Hello there, dear reader. This is a column, which I will oftentimes use to state obvious things; and I am the columnist, whom you can take egregiously out of context in order to make a point on some later date if you so choose. Formal introductions: done. Now that formalities are out of the way, rest assured I will never use the word “whom” again. Onwards!
“I have nothing to declare except my genius.” It’s an Oscar Wilde quote. I expect you to already know who that is. If you don’t, you’re a disappointment to me. And being a disappointment to random strangers with awesome glasses totally matters. In addition to being delightfully pretentious and narcissistic in retrospect, the actual title is just my nerdy way of saying that I am not claiming that anything I say is right. What shall be stated is my opinion and my opinion only. If you say mean things about me, I will cry. Well, I won’t cry, but I will be forced to make snarky counter-comments about it to my friends. Be warned.
How about some actual content now?
Fun fact: I’m a freshman! The whole month I’ve been here so far has clearly been enough time for me to fully absorb and deeply understand the unique social atmosphere that is Swarthmore. It’s a fun place—lots of homework and the like—but one thing about the general atmosphere here has struck me as particularly troublesome. It’s an atmosphere of political correctness, which anyone who talks to me for thirty seconds will come to realize very quickly is something that I can’t stand.
“Political Correctness doesn’t change us, it shuts us up.” That is a Glenn Beck quote. Do you see what this world has brought me to? It made me think Glenn Beck was right about something! I am a liberal: I like the environment and social services, and I think socialism is okay. But Mr. Beck and I agree, and look at that — a hole was just ripped in the universe, distorting reality even further. C-A-T is pronounced dog now, folks. Have fun re-learning language.
I’m not going to tell people not to be offended by words. That’s an unrealistic thing to ask of anyone, myself included. I went to the Tri-Co Summer Institute — I know about intent vs. impact when it comes to language. I know that sometimes the words that fall out of your face don’t sound as awesome as they did while they were still rattling around in your skull. That’s why “tact” is a word that exists, and it’s an awesome thing to exercise. Do it all the time, because that’s how society works. The problem I have at Swat is that a disproportionate amount of people give no credence whatsoever to the “intent” part of “intent vs. impact.”
To quote George Carlin, because, quite frankly, he said it a million times better than I ever could, and you should probably just go watch the clip on YouTube and write inflammatory comments there: “They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. You give words their meaning; they don’t come inherently. I think one of the main problems with the politically correct crowd is that they adhere to a very strict idea of language: this means this and it will always mean this no matter what because it meant this in the beginning, therefore it is bad and should never be said.
It’s like dark humor: People insist that dead baby jokes should never be made because dead babies are a sad thing. But if being a sad thing is the only criterion for what jokes can or cannot be made, say goodbye to most comedians because comedy is pretty preoccupied with misfortune. A joke is okay when it’s funny. Black humor risks more because a bad black comedy joke has the added bonus of being offensive if it falls flat. The concept of the joke isn’t bad; it’s just bad when handled by incompetent people. That’s the context of the situation, the context of the language being used.
Language is not some dead thing in rigor-mortis. It is not stiff and unchangeable. The beautiful thing about language is that it changes all the time. It flows with society, never getting left behind. A word can mean one thing one day and a completely different thing ten years down the road. Keeping the fluidity of language in mind, you cannot say that [insert word you think is offensive] is a bad word. Context matters. Intent matters. You can’t disregard it just because its impact involved someone’s feelings getting hurt.
Yeah, you probably shouldn’t casually use the word “retarded” around someone who actually is disabled. That’s the whole tact thing I talked about earlier. If you call someone who is disabled a retard you are a terrible human being and should be slapped in the face with a brick. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad word in every situation ever and that you’re a bad person for saying it. It can be a slur in one context, and if you happen to use it in that context the aforementioned brick-slapping is a thing that should happen. In another context it’s just a synonym for “dumb,” and perpetuating the societal prejudice against disabled people is probably the last thing on the mind of anyone who uses it in that context. Yes, being unintentionally insensitive is bad, but the fourteen year old who gets a C on a math quiz and mutters “That’s retarded” to himself is not an ableist. You know who is? The person who actually is mistreating and/or saying bad things about disabled people. One of these things seems more important than the other.
A person can say offensive things and still be a morally good person who cares about the rights of other human beings. A person can never say an offensive thing in their life and still be a genuine bigot. The words people let fall out of their face do not immediately give you a look into their character, especially in a place like Swarthmore. So I’m not telling anyone that they should just not be offended at things. I get offended all the time. It’s the human thing to do. I’m just simply suggesting that people give credence to context every now and then and save some of their “I Take Great Offense at That” cards for another, more deserving, occasion.