When someone tells you not to call black people “niggers” or women “cunts” or gays “fags” or transgender people “trannies” or the mentally disabled “retards” or your enemies “assholes”, “douchebags”, “idiots”, or “stupid”, etc., this is not a free speech issue. It’s a how-to-use-speech-without-being-abusive issue.
I would vociferously defend the legal rights of people to use all these slurs and nasty putdowns and a zillion more. I even go further and defend thinking in terms of a social discourse analogue of legal free speech respect where people are reasoned with rather than shouted down for having unpopular views. I’m for both a legal and an ethical commitment to open debate.
Social pushback against slurs is not about making slurs illegal to use. I mean, look, I just used those words in the opening paragraph, I clearly think I should legally be allowed to have done so! I don’t think that just stringing the letters together has magic badness in and of itself. It’s not like I have an infantile problem with “dirty” words and need a fainting couch because a socially harsh word is used.
The issue is not about that. Nor is it about your ideas–i.e., your thoughts about what is true or false or good or bad. Not only legally but socially and ethically we should respect each other’s rights to offensive opinions.
The issue is that words have conventional uses. Those conventions turn them from random scribbles and noises into things which convey meanings. Other people understand those meanings. Some of those meanings are descriptive in form. “There is a cat on the couch.” That sentence just asserts that a state of affairs obtains in the world. “Fuck you!” does not just assert that a state of affairs obtains in the world. Given the conventions of English, it’s a way of angrily expressing ill-will towards someone. It’s a way of expressing that, at least for the moment, you hate them. I don’t want to ban the phrase “fuck you!” It has a time and place. Or, even if it didn’t, others have a right to think it does and to be hateful. But I am certainly going to recommend against people expressing hatred to each other where it’s not constructive. Not because the words “fuck” or “you” or the phrase “fuck you” itself is the problem, but, sensibly, because some behaviors are destructive or counter-productive.
For example, it wouldn’t be great if kids were raised by parents who expressed hatred towards them. Shouting “fuck you!” at them would convey hatred. That would damage kids’ psychologies. I don’t need to be interpreted as being a censor out to “ban words” if I say, “Hey, don’t say ‘fuck you!’ to your kids!” My saying that is not me thinking “words have magic powers”. It’s not me trampling on your Constitutional rights. It’s not even me saying your sincere ideas about the world should be socially or ethically unspeakable. It’s me recognizing that humans convey certain emotions and do things to each other using words. One of the things they can do is express their hatred. One of the things they can do to others is make them feel hated. And in most cases this is wrong. It’s harmful psychologically and physiologically. And moral people don’t do what’s wrong even though it’s legal. And other people have the right to socially and morally exercise their legal rights to speak up against others’ hatefulness rather than let it run roughshod over themselves or others. If you go on defiantly shouting “fuck you!” at your kids understanding how hateful and psychologically damaging you’re being, you’re not a free speech champion, you’re a fucking child abuser.
As a general rule, unless there’s a really good reason, it’s not good to express hatred to people.
Now slurs like “nigger” or “fag” or “tranny” are not descriptive words. They’re not emotionally neutral like “black person” or “gay person” or “transgender person”. Whatever their origins were, that’s not how those words function now. They’re words that people who want to express their hatred or contempt for blacks, gays, or transgender people choose. They’re words that they use with the intention of making blacks, gays, or transgender people feel inferior, unwelcome, and threatened on account of their being black, gay, or transgender. A non-black person using the word “nigger”, at least in America, outside of specific exception cases, is a way of saying “fuck you black people for being black people”. A non-gay person using the word “fag”, at least in America, outside of specific exception cases, is a way of saying “fuck you gay people for being gay”.
Speaking out against such words is not about censoring free speech legally or curbing expression of sincere opinions socially. It’s about saying that when you use these words you sound like someone who is racist, homophobic or transphobic. You are adopting the language that functions to convey prejudicial hatred. If you know this, you can’t do it by accident. If you know “fuck you!” is a way to express hatred and contempt, when someone gets angry it’s because you knowingly chose to use a word that expresses hatred and contempt as its function. They have a right to complain and get angry with you. You can’t express hatred and contempt to someone and then run and hide behind your legal free speech rights to silence them. You can’t say you are entitled to your ideas when it’s not your ideas but your hatred you’re expressing. You are entitled legally to your hatred. But others are entitled legally to protect themselves from it with their own emotions and social sanctions and moral sanctions.
You say “fuck you!” to someone, then they can tell other people you treated them abusively and they shouldn’t associate with you. That’s their free speech. That’s how we form informal social and moral norms so we don’t have to resort to laws to curb behavior. We can all just agree–we don’t hang out with people who use their free speech to be verbally abusive to us. We don’t reward that behavior. They have the legal right. We have the legal right to decide who we associate with and why.
