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« Obama wrapping it up: My grandparents would have been so proud | Main | Overheard in West Virginia »

May 08, 2008


Ron Newman

I generally agree, but have a question: what would you call a gay man, if not "a gay man" ? A gay woman is a lesbian, but I don't know of any similar term for a gay male.


@Ron Newman -
What I meant was using the word in this type of context:
"Dude, you're so gay!" or "That's the gayist outfit I've ever seen" or "Stop being so gay and just come to the bar with us" -
ie, using the word as a term to describe a certain behavior. I'm fine with using the word literally. Perhaps I should have been more clear on that point.


Do you differentiate between use of a word by members of the group referred to by the word, as opposed to those outside of the group? In other words, is it alright for an Irishman to refer to himself as a mick, or for a black person to refer to him or herself as... well, you know.

Also, when quoting someone directly, would you quote directly, or would you either change the offending words or "bleep" them. For instance, would you use:

"Get out of my face, mick!"
"Get out of my face, m***!"
"Get out of my face, Irishman!"

I have my own opinions concerning these, but I'm curious about yours. I have no problem with self-reference, for instance. Thanks!

(Not trying to trap you or start an argument. I think I pretty much agree with most of what you say. May have some slight disagreement, but not worth arguing about.)


I think that people use slurs within their ethnic group as a way to “reclaim” the word for their own, if that makes sense. While that’s all fine and dandy, I am still very, very uncomfortable when I hear Black people calling each other the n-word. It begs the question “If they’re saying it, why can’t I?” (i.e. the whole Imus fiasco).

Your quoting question reminds me of this crazy Curb Your Enthusiasm episode - Larry kept getting caught quoting someone else who used the n-word. If you’re comfortable using the words, then I think it’s fine to use the quote as it was said. I can’t stand the sound of my voice saying most slurs, so I try not to use the words.

That’s my perspective on your questions. But what do you think?

Cam Beck

You make a strong case, but do you not also think that most of the time it's not worth it to take offense? People can control what they say, but not what you think. Only you control that, and they cannot read your minds (just your blog).

What is it that makes something wrong? Is it that it is inherently offensive, or that someone takes offense?

If I were to say that I take offense to the word "poor" or "economically disadvantaged" because I was once poor (and economically disadvantaged is just condescending) does that make you wrong for saying it?

(I don't take offense at much, but am just demonstrating that the argument can deteriorate fairly quickly).

The other problem is that not everyone agrees. What makes one person's offense more valuable than another?

You may be offended to hear certain terms used -- even if it's used in a grammatically correct way -- but they may be offended that you would dare try to shame them for using the term correctly. How are we to decide whose offense carries greater weight?

Hence, it's dangerous to govern by perceived amplitudes of offense -- trying to figure out who is wronged the most.

A much simpler rule is just to love others as we love ourselves -- to treat others like we wish to be treated.



I think that whatever any person from within a referenced group wishes to call him or herself, I can't rightly have a problem with it.

I call myself a mick every once in a while, at least in my writing, so that's why I used that term for the illustration. Now, if someone else of Irish descent said to me, "Jim, why are you dragging our people down, using that offensive term?" I'd like to have a good conversation where we could hash it all out, but a person from outside of my group has no right to ask me to stop using the term.

Do they then have a right to also use the term? I think so, yes. But only until me or one of mine tells them that they find it offensive. Then it should stop.

Understand the distinction there? If I use the term, others should be free to use it, too - UNTIL I say that it is offensive. It is up to me to police the outsider, not up to the outsider to police himself, if I use the term first.

I hope that makes sense. It does in my head :-)

Now, as for quoting: I think you have to quote a person as they said something, not change it to suit your needs or preferences. As with your example of the Larry David show, it can get uncomfortable. But, if someone else is ignorant or offensive or otherwise speaking words that make you uncomfortable to repeat, IF you have to repeat them, then repeat them. Don't paraphrase. If you do, I think you leave yourself open to greater trouble than if you just say what they said as they said it.

Thanks for letting me work this stuff out a bit. It's a very interesting topic.

Cam Beck

Case in point:

Is it Obama's fault for using the wrong term, or is it McCain's problem that he's "taking it that way?"


@Suldog –
I’d never presume to tell anyone outside my ethnic group how they should or shouldn’t refer to themselves. That’s totally overstepping bounds. I’ve actually never asked a Black person to stop using the n-word either – but I’ve gotten close. I think the community needs to have a dialogue about that one… because the whole issue is damn complicated.

