All speech is free speech.
We hear this all the time. But what about those words that are so emotionally charged that they really have no place in public discourse anymore?
Paula Deen just lost half her empire for acknowledging that she had used the "N" word, a word with such history that it can no longer even be named.
But what about the words that carry similar weight for the LGBTQ community?
On the eve of Independence Day (the irony will soon be apparent), I was tweeting with a few friends. But as I skimmed my tweets, a word jumped out at me: "fag."
I don't follow thousands of people. I follow friends and some political people, news and women's and LGBTQ organizations.
The offending slur came from Anonymous.
For those who don't follow underground politics, Anonymous are the hacktivist group that has made an anarchistic presence for themselves in the online community, but also outside it. Most recently they have supported young women rape victims. Anonymous members always appear wearing their masks, which are similar to those worn for Guy Fawkes Day. Their identities are both hidden and the same.
I was stunned to see this anti-gay slur in a tweet from a group I think of as a positive political force and pro-LGBTQ.
So I tweeted them back, asking them to explain the use of the slur.
In response I got:
— anonymous (@AnonQC) July 3, 2013
That might have felt clever to the sender(s), but it made my stomach lurch.
What ensued was an hour-long Twitter fight between me, Anonymous and a number of their supporters, with me reminding Anonymous that they're supposed to be the good guys. All the supporters where straight white guys. I am a lesbian.
To be fair, the discourse never got ugly, like some Twitter fights I have had. Yet I never had any sense that these guys saw this argument as anything but a variation on gaming. I was told I shouldn't take this too seriously. I was told that these words don't have meaning anymore. I was told to lighten up. And eventually I was told I was a nice person and they had enjoyed playing with me but now were going to set me free, like a group of alley cats with a lucky mouse.
At one point Anonymous insisted that having government legislate language would be censorship. I replied that I wasn't talking about government; I was talking about them.
And therein lies the problem: How do LGBTQ people convince others -- including our allies -- that language has consequences?
The same day as my Twitter fight, my partner told me that one of her college students had come out on social media. The young woman got support, but what if the first thing she'd seen was a tweet with an anti-gay slur in it? More than just a buzz kill.
I'm not suggesting wholesale censorship, nor do I think that the world has to be protected from offensive language. That would be counterintuitive for any writer.
But what I am saying is that some words don't further any argument. Slurs -- "nigger," "fag," "cunt," and "kike" being among the most common and vile -- just don't have any relevant role in social or political discourse. They are epithets meant solely to demean. And they have a long history of violence attached to them. When you use them, you bring that violence -- lynching, slavery, hate crimes, rape, the Holocaust -- with you.
Anonymous and their cadre argued with me that using these words invalidated their power. Because identity is now meaningless as a construct.
Yeah, no. We don't live inside semiotic theory. We live in real life, in real time. In that real life and real time, when a man calls you a "bitch cunt dyke" while raping you, as my rapist did, those words are hate speech. When a gay man is killed in New York City and his killer calls him a "fag" just before he murders him, it's not an ordinary killing; it's a hate murder.
When words have a long historical association with oppression and violence, we need to consider why we would use them. What's your context?
There's a real danger in treating other people's oppression and suffering flippantly, as the Anonymous crowd is doing. They asserted that they were "reclaiming" this language. But it's not theirs to reclaim. They aren't the people who have lived the legacy of damage associated with those words. We have. We still do. When a word is the very worst thing you could call someone, you can't use it and expect that it will do anything but damage.
Social media is very much a rogue nation. People say things that they would never say in real life; anonymity and cyber-distance allows them to do so. But we all are aware now that cyber bullying has consequences: Anonymous worked to get police attention to the case of a young rape victim who was cyber-bullied into suicide last year, so they know the damage words can inflict.
When people -- especially the politically jejune -- see "cool" anarchist groups like Anonymous using language that is the very definition of hate speech, won't the assumption be that it's OK to use it?
It's not. And claiming these words aren't offensive is itself offensive. When Alec Baldwin went on his Twitter rant last week, calling Daily Mail reporter George Stark a "toxic little queen" and a "little bitch," he got a pass.
How is this different from what Deen did, especially given that Baldwin did it publicly?
Baldwin made a vague apology, insisting that the homophobic slurs against a gay man weren't homophobic. But they were. The pass Baldwin got and the dismissive nature of my exchange with the Anonymous guys have an unpleasant equivalency: Both assert that these words aren't that big a deal, get over yourselves. Anonymous told me that they use these words all the time, while Baldwin said that his anti-gay words aren't what we think they are.
We all know censorship is a slippery slope. We have to allow the Fred Phelpses their signs and placards, because we want our own. But when our friends use the same language as the Westboro contingent, we have to ask them why. We have to ask them to stop. And if they won't, perhaps they aren't our friends after all.