Rothfeld: The Impact of Our Words
By Becca Rothfeld, Guest Columnist
Published on Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Infamously offensive comedian Daniel Tosh sparked nationwide controversy when he defended rape jokes at a recent Laugh Factory performance. During his routine, Tosh apparently made the claim that rape jokes are always funny. When an audience member vocally objected, Tosh quipped in response, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by five guys right now? Like, right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”
Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada excused Tosh’s behavior on the grounds that the entertainer “had no intentions of hurting anyone.” In keeping with a culture of victim-blaming, Masada added, “If you are a member of the audience and you start dishing out something to a comic and try to be funny, you better be able to take it.”
Masada’s statements represent a familiar and insidious misconception. Wielders of verbal weapons plead the purity of intention in the face of criticism. Users of words such as “faggot” and “slut” resort to similar exculpatory tactics to rationalize their behavior. The popularization and widespread usage of chauvinistic terminology — “he whored himself out to Wall Street!” — have provided proponents of bigotry with new venues of exoneration. Recurrent excuses range from the implausible “I didn’t know” to the crafty “I didn’t mean it that way.” Whether borne of heedlessness, malice or merely ignorance, such paltry defenses fail to vindicate the champions of oppressive language.
What apologists for sexist rhetoric fail to grasp is that language is social. What an individual speaker means by a word is entirely distinct from the word’s actual meaning. As noted philosopher of language Hilary Putnam famously remarked, “Meaning just ain’t in the head!” Language is social — not personal — and expecting listeners to interpret the words “whore” or “faggot” charitably, or to understand rape jokes as all in good fun, is akin to expecting them to understand the word “shoe” as referring to a tree, simply because we wish it did. Audiences can read texts, not minds.
Slurs and derogatory terms have social meanings, and their meanings are damaging ones. Associating certain genders and sexual characteristics with negativity reinforces patriarchal norms, which in turn reinforce oppressive structures. Each time we use the word “whore” to denote a sell-out, we reaffirm the link between female promiscuity and general despicability. Each time we use the word “bitchiness” to describe weakness or whininess, we implicitly confirm that these undesirable traits are essentially feminine. And each time we make a rape joke, we trivialize the sexual violence that is all too prevalent in our culture — even on our campus. Whether we reinforce oppressive social structures intentionally is immaterial: The harm we cause is real because the language we use to describe our world also shapes and sustains our world.
We construct the social landscape that we inhabit, and the prejudices therein are neither natural nor inevitable. They are the product of human choices, human descriptions and human conceptualization. Homophobia and sexism are the result of social understandings, and we have the power to amend them.
Obliviousness is no longer a satisfactory excuse for our oppressive actions. We have a responsibility to consider the implications of our actions, statements and behaviors. Assertions of ignorance are the refuge of the thoughtless. How we change our deleterious discourse is up for debate. Perhaps we should eliminate misogynistic and homophobic slurs altogether. Perhaps we should strive to endow the notion of a sexual woman or a gay man with positive connotations. What is certain is that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the social problems our language has helped to create and continues to perpetuate.