that period. Now I’m trying to work it all out for myself.

When I first had this conversation with my friend, I was infuriated with him. As a feminist I try to stand up for marginalized groups every day, and most everyday activism, for me, comes down to language. When I hear someone say “that’s gay” or use offensive words or phrases to perpetuate stereotypes for any group, I speak up about it. I honestly believe that given the negative connotations of these words, it is detrimental to the groups for these words to be allowed use.

The idea that “words are just words” is not lost on me, though. I have seen countless examples of people using words to “take them back” and in the process makes the words lose their meaning. The word “witch” has a historical background as really offensive (being called a witch usually ended in death), but now a good portion of society uses the word freely with no real negative distinction or definition. I guess where my problem lies is that some people are still offended by that word, even though it has been appropriated.

I come to a place where I feel like maybe words are both meaningless and extremely powerful at the same time, just based on context. For instance, I wouldn’t be upset if a close friend of mine called me a bitch as a joke or to put me in place when I did something that warranted the comment, but I would be very offended if someone I wasn’t familiar with called me a bitch for any reason.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think that words have power when given power. For my Hispanic friend, he didn’t think that the word “beaner” was offensive for me because in his mind he couldn’t see why I would give it power without past experiences dealing with it, and for me, I couldn’t see how he could dismiss the word as not offensive for me when it has historically been used as a derogatory word. So, it all comes down to perception. Words are “just words” that when used in the right context can be helpful or hurtful.

What do you all think about that? Do you think that asking for offensive words to not be used is a form of censorship or a way to work toward ending prejudice? Was my reaction warranted even though I’m not Hispanic? Sound off in the comments!