harmful words.

by Liz on 07.17

You may have noticed some hateful terms being thrown about the internet. “Bigot,” and “misogynist,” are among the tamer sort as yet another man makes yet another sexist joke. This joke cut deeper, though, because of its violent theme and pointed direction at a specific woman. Joking about rape is one thing. Wishing rape on someone is another.

I don’t need to get into WHY it’s not “offensive,” but wrong here. The wise and eloquent have pointed out that rape jokes encourage rapists, they re-victimize victims, and they defeat the purpose of comedy by furthering pain rather than using laughter to rise above it.

It’s a troubling situation, but not one with which I’m unfamiliar. I’ve said plenty of dumb, thoughtless stuff.

I’m really embarrassed to admit this, so reserve your judgment, if you will.  When I was younger I used the  word “retarded” very often. Everyone around me used that word to mean something stupid, annoying, or fouled up. So, I did too. I don’t know what caused a light switch, but eventually I realized that of course it was incredibly disrespectful to use that word in that way. Those parallels are nothing but harmful and hurtful. Even then, it took some time to break myself of the habit. I’d find myself groaning, “Ugh. So retarded,” over stupid things throughout the day, then my face would flush, and I’d stammer some correction. It took awhile to remove the word from daily use entirely. But, it wasn’t a matter of malice or hatred. It was a matter of thoughtlessness and eventually, habit. I had never really given any thought to the meaning of my words, to the power for harm that they had.

I used the word “gay” in the same way. “Gay” was derogatory- like retarded, it was for anything that I thought was annoying. At one point, I said, “That’s so gay,” and someone snapped, “Really? Gay? That’s what it is?” and rolled her eyes. But you know, that instance didn’t cause me to rethink the term or my usage. It didn’t make me step back and reconsider what I was saying. It made me think that girl was a bitch and that I didn’t really want to hang around with her any more. Much later, a friend quietly mentioned in passing that the term used that way was hurtful to her. THEN, then I thought, “Wow. I’m an idiot. That makes a lot of sense. I really shouldn’t use that word that way.” I wasn’t purposely trying to be offensive. I was just ignorant.

Ignorance. That’s what this is about.

As a result of last week’s situation, statistics about how common rape is, how painful and dehumanizing it is for the victim, and about triggering PTSD are at the forefront. These are all facts and findings that I’m all too familiar with because of my interest in women’s issues, my passion for defending the disenfranchised, and because of how many sexual abuse victims I’ve known, befriended, comforted and counseled (and I’ll assume you are too, for many the same reasons). I’m aware of the devastation of rape.

I think it’s safe to say that your typical person is not- and not by any fault of their own.

People are going to say things that are hurtful and harmful. It’s of course everyone’s responsibility to call out wrong when we see it, to let people know how their words impact others so they can reconsider what they say and how they say it. That’s all important. But how can we do it in a way that causes positive changes rather than derision? How can we bring about understanding without condemning those who maybe are hurting others only by fault of ignorance? By making sweeping generalizations, calling names and hurling insults, we only shut down the conversation. And this is very much a conversation that should continue.

Let’s recognize the wrong that others do, speak out against it, seek to put an end to it- but without chalking up any person to “lost.” Simply because someone says something terrible doesn’t make them a terrible person. Because others defend those terrible words doesn’t mean they’re terrible people, either. I think we can hate the action without hating the person, and give the benefit of the doubt that some folks just don’t know. It’s fine to give certain wrongdoings extra weight, but it’s not fair to determine the wrongdoer irredeemable. Even those who say stupid, thoughtless, hurtful things can learn and grow and change.

Trust me.

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