Slurs are complicated terms for the groups intimately linked to them. Before we dig in too far, let’s start with a definition of the term. ADL defines the word as being, “an insulting, offensive or degrading remark, often based on an identity group such as race, ethnicity, religion, ethnic, gender/gender identity or sexual orientation.”
The history of a word has particular importance and this is how while some words are insulting, they are not slurs. Slurs involve a history of oppression, degradation and death. The use of a slur is to conjure up all of the negative emotions, experiences and history that pair with it.
Therefore, a slur’s purpose is to dehumanize and humiliate the group to which they refer, at the very least. More typically, they also serve to instill fear and submission due to the history attached to them.
It is important to recognize that language changes over time and so too does the meaning of some words. A great example to look at would be the word, gay. Less than forty years ago, the term was assumed to refer to disposition rather than sexuality.
The word awesome is another example, though the shift in meaning occurred much less recently. Awesome used to be synonymous with awful and refer to something horrible. So while there are a number of slurs that exist today, they haven’t always been considered slurs. Conversely, there are some words that are not considered slurs presently that may be in the future.
Consider intention and context
Surprisingly, a lot of words we use in every day language double as slurs. The context is entirely relevant. When we talk about primates and refer specifically to monkeys, this is not a slur, but when we refer to people using the same term, it is. The same can be said for words like chonky, apple and spade. Or names like Mick and Jerry.
Alternatively, while there are words that have only one meaning and there’s no room for context, the intention should be considered. Some slurs are simply slurs, there’s no double meaning to them, no room for error in using them. Except when there is. It is possible for people to misuse a word, or need to use the word to inquire about its meaning and history. This is why understanding intention in the use of a word, along with the context in which it is used it imperative.
When it’s ok to use slurs
The obvious and deliberate use of slurs has already been covered, so while people with these intentions use them for their own purpose, it’s a falsehood to say they’re encouraged or even supported in doing so. We’ve also covered off people using them innocently, or ignorantly, and the significance of context. So is there any group that can use slurs in a politically correct way?
In the literal sense, anyone can use any term they please in a country that permits free speech. The real question is, can anyone use a slur and it is deemed socially acceptable, or is it always a bad idea? Why do we still hear them spoken? And why are the groups to which the slurs are targeting, sometimes the ones using them?
Who can use slurs
The only people who can knowingly and freely use slurs are the people for whom the given slur is targeted. The reason for this is simple. When a group experiences systemic oppression, they earn the right to express their grief about their lack of rights and autonomy over their life.
Within any form of oppression there are power dynamics that exist. For equity to be achieved, the power between the groups must be equal. This requires the oppressed group to gain power and the oppressive group to surrender it until both groups have the same degree of rights both in theory and application.
An example to reflect on would be Black people in America and their attainment of Civil Rights. While in theory, this afforded them the same rights as white people, in the application, institutional racism still exists today. This confirms that Black people do not have the same rights as white people and a power imbalance exists. Therefore, Black people are still oppressed.
Positive power of a slur
As a result, some Black people have taken to using the N word to achieve two things. One, it is claimed as a sign of resistance to their oppression. Two it serves as a way to reclaim the word and the history behind it. Another example would be the gay community and reclaiming the F word. Whatever an oppressed group chooses to do with the slur used against them is up to them.
No, the oppressive group does not get to join in the reclaiming of the word, because of the power dynamics that exist. For all of the privilege that an oppressive group holds, it stands to reason that respecting the dignity and humanity of their counterpart, the oppressed group, by not using a slur to refer to them is really not much to ask.
The Next Step
In short, some words are insulting, but not necessarily slurs. Some slurs aren’t always slurs. And most critically, minding context and intention are critical. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and use words you are confident in the meaning of.
Look for opportunities to grow your understanding of other people’s experiences. Keep an open mind and a willingness to learn. Reflect on past behavior and adopt a more inclusive vocabulary. Take the next step in expanding your language options and read up on The Feminist Project’s acronyms and definitions.
Question of the Week
Should the internet be selectively censored?
Studies have proven that exposure to certain forms of online content leads to an increased likelihood to dehumanize a specific group of people or even commit violent acts against them. Two significant examples to point to are violent porn and hate crimes. What are your thoughts on online censorship for some types of content? Should censorship exist? If so, who controls it, and to what extent? Can we trust them to remain ethical with this control? If not, how do we justify the harm that comes to people as a result of a lack of censorship? Who would be most negatively impacted and why?
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