In online communication, whether it’s on a forum or in a video game, it isn’t uncommon to see some strong insults (racist, sexist, etc.) being thrown about, and the ubiquity of such language has created a lot of debate on the subject among fans and others concerned. What I see from those arguing, however, is a tendency to take a rather extreme stance in one direction or the other, which ends up avoiding much of the nuance of such a complicated topic which goes well beyond video games and technology and into the deep recesses of human history. I’m no expert on the matter myself, and I’m bound to have my own oversights, but I wanted to lay out my own thoughts, as well as my own personal philosophy on the matter.
One of the stereotypes of being on the internet is that, in order to successfully participate, one must have or develop a thick skin. Behind the safety of a computer screen and at least a few hundred miles, it’s easy to say what you want, when you want. People will take anything they can to put you down, whether it’s because they want to seem tough, or they want to psych you out, or because they actually feel that way, and race, gender, and sexuality factor into that equation as well. However, while it’s true that listening to what every single random person has to say about you online and taking it to heart is a bad idea and that having an impermeable hide can help deflect the insults away, there’s still the problem of the very fact that words such as “n****r,” “f****t,” and “slut,” are considered viable as insults.
How often do you see someone try to put down another person by calling them white, heterosexual, or masculine? We take these values to be in may ways a societal default on practically a subconscious level. When you call someone a n****r online to try and get under their skin, even if you don’t really mean it seriously, even if they’re not actually black, you’re implying that being black is in itself a terrible thing. It’s one thing to trash talk to get a mental edge, and it’s another to even unknowingly reinforce the idea that some people are perpetually inferior on some inaccessible level simply because of the color of their skin or whom they find attractive.
That said, I am very much against censoring or removing slurs from the English language.
While I do not believe that words are necessarily innocent in and of themselves, as they may have elaborate backgrounds rooted in hatred and intolerance, I am a firm believer in freedom of expression, whether that’s artistic or verbal or any other form, and that includes the nastier side of how we speak. If the writer of a story wants to convey hatred through strong language, then that option should be available to them, just as the option to deride them for doing so is available to everyone who chooses to read (or not read) their work. If people feel the desire to express themselves using that language, then I do not think it’s right to deny them their own feeling. To simply say that we need to erase these words is like layering bricks over a massive sinkhole.
The problem with “f****t” isn’t that it originally meant “twig” or whatever and that we polluted its meaning, but rather that we allowed ourselves to believe that homosexuality is a quality worth insulting in the first place. This is also why I think people using words like n****r and f****t in a positive fashion, or at least trying to do so, is not necessarily reinforcing the negativity associated with these words, but that is a topic I will leave for another time.
One thing I am well aware of is the way such language can be so commonplace that those who are exposed to it frequently while growing up can wind up having it as a part of their subconscious mind and not realize the potential strength of these words. Using them becomes habit, as simple as saying “good morning.” I’ll admit it myself: when I was younger, I would use the word “gay” to mean “awful,” as in “You got a 50 on a test? That’s so gay!” If you had stopped me and asked whether or not I actually thought homosexual were inherently worse as human beings or that I actually hated them, I would’ve said of course not, but still, “gay” was in my vocabulary as an adjective to describe mundane areas of life. Eventually, I stopped using the word in that fashion altogether, but it didn’t come from me declaring that “from this day forward, I will no longer use the word ‘gay’ in a way which implies negativity!” It simply happened gradually and almost unconsciously, and if I had to attribute it to anything, it would be to meeting and becoming friends with people who are gay, the act of which likely educated me into thinking of them not as some distant idea or label, but as fellow human beings. Just as easy as it was to start using the word “gay” in that particular meaning, it became just as easy to stop after the fact.
In contrast, when I was even younger, I made the active decision to stop cursing, and while I’ve gotten somewhat more lax since, I still try to avoid such words as much as possible. I never mind if others use them and use them often, but I have knowingly limited my own regular vocabulary because I think it serves me better, and I will still use them when I’m quoting another person who’s used a word like “fuck,” or if I’m discussing it as a topic and feel that ideas get too obfuscated through the use of euphemisms.
The fact that I’ve consciously removed some insults from my language and unconsciously removed others can seem rather contradictory I realize, because it might seem as if I’m saying that people should consciously remove certain words from their vocabulary while also claiming that it happens naturally and we should just let nature take its course. The difference here, however, is that I am not claiming a solution wherein everyone eliminates offensive language from their vocabulary or society deems it fit to consider the use of those words a crime in and of themselves. Nor am I claiming that people should use only the words that I use. Rather, I think the key to addressing the use of slurs, whether the user did not consider the weight of those words, is simply education, and not on a didactic level.
If we can show people about how words can and do have power, or encourage people to realize that those they see as “others” are not some nebulous concept but as a group of individual human beings, then we can give them the power to shape their own language usage from an informed position, instead of an ignorant one. This way, when someone unconsciously uses a word that encourages intolerance, they can be shown the potential problems of doing so without forcing upon them a false paradigm of “right and wrong,” or trying to instill shame into them. Thus, if they stop using a word, it isn’t because the word never existed or that it has some vaguely defined negativity, but because they felt that, on some level, whether conscious or unconscious, that it isn’t how they would like to express themselves. Vocabulary is avoided but it isn’t removed.