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January 25, 2007

Words That Are Designed To Hurt

There's a lot of theorizing going on lately, what with Michael Richards calling black men "niggers" and Isaiah Washington calling a gay man "faggot," but I have to say that I don't think of these recent outbursts as acts of racism or homophobia.

Remember when you were a child and you would yell at your parents, "I hate you! I wish you were dead!" before slamming the door to your room in a clever adolescent temper tantrum? You didn't say these words because you hated your parents or wished they were dead. You said these words to inflict pain.

The only difference here is that these folks are adults, not clever adolescents in the clutches of a major temper tantrum. Does that mean the rules are different for them? Yes and no.

We all have moments in which we feel completely backed against a wall. We, at those most primal moments, can choose to be filled with grace OR to lash out in whatever way will get us OUT of those situations, based on animal instinct. And in these cases, I'd say we witnessed public displays of the NON-grace-filled choice.

Hell, isn't war a public display of the non-grace-filled choice?

So, I don't see any point to getting riled up about "hate speech" as if it's the WORDS that were used that are the problem. Words have no power beyond what power we give them. And when the words are used only to inflict pain on another (when the grace-filled choice doesn't get made), the focus needs to be on how we can all make better choices.

It's always fine to open dialogue about racism and homophobia and closed-mindedness of all kinds, but far more important (I believe) is a conversation about choosing grace, even when all you can think about doing is hurling the heaviest weight you can lift at someone--for whatever reason.

But, as for "what the words mean," I think it's simple. Just like rape isn't about sex (it's about violence), these words aren't about race or sexual orientation. They're about inflicting pain.

Posted by bonnie at January 25, 2007 2:22 AM


Well said.

Posted by: drc at January 25, 2007 5:21 AM

Couldn't agree more. Especially in the instance of Michael Richards. It's quite obvious he was feeling humiliated, so the first thing he does is go for an instant leveller-- the worst thing he can think of to belittle the hecklers. If it had been white guys he would have called them some gay slur or redneck/ white trash and if it had been a woman, some other vile name. Having said that, it does reflect the racism/ homophopia/ misogyny that is an undercurrent in American culture. We all know the pecking order, even if we ourselves don't harbor any overt prejudice. But like everything in our media, we prefer to critique and castigate the individual (the bad apple) rather than ever discuss the system.

Posted by: susan at January 25, 2007 9:26 AM

Well put, indeed.

Posted by: Jonathan at January 25, 2007 9:29 AM

Applause! Another great blog.

Posted by: Aleta at January 26, 2007 10:21 AM

I have to disagree with you on this one.

These incidents were more than just temper tantrums, and ungraceful behavior. They were indicators of true character. It is true in the case of Richards, the incident did happen when he was under stress, but from what I've been able to gather, this was not the case with Washington. I'm not trying to sound like a shrink because I'm not, but it seems to me that this kind of behavior is learned and deeply ingrained. I've seen the Richards video numerous times and I have the feeing this isn't the first time he has said the word "nigger" - in any kind of context. In fact, I think he's had a lot of practice. I think the same thing could be said for Washington, based on what I've read about the incident.

I'll even throw in one example you didn't mention - Mel Gibson. Mad Mel has been running around telling everyone that his drunken diatribe against Jews was just him popping off while drunk, or in other words, "it was the booze talking." Balderdash! If you know anything about his staunchly holocaust denying father, I don't think you have to be an Einstein to see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

None of these folks are stupid rednecks. In this politically correct world, smart bigots know how to conceal their prejudice, and most of the time they are successful. But once in awhile, their true colors showed, and that is what happened in all three of these cases.

Had they not happened, you would have had graceful bigots, but bigots all the same.

As for words having no power beyond that which we give them, for the most part that is true. Most of the time, they are meant to inflict pain, and the offended can decide whether or not it is going to hurt them. But on the other hand, remember that it wasn't too long that people with the same attitudes as these three were in power making policy that discriminated against and marginalized, and even systematically murdered people based on race, religion, and sexual orientation.

These disgraced celebrities aren't in that category, obviously, but we know something about them now that should never be forgotten.

Posted by: Hal at January 26, 2007 3:49 PM