Nobody owns words. No culture, race, sex, gender, identity of any kind, owns words. Attempting to put ownership on any words at all is a serious retardation of free speech.
Words, by themselves, carry no weight other than what someone puts into them. There are two partners where words are concerned: The speaker/writer and the listener/reader. When it comes to words, the speaker/writer’s intentions matter more than the listener/reader because that’s where the intention is. That’s where the weight is. But lately, the listener/reader is becoming more important that the person who said the words which is completely backwards.
We’re getting real good at granting no charitable intentions towards a writer who says something like I just did with the use of the word of “retardation”. Many readers will immediately complain that it’s not my word to use, that it’s insulting, and they’ll do this assuming I used it like the old slang of calling someone a retard when, in fact, I’ve used it to mean exactly what it means: The action of delaying or slowing the progress or development of something (according to a quick Google of the definition).
Another example will be better than continued philosophical analysis.
If I were to note that, once upon a time while camping, my friend and I foraged and gathered a faggot of wood back to the fire pit, many readers would probably home in on my use of “faggot”. The result could be accusations of homophobia. And that could happen even if the audience knew very well my intention. Some readers would act as mind readers, not granting any charity to me, assuming that the use of faggot means I’m definitely homophobic and found a way to use it, sort of hiding my real feelings in plain site.
In his latest book, Woke Racism, John McWhorter argues that this type of behavior, demonizing people for the “wrong” speech or “failure to recognize a privilege” or “appropriating a culture” is akin to a religion, not a logical complaint. Feelings about any of this isn’t something we can argue about or persuade someone to be more reasonable about any more than attempting to persuade an Islamist Muhammad didn’t fly to heaven on a winged horse.
This presents a major problem for people, like myself, engaged in writing and enjoying conversations. How much of a dance and second guessing do we have to be doing to make sure we can just speak freely without worrying about speed bumps and reader/listener voices becoming louder and unreasonable? Putting it, like Whorter does, in religious terms, how often do I have to worry about offending a deeply held religious belief?
This is currently happening to Joe Rogan with his use of the N-word during several episodes of his podcast. When I listened to some of those episodes objectively, it was clear to me that the use of the word isn’t used in any way as an insult or to display some hidden real agenda. The use of the word on the podcast was in simple discussion of said word. But intentions don’t seem to matter to many who heard it. The word itself was enough, context be damned. And now Rogan is on the ropes, attempting to defend against accusations of racism that he’s never earned.
Rogan is suffering on a smaller scale something that can get seriously out of hand to the tipping point of causing real harm. The outrage over the use of certain words is ruining reputations, causing the loss of contracts and revenue and careers. If we don’t get ahold of this, Whorter’s observation could turn seriously deadly exactly like a religion.
In 1988, Salaman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses which some Muslims found offensive to their religion. It got to the point that in February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling for his death. The fatwa has never been rescinded. It remains in play where Rushdie remains a target for Islamists still fuming over the book.
Jump to 2005, the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a picture of Muhammad with a bomb upon his turban. This led to violence against Christians, churches, riots and the cartoons removed as fast as bookstores could remove them. Big props to the Center for Inquiry’s Free Inquiry magazine for being the only publication to have kept them in print.
Jump to 2015 when two islamist terrorists busted into the offices where the satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo was published and slaughtered the staff. Their complaint was over offensive words and cartoons. Words and cartoons the terrorists found offensive.
So while certain words like retard, the N-word and several other “woke” complaints haven’t’ reached the level of gun shots and hand grenades, lives are being destroyed in other ways. And it’d be nice to realize if we don’t change course, it’s only a matter of time before a woke version of an Islamist appears upon the scene.
As a writer of both non-fiction and fiction, I’m aware that even things I make up can be turned against me (just as Rushdie had happen with Satanic Verses). I have a saying that I’m not responsible for what my characters do. Characters are not the writer. And yet, I’ve been accused of misogyny regarding a story or two of mine, DARCY being the biggest complaint.
When in college, my Composition professor gave me a lesson I’ve never forgotten in my own writing. I’ve applied it mostly in my fiction. Us young students were just out of high school where using profanity around our elders was frowned upon. So when we were encouraged to write our stories with as much realism as possible, she noted that sometimes profanity and/or otherwise naughty words were acceptable. Her example was that if our characters were gang members, they were going to talk with a certain vernacular that a Harvard educated lawyer probably wouldn’t.
I’m immediately reminded of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Quentin Tarantino’s movies where the N-word flies around like a common preposition. And when reading or watching those stories, it’s clear the word is used in a contextual setting with characters where it makes sense. Does the use of that word mean Twain and Tarantino are racists? A woke crowd may think that very thing. And that’s the error.
I’m very aware I’m doing my own dance here by not writing the actual word but using the N-word in its place. And that alone is censoring myself which is something of a disservice to this very essay. But my reasoning is clear: The lack of charity today with the use of certain words means that if I just blurted it out, everything else I write in this essay will be forgotten. Perhaps I even lost a reader at the end of the first paragraph when they reached “retardation”.
I fear that today we’re seeing witch hunts where no witches actually exist. The freedom of speech is being threatened by thought police and those feeling woke. There certainly are people using words to hurt other people and it bewilders me when people cannot tell the difference between something Joe Rogan said verse rhetoric at a Nazi rally. If you can’t tell the difference or fail to see the difference, then I’m afraid the issue is truly more like a religion and that can lead to actual violence.
Let me reiterate. When it comes to words, the speaker/writer’s intentions matter more than the listener/reader because that’s where the intention is. That’s where the weight is. Let’s not be rigid and niggardly about words. The retardation of free speech is non-negotiable.