It makes me sad that people so often feel the need to revel in their own ignorance.
Take, for example, Ann Coulter; a prominent conservative commentator in the United States, recently used the “r-word” to describe president Obama after his performance in the last debate, tweeting, “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.”
This sort of language is in no way acceptable in an inclusive society. However, there is no way to force people to stop using this sort of language. The only method available to us if we want to effect real change is education. Unfortunately, education only works if people are receptive to learning. Most people are obviously not receptive to learning and Coulter’s response, in which she summarily refused to apologize for her remarks, demonstrates that she is not only ignorant, but proud of that ignorance.
“Look, no one would refer to a Down Syndrome child, someone with an actual mental handicap, by saying ‘retard’” she told Fox News, totally missing the point that using the “r-word” to describe someone you like inherently belittles people with mental disabilities. It’s this refusal to listen to the concerns of others that makes the initial ignorance inexcusable.
Another example happened to me on my way back to Saskatchewan a few weeks ago. Some men in their late 20s were commenting on how getting stuck at the back of the plane all the time was – and I quote – “gay balls. Gay, gay balls.” This sort of subtle homophobia is mostly overlooked, and I know that a lot of young people like to describe anything they don’t like as “gay”. While someone in my position realizes this is just a silly, ignorant phrase used by people with limited vocabularies to discuss things they don’t like. However, a younger version of me always felt bad about being gay when people described a shitty situation as “gay”. Gay was bad. It was wrong. It was shameful.
Fortunately I could fit in fairly well and pass as straight, so I was never bullied to the extent that some other people are, but by ignoring these problems and telling children who are bullied that “it gets better” is not good enough. There needs to be a shift in society towards a more understanding and compassionate attitude; one in which people are willing to step back and learn how powerful the words they speak can be.
“Sticks and stones might break my bones but words can never harm me” is a nice but misguided trope that society likes to repeat to people who are upset by language that belittles them. It would be wonderful if words could never harm people, but the fact is they leave deep and lasting scars on the psyche of the person you direct them towards. Just look at Amanda Todd, the girl who took her own life because of the cruel words her peers directed at her. Look at Jamie Hubley, a young man who killed himself because he was bullied for his sexuality. Words obviously hurt.
Yes, you have a right to free speech that you can exercise. But the people you offend have a legitimate right to speak back. They have a legitimate right to ask you to stop being insensitive. Requesting that you stop being a jerk does not make you a victim of some sort of “reverse-oppression”. And, if you are a decent, understanding, self-reflective, and empathetic human being, you might be able to act like a mature adult and make an effort to improve yourself.