Words Can Never Hurt Me?


Sticks and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me

The Nursery Rhyme is Bullshit

Words hurt.

They don’t physically damage our bodies, but the pain is palpable. It’s also measurable in our brain activity. Social rejection activates the same parts of our brain as a punch to the face or a broken arm.

Test subjects at UCLA were asked to play a game of ‘virtual frisbee’, from which they were then excluded (after a few rounds nobody tossed the e-frisbee to them) and the pain centers in their brains lit up. The same thing happened when recently single New Yorkers were shown photographs of the partners who had left them — though we didn’t really need science to tell us that breakups are painful, did we?

More to the point of this article, and just as obvious, is research that shows epithets and hate speech also hurt people. These words play integral parts in systems of oppression – subtly (or not so subtly) conveying contempt, hostility, dismissiveness, and rejection towards people in marginalized groups.

When I was in school, casually tossing around the phrase ‘that’s gay’ and calling people ‘faggot’ was common. It stung every single time, even when it wasn’t directed at me, because the message was clear: whatever was ‘gay’ was inferior (or disgusting, shameful, unmasculine, etc).

Using the identity of homosexuals (and other marginalized groups) as a pejorative can sort of sneakily alter people’s perceptions of us. This idea, called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, says that ‘the structure of language affects the way its speakers conceptualize their worldview, and influences their cognitive processes’. Homophobic language can quite literally rewire our brains to connect being gay with these ostensibly negative characteristics.

I know exactly what this feels like.

For me, growing up, being gay was disgusting (I was disgusting), being gay wasn’t masculine (I wasn’t masculine), being gay was inferior (I was inferior). That was, in large part, my reality. It took a fair amount of time, energy, and effort to overcome that programming — to the extent that I have.

Some people are never able to overcome it to any significant degree.

Thankfully, there is an increasing recognition of the way that power dynamics and oppressive positionality are reinforced by our language. This has led some to question the long-established logic of ‘freedom of speech’. After all, if the language we use helps mold people’s conceptions of themselves, is it really an individual ‘right’ to use it in a way that dehumanizes disadvantaged groups?

Nancy C. Cornwell, PhD, at Montana State University, puts it this way:

The individual, not social relations between individuals, is central to the classic liberal interpretation of free speech. This does not acknowledge that meaning is made in the relationship, not in the ‘relator’ or the ‘relatee.’ Between males and females, blacks and whites, homosexuals and heterosexuals, the dominant group becomes the standard by which the ‘other’ is defined. This power to define the ‘other’ is the power to control meaning. Speech is not an individual experience, a right that is held at the level of individuals. Speech is meaning-making. It defines. It labels. It differentiates power. It constitutes the relationship between individuals. It is power. 1

The entire article is worth reading; it’s a thoughtful critique of traditional conceptions of free speech. I’ll get back to free speech at the end, but the point that meaning is made in relationships and defined socially, not only by individuals, is a vital one.

Back in school, many of the people who said ‘that’s gay’ to express distaste did not intend to oppress or harm me. Some of them were, and still are, my friends. They didn’t know I was gay, and had not, in their early to mid teens, thought through the potential effects of their words. Regardless, due to the homophobic culture we were steeped in, the troublesome implications and derogatory meanings were there and did affect me — even if they didn’t always exist in the minds of the people who spoke the words.

This ignorance of how words can structure harmful (and seemingly inescapable) cages of context is extremely problematic, and should be fought by any freedom-minded person. Eliminating this ignorance empowers us to interact with these structures thoughtfully, in ways that encourage equality, human flourishing, and self-actualization.

We need to openly and forcefully challenge hate speech.

The battle has many fronts: in schools, online, at social gatherings, and in general public discourse. Each unique situation calls for a unique strategy — from respectful and calm conversation, to angry and forceful shaming, and everywhere in between.

This challenging of hate speech in order to reduce harm interferes at the level of the ‘senders’ — those who, consciously or unconsciously, participate in perpetuating hate speech. We can also interfere with oppressive linguistic structures at the level of ‘receivers’ — the targets, the affected, the oppressed — a sometimes under-appreciated reality.

Photo: Gay Pride License: Public Domain

Photo: Gay Pride
License: Public Domain

We Are Not At Their Mercy

In the text quoted above, Nancy Cornwall seems to place the power to define meaning firmly and solely in the hands of the dominant groups.

This makes sense, because wherever deep, systemic power differences exist (and have been unconsciously accepted), this is the default. However, this dynamic is not like physics and can be disrupted.

As people in non-dominant groups, we can alter the meaning of these interactions individually, for ourselves, in any particular moment. We have the power to shift the conversation, and shift the meaning of these interactions to something that affirms our inherent strength, worthiness, and equality. We have the ability to exercise control over our own experience, regardless of what others are doing.