And when you knowingly use the language that conventionally expresses bigotries, that’s your legal right. And other people have every right to interpret that you are a hateful bigot. What non-black American would want to call black people “niggers” but a bigot? I am always gobsmacked when I hear white people I know whine that only black people “get to” use the word “nigger”? Why does it matter to you to use the word? Why is it on the tip of your tongue just dying to come out? Why is it the cookie on the counter you’re dying to eat? Are you suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome or something?* Is your vocabulary so impoverished you don’t know any other words for talking about black people?
Plenty of ways of talking about black people without racist connotations exist. You are completely capable of communicating your non-racist thoughts without the word “nigger”. The reason “nigger” is made socially toxic (but not outlawed, hooray for the 1st Amendment!) is because it is conveniently one more way (though not the only way) of identifying racists. It’s convenient we have a word for bigots to signal themselves with. And here’s the word for expressing racist hatred and contempt for black people and trying to indicate they’re inferior, unwelcomed, and threatened: “nigger”. Go ahead. Refer to black people with it if you want to convey those things. When you use it and people who understand the English language and American culture treat you with contempt and socially ostracize you, in accordance with their justifiable beliefs about how racists are entitled to be treated, that’s not anyone limiting your free speech rights. It’s non-racists exercising their rights to free association and free disassociation. Morally advanced people don’t want to hang out with racists. They don’t want to hire them, work with them, make love to them, participate in family outings with them, etc. Simple as that. It’s a free fucking country.
They have equal free speech rights to express their anger at you and stigmatize you as a bigot. Suck it up. That’s their free speech right. You’re allowed to use words that by known conventions convey bigotry and others are free to respond accordingly. And no, it’s not on them to just stop caring about the words. Words don’t magically lose their power when people brush them off. Slurs are hateful and contemptuous in their intentions and their functions. Those intentions and functions remain even when their target blows them off. And the target has a right to call you out for using words with hateful intentions or oppressive functions loaded into them irrespective of whether the target was emotionally hurt.
And while, sure, it’s best a target avoid feeling hurt if they can, it’s only rational of them to be angry at both explicit attempts to hurt them and negligent indifferences to whether they’ll be hurt. That’s not them being thin-skinned. It’s them calling a spade a spade** and not putting up with shit. Even if they can overcome feelings of anger or fear or self-doubt or sadness or violation for the sake of their own sanity, it is not right for them to stop calling what was done wrong. Just because it’s emotionally healthy for them not to be damaged by you, does not mean it’s morally best they act like there’s nothing wrong with attempts to hurt them. The attempts still need to be called out (at least culturally, even if a target avoids it for their sanity in a particular case). The attempts are still hateful in intention and domineering in general functioning even when they fail to be successful in the desired or usual way. It’s not up to the targets to “stop giving the words power by getting angry”. It’s up to the users of the words to stop trying to exploit the words’ existing powers to hurt or to stop being indifferent to those words’ existing powers to hurt. To stop hiding behind their legal rights to hurt people and start taking some goddamn moral fucking responsibility.
For more on this, see my post on how You Don’t Kill Hateful Words’ Powers By Ignoring Them. For the importance of expressing anger constructively without perpetuating the cycle of abuse read my post on Avoiding the Abuser’s Dialectic.
There’s a final irony in all of this and it’s that when someone does say something racist or sexist or homophobic, intentional or not, the first recourse is to explain that they meant no harm, so no one should feel harmed. They will say this either when they truly meant no harm or when they did (or simply didn’t care). In these cases intention is everything in their minds and instead of ever conceding they can do a wrong thing without intending it and apologize and promise to change, they double down insisting the offended person let it go. Meanwhile when they say that choices to use unambiguously hateful slurs should be just blown off by the slurs’ targets so that no harm can happen, here the victims are blamed for there being a problem even when hatred was knowingly and intentionally expressed towards them. So, essentially, if it’s a matter of slurs, the victim never has any right to complain. Either it was not intended, so the victim has no right to even say “well, at least know better and do better next time” or it was intended and victim is perversely blamed for feeling hurt. Had only they not felt hated, the hater would have done nothing wrong. How shameful of the target of hate speech to turn the user of hate speech into a hurtful person like that! (For my detailed views on when intentions should and should not matter, read my post Intent is Not Magic, But it Still Matters.)
If you don’t get the point yet, then I recommend you watch this clip from Louis C.K.’s show Louie to the end. You’ll love it. They use the word “faggot” a lot.
*Since a couple of people now have complained, let me make clear, I don’t blame people who actually suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome for their uses of slurs. Nor do I mean to insult or demean them and if any such sufferers feel insulted or demeaned, I apologize. My reasoning was not that there’s something wrong with them morally but that it is pathetic for people who don’t suffer from such a neurological problem to act like they are deeply pained in struggling not to use slurs as though they were a sufferer from such a difficult neurological disorder. I thought it through meant the line to build on the seriousness of Tourette’s Syndrome rather than minimize it. I apologize if that didn’t work or backfired for anyone.
**I had no idea until after writing the article and getting reader feedback that anyone associates “calling a spade a spade” with racist connotations. But apparently some do. In the future, I’ll just err on the safe side and say “telling it like it is”. No skin off my nose.