Words matter. Words matter because we give them definitions and attach meanings to them and then react to those meanings that words evoke. No, meanings are not static; words can shift meaning over time as people and cultures use them and react to them differently. A Duke University movement about words – “You Don’t Say” – caught my eye a few weeks ago, and I liked it. Here are some examples from the campaign:
As you can probably gather from the above image, the idea behind the campaign is to make people think about the words that they use in their everyday language and what kinds of meanings they are attaching to those words. For example, when someone gets mad at something and says, “That’s so retarded!” or “That’s so gay!” they are associating their anger/frustration/negative emotion with that particular word.
One high profile example that got a lot of attention a couple of years ago was when Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for calling a referee a “fucking faggot.” Think about it – when Kobe was about as mad and frustrated as you will ever see him, the phrase he used to express that intense emotion was “fucking faggot.” That says something about what those words have come to mean and how we use them.
This idea that words matter matters to me. The two that particularly bother me are “gay” and “retarded.” This is in part because they are so commonly used by so many people. Listen to people talk and listen for those words and how they are used. You will certainly never hear me use either of these words to express anger, frustration, or distaste in any way. And it bothers me when others around me use them in that way, though I will admit, I’m not good at confronting people who do choose to use them in a derogatory manner, and I should probably do more about that.
There has been some pushback about this as promoting a PC agenda designed to censor people or somehow infringe on their freedom of speech. I think that assessment is unfair. (So did others involved, in this response.) The campaign is designed to try and make people think a little bit about some of these phrases and the meanings they have taken on and how these kinds of associations matter. There are plenty of words to express all kinds of emotions, both positive and negative. Be a little more creative, and don’t use an entire group’s sexuality or mental capability as a synonym for a negative emotion or situation. They are not interchangeable.