Meaning is not inherent, it is subjective, and we all have influence over our own subjective milieu. Through various introspective techniques, we can increase this influence — we can strengthen our impulse control, critical thinking, and emotional regulation — all of which sap away the painful power hate speech and epithets. Having support helps. Pushing for progress helps. Knowing, expressing, and building our strengths (with ruthless self-love) helps.

As individuals and as a community we can learn, and are learning, these skills. These tools are so powerful and transformative that I believe we have a responsibility to do so, and to teach others how to as well. In this arena — that of consciously altering our reactions and perceptions — we hold all of the cards.

They cannot dehumanize us without our participation. We are not at the mercy of bigots.

This is not to say I was ‘at fault’ for the pain I experienced at school, but it does mean I could have done more to assuage it. I participated in it, because I had not discovered the tools to do otherwise. It makes no more sense to blame me for my reactions than it would to blame a non-swimmer pushed into the ocean for nearly drowning. The person in the wrong is the one who did the pushing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to learn how to swim.

Learning to shift my initial gut reaction to casual homophobia away from a reinforcement of my own inferiority, and towards a sign of ignorance (or pitiable malevolence) on the part of the speaker has helped me immensely. The word ‘faggot’ doesn’t have the same sting it once did, because I simply no longer believe the hateful implications it holds.

Image: Protest License: Public Domain

Image: Protest
License: Public Domain

It could be argued that it is not our job to change how we react to oppressive language. Again, they are the ones in the wrong. We do not need to change, they do. They are the oppressors. This reasoning is valid and true, but I encourage us not to dogmatically follow it through to paralysis.

Becoming unshakably comfortable in our identities is not a luxury we must beg from others, it is our right and it is ours for the taking.

I refuse to release the reins of my emotional security to homophobes. It hasn’t been an easy process, and I’ve nowhere near completed it yet, but I have proved to myself that I have a strong influence over how I react to and perceive hate speech.

I wasn’t able to do this alone. Despite an often still homophobic culture, I have been lucky to live in a time with access to positive, self-assured gay role models who have fought for and won massive gains in gay rights. I don’t know if I could have done what I have without that support.

Also, I acknowledge that as a white, cisgendered male, I was and am still enjoying the benefit of massive social privilege that has made this process easier for me than it will be for others. Some people will need more support than I did, and others will need less.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can each take care of ourselves, but that we need each-other’s help, and that is not a contradiction.

Intentional Dilution and Unintended Effects

Our culture is becoming less accepting of xenophobic beliefs.

As this happens, slurs are starting to become more common with people who don’t consciously hold homophobic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or racist beliefs. Their intent, they point out, is not oppression. Often, they are used as an attempt at comedic irony, or due to a sincerely held belief that discrimination is no longer a problem, and the words are just… words.

The question of whether (and how much) intent matters is controversial, and it should be. In most cases we have no recourse to knowing the intent of the speaker, and even when we do, it usually doesn’t matter — it still hurts and still contributes to marginalization.

Nevertheless, I find it difficult to issue a blanket condemnation. Though the ignorant repetition of epithets by my schoolmates was hurtful, ironic representations of hate speech I encountered in popular culture often lent me comfort when I needed it most.

Shows like South Park, which caught flack from GLAAD for their episode about the word ‘faggot’, were a breath of fresh air. For me, they took that word and disempowered it, using it to intentionally subvert homophobic ends.

It was like they took the bullet out of the gun.

This lived experience is not shared by every person in oppressed groups, but it was mine, and I don’t see the value in denying its potency. These forms of expression had an extremely positive effect on my life and how I perceived my identity, and I feel protective of them because of it.

I am far from alone in finding solace, comfort, and empowerment in these kinds of self-aware comedic takes on hate speech and it is important to recognize and honor the vast potential for benefit they can provide.

Ultimately, however, I can only argue that they exist in a moral grey area. Some people have been deeply hurt by the same sorts of expressions that have been so positive in my own life, and we can’t legitimately diminish their experience any more than we can mine.

That said, I think their net result is a contribution to making the world a less hateful place. When people use the word ‘faggot’ in the context of unambiguously holding no ill will towards gay people, regardless of whether they are gay or not themselves, they are shifting the demographics of people who use the slur away from homophobes.

I like to call this process ‘intentional dilution’. The more people use epithets without hate in their hearts, I believe, the more their power is diluted and stripped from those who would wield them as weapons.

I put all usage of hateful language without malicious intent into this category, including efforts by oppressed groups to ‘reclaim’ epithets — the LGBT community’s reclamation of the word ‘queer’ is one of the best examples of this. These efforts too, though not quite as often, can have unintended painful side effects.

