[Find out more about this column, “The Menu is not the Meal” by Sophie Morris]
In my last article, I argued that we must be cautious about claiming a link between our language and our thoughts. Essentially, I tried to show that “the menu is not the meal” – using the words of Alan Watts, or as Alfred Korzybski put it: “the map is not the territory”. The menu or map, our language, is not a 1 to 1 representation of the meal or territory, the way we think. However, this does not mean that we can entirely dismiss the words we use. They still carry meaning: when I say a word, there is usually a consensus on the meaning that we, as a society, have agreed upon. So, for me, dealing with slurs and derogatory words used to refer to certain groups of people, words that we avoid when trying to be politically correct, is a fundamental issue. Why avoid such words, if we’ve established that language is distinct from thought and reality anyway? And should we – can we – censor these words?
Our millennial generation is known for being full of special snowflakes: we get ‘triggered’ and we want ‘safe spaces’. I won’t get into the inter-generational politics of this, but I do think the language aspect of this ‘millennial snowflakes’ discourse is quite interesting. Nowadays, there is a trend of policing others about the words they use, and we do speak up against people making derogatory comments and using disrespectful slurs – and rightly so.
When we refer to certain genders or sexualities or skin colours (there are plenty of marginalised groups one can choose from) using derogatory terms, sure – it can be dismissed as a joke. When we refer to our friends, who do not necessarily fit into those categories, sure – it can be dismissed as friendly banter. But the world is not just jokes and friendly banter.
When we repeatedly use negative words to refer to a certain group, it is natural that when we will feel negative feelings when we hear about that group or meet a member of that group. Fabio Fasoli, who studied the “impact of homophobic epithets and sexist slurs”, concluded that derogatory terms “are not only symptoms but also predictors of prejudice”, and “regardless of the intent of the speaker, these social slurs seem to enhance prejudice toward the target to which they refer”. We cannot claim that it’s alright to use slurs just because we’re using the words among friends – they still change our perception of marginalised groups. “The overhearing of homophobic epithets by heterosexuals leads individuals to report stronger prejudice toward homosexuals”, Fasoli writes.
And isn’t this actually self-evident? If we use a word again and again negatively, one that has been associated with a certain group – let’s take the word “f—-t” to refer to homosexuals as an example – then we naturally associate that word with negative feelings. Common sense, right? If we repeatedly hear and use the word with negative connotations, even if it’s just ‘friendly banter’, and the meaning of ‘homosexual’ is not the primary meaning anymore, one is still aware of the negative connotations of the word. Even when “it’s just friendly banter” and no one’s feelings are hurt by the exchange, the reason it is banter is because of the associated negative connotation. You wouldn’t just call each other ‘gay’ in a friendly way, and then laugh about it if you didn’t acknowledge that the word has negative connotations, and by using the word in such negative contexts, you are just reinforcing any negative feelings there might be towards the group the slur refers to.
So my point here is that we really need to think about our words. Our words have power. “Does it really matter?” you might ask. Yes, it does. I like to believe the best in people, but I’m not idealistic. I know that it can go against human nature to actively censor your every word, and I would never want to do that. However, I think that here at Sciences Po, an institution where none of us can say we are ignorant of the the world around us, and the consequences that our words and our actions can have, we should all be able to reflect on our habits, mannerisms and words.
This is not about censorship, this is about common sense. This is not me telling people how to think and what to say, but a reminder that our words carry power, and we should think about the impact that words can have.
Based on that, we can choose whether slurs are really the best way to express ourselves. We can make a decision about whether we want to use offensive words just for the sake of ‘freedom of speech’, and, when we get called out on it, just for the sake of spiting those who called us out on it. A decision about whether the fact that we are allowed to use certain words – because I would never advocate for anyone to infringe upon our freedom of speech – means that we should use those words. A decision about being mindful of the world we live in, being respectful of our peers, and common human decency.