THE XX FILES: Deconstructing the problem of hate speech and slurs

Raquel Ronzone

Dr. Laura Schlessinger said it. Several times. On air. To a caller, in fact. And we flinched each time the clip played on the news program’s loop. We squirmed in our seats, even though we were far away from the studio, because we’ve been told of the word’s bitter foundation in times when blacks were subjected to outward violence and disingenuous laws that not only made their second-class status permissible but also incontestable — an accepted and normalized societal arrangement.

And we’re not bigots, not racists, certainly not white supremacists: We know better. We don’t say that word.

But we do say others. We dismiss something with “That’s so gay,” offer the disclaimer of “No homo” or label someone — usually a man who hasn’t fulfilled his social expectations of heterosexual masculinity — with the slang term for a part of the female anatomy or with the derogatory term for gay people.

Does that make us hypocritical? Insensitive? Ignorant?

We might not think so, assuring ourselves that the word that thrust Schlessinger into the searing spotlight of negative publicity is so far removed from the words that pepper the conversations we have and hear daily to the point that the two sets of words — and the contexts in which they are used — aren’t comparable at all.

But, like the word that has irrevocably tarnished that radio host’s public image, these other words are similarly connected to groups considered inferior, to groups that have not enjoyed equal rights despite abstract promises of equality and countless pronouncements that, yes, the times have changed.

Blacks, gays and women — the groups associated with these words — have faced histories of violence and injustice: enslavement, police brutality, blame for the outbreak of AIDS, brutal if not deadly hate crimes, domestic abuse and human trafficking.

And all have had to live in the shadow of and prove themselves apart from their stereotypes: as vicious criminals, as hypersexualized lovers, as child molesters, as psychologically disturbed individuals in need of therapy, as sexually available objects and as reproductive and domestic machines.

These groups have not received fair treatment under some laws and have been harmed by narrow-minded social attitudes. And the words used against them have reflected and perpetuated their subordinate status, effectively making the very fact of being black, gay or female an insult.

However, we’ve reached the understanding that segregation is wrong, that blacks aren’t second-class citizens but people who have rights and deserve fair treatment under law. Granted, there is still a long way to go, especially in terms of erasing hurtful stereotypes and generalizations from the public’s mind. But perhaps our long-overdue realization that they are human beings is why we get so troubled and offended when someone like Schlessinger says the word.

Still, we have banned only that derogatory term from our vocabulary while letting the others stay. And it’s not difficult to see the parallels between society’s tolerance of those words and its sometimes-unfair treatment and portrayal of gays and women.

Maybe someday, a TV personality will be condemned and fired for remarking, “That’s so gay.” Or a rapper will, in one swift and thoughtless comment, lose his or her fans, career and public adoration by prefacing a comment with “No homo.” Or a college student will face severe disciplinary measures for labeling someone with homophobic or misogynistic terms.

It might be difficult to imagine a future in which the words disparaging gays and women are considered just as offensive, considering how easily and frequently they roll off our tongues now.

The task now, then, is to dismantle the hierarchy that renders some words taboo and others acceptable, that prohibits our discrimination of one group and sanctions our discrimination of others.

Instead, our language and conversations need to reflect the knowledge that these other groups deserve equal rights, fair treatment under law and protection from violence, too. And we would be outraged by anyone whose privately held thoughts — or publicly broadcasted words — pointed to the contrary.

Raquel Ronzone is a senior communication major from Philadelphia, Pa. She can be reached at [email protected]