By Joan Ang (17A01B)
A few weeks ago, my 13-year-old brother came home from school crying. When my parents asked him why, he choked out the phrase, “my senior called me retarded,” and vanished into his room.
My brother has a learning disorder.
Of course, his senior couldn’t possibly have known this when he said those words, but the experience does call to mind some things that I have heard in my past eight months at RI. From my first days in January, I’ve heard slurs thrown around in casual conversation like nobody’s business—a real culture shock in contrast to my secondary school days.
A slur is an insult, but one with a specific set of connotations. Broadly speaking, an insult becomes a slur when it’s historically associated with a minority group and their consequent marginalisation. Slurs include words such as “n****” [or the n word] for black people in America, “faggot” for homosexuals and “retarded” for the intellectually or mentally disabled.
The problem is, most slur users aren’t aware of that history. In fact, there’s a pattern to this: when I first ask a slur-user the meaning of the words they’re using, they can’t tell me. When I respond badly, they then attempt to pass their word choice off as a joke, which just worsens the entire situation, because I think that slur usage is really anything but.
Because slur usage does contribute to societal marginalisation. Whether you like it or not.
For example, the n word is historically linked to black people in America, having been used to refer to black slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s therefore intrinsically linked to the black community, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
And so, when a person uses the n word, they bring up an entire history of oppression, and one that continues to perpetuate to this day—possibly even through the unknowing actions of slur-users.
To use the n word as an insult is to insinuate that it’s bad to be black. To frivolously fling the n word around as a joke, as someone thoroughly unrelated on a sunny island halfway around the world? That’s erasure. Both of culture, and of history.
Now replace the n word with retarded, or faggot, and see what you do every time you throw a word like that around.
By making slurs a joke, you trivialise the real issues of real people who have to deal with the negative impacts of societal discrimination on them.
You might then say, “but we live in a different context than the one the negative associations stem from! I can’t be hurting anyone, and neither can anyone in my circles.” Maybe the words that you say don’t apply to any of the people in your immediate friend circle or within earshot, but we do not, and cannot exist in a void.
These words have been used to oppress, alienate and discriminate. To say that their histories are no longer relevant and to eradicate them ignores the status of the society that we live in, and the people that we live with.
But when I bring this up to said friends who use slurs, more often than not, I get written off as not being able to take a joke. Or they say that it’s too inapplicable to them. Too irrelevant. That the issue is too macro. That I’m just being overly critical.
Or that they just can’t find it within themselves to care.
These are all troubling, because perhaps you in particular do not mean what you say. Saying it does not necessitate action, after all. But for every joke you make, there is a chance that you validate a person who espouses the views you unintentionally preach. And there is a chance they will do something about it.
Discrimination isn’t dead. Oppression isn’t obsolete. There are people dying—not just around the world, but in neighboring countries, possibly even in our own streets. Maybe you don’t personally experience it, but there are others who do. And to imply that their pain is irrelevant, to turn death and destruction happening right at this moment into another joke for your personal amusement—that’s not just ignorant, that’s obtuse.
Because, people are getting hurt, and for someone who cannot find it within themselves to care: where is your sense of empathy?
So you argue: “But I do have empathy!” Then please tell me the measure by which we’re supposed to judge it. Does “having empathy” mean taking part in service initiatives and being kind to animals, all so you can turn around and yell across the room that someone is a retard?
And I beg your pardon, but I don’t understand the point. It’s ironic, hypocritical even, that a person can claim to care about others and still spew words of hate on a daily basis. If you want to say that you care about people, apply that principle across the board. There is little value in half-hearted kindness.
Most people don’t feel bad about the harm they cause simply because it’s not immediately visible—after all, saying the word “retarded” does not make a mentally-disabled person drop dead across the street. But by using those words, you do indirectly contribute to societal discrimination, and the thing is that most people don’t even acknowledge it as such, or even work to make the situation better.
We aren’t babies, and this isn’t object permanence. Just because something is out of your line of sight doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist. Just because something isn’t physically present doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Someone does not need to break down in front of you for you to realise that there is an issue with the words that you speak.
At the end of the day, being human means what comes out of our mouths are the results of our own choices. If we made the effort, we could eradicate slurs from our vocabularies.
The question is, really, whether we care enough to.