I was involved in a pub discussion the other night about whether certain extremely offensive words are okay to say and use, if you are not personally offended by those words or sitting next to someone who might be. One side of the argument claimed that words are neutral – if they hurt, it’s because of the speaker’s intention to hurt/the hearer’s allowing the words to hurt her. Another side was saying, words have power and meaning that they carry with them, regardless of who is speaking. A question was raised as to whether it’s possible to subvert the meaning of such words, or whether they should be unspoken and neglected until they fall out of usage.
My opinions don’t completely line up anywhere in this argument. Of course words have power of their own – some words carry a great deal of history and meaning with them. And we know that intentions aren’t all that matter – it’s the reader/listener who completes the meaning. So writers/speakers do have a responsibility to consider that the words they are using mean more, lots more, than they may want those words to mean. That’s why claiming the ‘right’ to use a word, just because it is a word in the language, isn’t as straightforward as it might be. People talk about freedom of speech – but what do you do when your freedom of speech forces another person/group of people into silence, or into inhabiting a marginalised position? I don’t know the answer to this.
On the other hand, powerful words derive their power from real social relations. There are highly unpleasant words used against women, for example, but getting rid of any of these words doesn’t eradicate misogyny. If there were no misogyny, there would be no hateful words used against women, and words which are now vile to us may persist but would no longer be vile.
There is also the question of context. Who is speaking, and when, and why? A group of women might use all sorts of language amongst themselves that would be offensive/threatening/nasty when used by a group of men, or called out in the street, or graffitied on a wall.
More convincing than any of this, for me, is the fact that I cannot speak some words without feeling faintly repulsed. The words themselves are toxic. You can see them having a physical effect on people who hear them, too. Something happens when these words are summoned into conversation. Something physically happens to people – they react bodily. That’s not a political argument, and more level-headed rationalists would probably dismiss it as twaddle of the worst kind. But it is true. A word aimed at you can make you shrink back, can make you cry, blush, fill you with adrenalin. Some words really hurt.
I’ve been reading ‘The Flame Alphabet’ by Ben Marcus, a novel in which the whole of language is toxic, where language can be used as a weapon to injure, sicken and kill. Children are immune to the toxicity of language, and it is they who hurt and kill their parents and others around them. Their motives are not really explored, and I suggest that this is because it’s motiveless to an extent. The children don’t make war on their parents for any rationalised reason. They do it because they can’t help it, because they must use language, must speak, and must say whatever they want to say. I’m interested in the idea that language has an existence of its own, like a virus that seeks to perpetuate itself by any means it can. If that is the case, our discussions about language are kind of pointless, except in that they keep reproducing language, which is only thing language itself cares about.