I disagree with you on the point that anyone has a right to use any word until someone on the inside tells him or her to stop. That completely underestimates the outsider. I expect more than that out of people. I’d be very wary of anyone who runs around using slurs because they think “hey, no one has told me not to”… you know?

I’m discussing inherently offensive words, phrases, etc. Words rooted in history. Phrases with a sad past. If I were to run around using slurs, that would be MY FAULT, not the fault of anyone who takes offense to them. Like, for instance, Don Imus and the “nappy headed ho” comment – would you say it was the basketball team’s fault for taking offense to the phrase?

I treat others in a way I’d wish to be treated. But I think it’s EVERYONE’S responsibility to understand other people’s perspective when it comes to offensive terms and take it upon themselves to refrain from using them. Only by putting the dialogue out there can we be sure to accomplish this, so that’s what I’m trying to do ☺

Cam Beck

"I’m discussing inherently offensive words, phrases, etc. Words rooted in history"

Ah! I disagree! We're discussing words like "poor" and "gay" as much as we are words like "hos" and "white trash." They don't have the same intrinsic qualities.

The first two words have innocent and completely harmless uses, but can and have been used to describe people in a derogatory manner. The latter two can't be used to describe someone except in an attempt to demean them (though if the people being referred to as "hos" are literally prostitutes, I'm not sure a word is going to decrease their sense of self-worth any more than their actions already do).

All words are rooted in history, too. Just because someone has used a word in a derogatory manner doesn't make the word bad. It depends on its usage.

All this squeamishness about words reminds me of an interview awhile back when Hillary was accused of making an antisemitic remark.

The reporter paraphrased a phrase attributed to Hillary (I think by Dick Morris) to an influential Jew by describing Hillary's quote as "F-ing J__." (she actually said "Effing Jay")

She was cognizant, as I'm sure you are, of the persecution Jews have faced throughout history, and didn't want to offend the gentleman.

The interviewee said, "You can say 'Jew.'"

So back to the question, was Obama offensive for not understanding the perspective of his seniors, or is McCain's skin too thin (and that is *NOT* a reference to his melanoma)?


Hi Cam,
I definitely agree that it depends on the usage – wasn’t that clear in the post? I never said a word is bad on its own… that doesn’t make much sense. Words are given meaning based on 1) how they’ve been used in history, and 2) how they are being used by the person saying them. For example, “boy” is not a bad word. But calling an adult Black man “boy” is.

Ok so here is the Obama quote you are referring to:

“Because John McCain always says ‘I am not going to run that kind of politics,’ and to engage in that kind of smear is unfortunate, particularly because my policy toward Hamas has been no different than his. I’ve said it’s a terrorist organization and we should not negotiate with them unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and unless they are willing to abide by previous accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So for him to toss out comments like that I think is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination. We don’t need name calling in this debate.”

While I personally think it’s clear that Obama means McCain is utilizing a brand of politics that he previously renounced (i.e. selling out, pandering to conversatives, flip-flopping on what he’s previously said – a common occurrence when it comes to the John McCain of 2008), if seniors take offense to Obama’s remark, then I lay the blame on Obama. He should apologize explain what he meant.

Cam Beck

"a common occurrence when it comes to the John McCain of 2008...if seniors take offense to Obama’s remark, then I lay the blame on Obama"

Don't look at me. I voted for Alan Keyes. ;)


A little history about the word "gay," as used to refer to sexual preference: not long ago, well about 30 years ago, "gay" was commonly used to refer to the collective -- men and women. In the intervening years, what seems to have happened is that the word has narrowed so as to refer only to men. We often hear about "gay and lesbian" functions, whereas 30 years ago only "gay" would have been used.

This process, called "narrowing," occurs frequently in human language. For instance, the word "meat" used to refer to any type of food. Nowadays, it refers to a subclass.

As for the main point of Ryan's post, I agree completely that derogatory terms used to disparage marginalized groups can hardly be viewed as neutral, or merely perceived as offensive, especially when they're often used by a non-marginalized speaker to impart a sense of edginess, hipness and even sophistication to the speaker. What's striking to me about phrases like, "that's so ghetto" is that you'd hardly hear it from someone who actually LIVES in the ghetto UNLESS that person wanted to distinguish himself as NOT being "so ghetto."

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