By reserving the use of certain words for only malevolent purposes, we place a loaded weapon in the hands of bigots. We imbue them (the words and the bigots) with more power than they deserve. We also run the risk, in our own communities, of shutting down intellectual engagement in favor of rote rules of acceptable language, and engaging in reactionary rather than thoughtful critique.

We deny ourselves the potential to recognize and appreciate complexity.

However, and let me be clear, I also believe (and this, too, is not a contradiction) that it is a good thing that activists criticize these same people I just defended. As I pointed out, the effects of what they are doing are complex and varied. This issue is not black and white, and the hurtful aspects deserve public and forceful criticism.

This criticism tells other oppressed people they are not alone, and that justice is being fought for. Having these conversations is an important part of the process of healing these wounds.

Gay couples have turned WBC protests into photo-ops Photo by Paul Walsh License: Creative Commons

Gay couples have turned WBC protests into photo-ops
Photo by Paul Walsh
License: Creative Commons

Even when intent is malevolent, the effects of hate speech are still complex.

The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the most hideous crystallizations of anti-gay bigotry in the modern west, and yet I firmly believe that they have (unintentionally) done a lot of good for gay rights. They have illuminated fanatical Christian homophobia and made it explicit — creating the opportunity for direct refutation and mockery. They have become a standard of comparison for all anti-gay bigots, and this hasn’t turned out well for the bigots.

Without their viciousness, the gay rights movement would have lost an incredibly useful tool — posterfolks for bigotry that can be pilloried and refuted.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the Westboro baptist church hasn’t caused harm. Of course they have, and of course they should be condemned for it. Protesting the funerals of soldiers and gay children is beyond malicious.

I’m not saying that what they have done is defensible, what I am saying is that we can, and have, turned some of their lemons into lemonade.

Finally, Free Speech

Throughout this article, I’ve attempted to demonstrate the complexity inherent in the meaning, intentions, effects, and perceptions of hate speech. Identical speech can empower one person, and hurt another, and speech that is nearly universally hurtful can have unintended positive effects.

What kinds of restrictions on free speech could possibly make sense of and take into account all of these factors? How can we determine intent? How much should it matter? How do we define which words, phrases,or ideas qualify as harmful? What kinds of effects would need to be demonstrated? It’s not an easy knot to untie, and I question whether we should even want to untie it.

Harm reduction is a noble goal, but despite the real pain hate speech can cause, and despite the realities of oppression, I don’t think that regulating the mouths of autonomous individuals is a good idea.

Actually, I think that it is really fucking important to protect the legal right of hate speechers to speak, in almost all instances. I want to know, and I want society to know, what these people are thinking. Their ideas should not be suppressed, but publicly addressed.

Freedom to speak words and express viewpoints that were viewed as blatantly harmful, immoral, and disruptive was necessary in the initial stages of all social justice movements. We cannot lose perspective, now that we are beginning to win battles, and cut off the legs that brought us here. Gay author Jonathan Rauch puts it this way:

Free speech is not only minority’s best friend, in some ways it is our only reliable friend. If we can’t speak in a majority culture, if we lose our voice, it is so easy to oppress us. The way minorities get real rights and real freedom is by fighting hate and bigotry and that’s grounded almost uniformly in ignorance and fear. And if we’re forced underground, if we can’t show who we are, if we can’t make our arguments, we are literally helpless. This is why I believe that hate speech laws are not our friend. 2

Suggesting, even demanding, less hurtful ways of speaking is noble and beneficial, but any attempt to police the speech of others with physical force or law is a fundamental breach of autonomy and should be ardently opposed.

The precedent this would set inherently undermines the good intentions behind the rule and invites corruption. It designs and sharpens a weapon that has a high likelihood of being turned against us, and that I don’t think we can rightfully use against anyone else, either.

This is not to say that any particular individual or group is obliged to listen to, or provide a platform for hate speech. It is well within the right, and as Nancy Cornwall argues (and I agree) the prerogative of teachers to limit hate speech in classrooms. The owners and operators of public platforms like Facebook, Reddit, or even physical auditoriums may decide to disallow any kind of speech they choose, though I would argue for a strong bias towards more openness.

We should not compromise our commitment to defending the speech and the words of people with whom we disagree, and should we ever find ourselves with the need to speak words or ideas that are denounced as harmful by others, we will be grateful we didn’t.

Hate speech should not be banned, but those serious about liberty should make damn sure that it does not go unchallenged, or define the reality of our public sphere.

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
-Noam Chomsky

  1. Rethinking Free Expression in the Feminist Classroom: The Problem of Hate Speech – http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40545815 — edited for brevity  (back)
  2. “Knowledge starts as offendedness” – Jonathan Rauch interview  (back)

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