Words Words Words

I try to stay out of these debates in the WoW community because they’re exhausting and (I know this is in direct contradiction of my conclusion!) they lead nowhere. Extremists remain extremists and moderates remain moderates. But, I guess you could call me a philologist. I love words. I find them fascinating. My background in psychology, my passion for travel and my interests in anthropology and linguistics have created a monster: the relationships between language and cultures is something I could discuss for days and days and days. (And days and days.)

I’ll do my best to respect my energy levels and keep this short, though.

I’ll also start off by saying that I’m a moderate and that I’ll be playing with both sides of the discussion. My message in 4 words would be “reflect and be kind“.

“Fat”?

When I was a teenager doing teenager memes on Livejournal, one of the “survey” lines became etched in my memory: “What would you do if your boyfriend called you fat?

The obvious responses would be to ditch him, to yell at him, to make him apologize. But not me. I’d probably burst out laughing and give him another joke as a response. Why? Because when I was 16 I got sick, my weight dropped and ever since my BMI rarely creeps above 20. As a result, no matter where I go, I get the “oh you’re sooooooo fat” line. My weight isn’t low enough to be worrisome, and though, like anyone, I dislike lumps showing up where they shouldn’t be, I’m not conscious at all about my weight. Putting “fat” and me in the same sentence can only be humorous.

Where I’m going with this is that the word “fat” doesn’t SPECIFICALLY mean the same thing to me as is does to someone who is struggling with their weight. Just like it wouldn’t mean the same thing to someone in a culture where being overweight is a sign of wealth and social status. It has a very personal and a very cultural meaning and person and culture are relative.

Intent and effect

Does that mean it’s ok to insult people’s weight, and when they are hurt, tell them that they should just change their view of the word “fat”?

I hope you find that as ridiculous as I do.

Saying things, KNOWING that you’re upsetting someone (or that you have a very high chance of upsetting someone), is just being a jerk.

We can debate until we’re blue in the face about which words we should ban (why do I always get flashbacks to Harry Potter and He-who-must-not-be-named whenever these “word ban” topics resurface in the blogosphere?). The fact that these discussions get so heated is proof enough that the meanings of these words is indeed dependent on the beholder.

However, you can’t go into the beholder’s head and change their past experiences, their beliefs, their thoughts, their feelings. What you can do, however, is not be a jerk.

But I don’t know what other people don’t like!

What fuels these heated topics is that among English-speaking Westerners (which, I’m guessing, is the general demographic engaged in the debates I witness), there are certain words and topics that are generally demeaning.

We have to differentiate specific meanings from general meanings. Specific meanings are personal, but general meanings are usually pretty constant. Whether you’ve experience homophobia or not, the term “faggot” (when not talking about cigarettes) has a negative connotation. It is the degree of negative connotation that differs from person to person.

Now, the Western world has a painful and not yet completely resolved history of racism, sexism, homophobia and violence.

Thus, when using “rape” out of context, when using racism and sexist terms, you are being disrespectful. There is a high chance that one or more individuals in your audience will feel attacked, or hurt, or disregarded.

Now, I differ from the extremists in that I believe that what you joke about or the vocabulary you choose among close friends where no one else can hear is your own business. However, as soon as you take your words outside and use them in a way that is very likely to bother others, you are being a jerk.

As a side note, there are individuals who have unusual aversions to certain words or topics. I wouldn’t expect anyone to guess that “banana” could trigger an emotional response in another. However, if the aversion is known, I would expect others to respect it.

I’ll insert here that jokes about rape, about suicide, about mental health, etc. are extremely touchy ground. These are very devastating subjects. Joking is a defense mechanism that allows us to avoid feeling something that we have trouble accepting. Joking about rape, about suicide, about mental health happening to others protects us from the pain of empathy. As as painful as it is, empathy is what we need to build a better society. So, in addition to be cruel to the individuals targeted, joking about these topics prevents us from growing as a society.

Note the emphasis on “happening to others”. Sometimes joking about ones own experiences can be a crucial part of the healing process – it offers a distraction and it helps others relate. I wouldn’t have learned to accept myself as I am if I hadn’t written a number of comedy posts about my social anxiety. Joking to heal yourself and joking to avoid feeling empathy are completely different stomping grounds.

Hate and cruelty, it wears on you

I gotta fit WoW in here somewhere!

I don’t have any strong feelings about “slut” plate (I grew up in a very sexually liberated part of the world) but I do have something else to share.

I was in a guild once where the, um, quality of conversation went way downhill. Had I taken a shot every time someone said “fag”, I would have been finished 15 minutes into the raid. And that wasn’t the only hate term that was used abundantly.

No component of the vocabulary hit any nerves on me, personally. So it wasn’t a question of hurt feelings, or fear or anything like that. It wasn’t a question of attributing extreme meanings to words either.

Yet, I got exhausted. Trying to remain positive, cooperative and team-minded while being bombarded with symbols of hate, of violence and of ignorance took a toll on me.

(Not to mention that it all felt very immature. As if my teammates were saying “HEY! LOOK AT ME! I’M USING A BAD WORD! AREN’T I BADASS?” I dunno about you, but if I’m going to babysit 12 year olds, I expect to be paid. In money.)

I understand the need of an outlet for aggression. But I think there has to be a balance between positivity and negativity, there has to be a proper time and place to be aggressive, and there has to be a consideration for those who aren’t currently feeling a need to let out some aggression.

As my grade school moral teachers used to repeat over and over again: “Your freedom ends where someone elses freedom begins.

Words vs Meanings, Messengers vs Messages

Now that I’ve insisted on “if you knowing hurt people, even with words, you’re a jerk”, I’ll switch over to how I feel about outright banning words.

In her post, Cider Apple Mage uses the following example:

A woman is walking home from work in a big city. A car of young men drives by and shouts “SLUT!” at her. It feels scary.

This is a good springboard for my own thoughts because her and I (though we agree on some points) differ on how we view words.

The above situation has happened to me a lot (I doubt it’s anything personal…it happens even when I’m wearing winter clothes that show no skin at all). It doesn’t scare me, but I do get a little insulted. If I’m feeling sensitive that day, I might even be hurt.

Not from the choice of words. The young men could have easily said “dorkface”, “poopyhead” or something equally ridiculous and have trigger the exact same feeling in me. What bothers me is that strangers went out of their way for no other reason than to attempt to cause me pain. The word “slut” doesn’t faze me. Cruelty, however, saddens me deeply.

I find that in the crusade against words, the very people pushing to ban certain words forget why those words cut in the first place.

Perhaps I’m just a dreamer, but I think words are not the right battle to fight. Words are messengers. Killing the messengers won’t change the message. Ban a word and another will appear. It’s a never ending battle. Whenever I see a statement of “ban words X, Y and Z because I can’t stand them” I imagine that the person making the statement must lead a very draining and painful life. I get heck from my fellow bloggers about this, but I feel that if I burn myself out trying to correct everything others say, then they’ll win. They’re wrong in being jerks, but if I allow myself to be hurt or burned out because they’re jerks, then the person who is punished is me.

However, fight cruelty, fight disrespect, fight ignorance, fight hate – and the words will vanish on their own.

Summing it up

Well, this wasn’t really short, but it could still have been much longer.

I think these discussions are important. Regardless if whether you agree with a text, it’s important to read it, absorb it, criticize it. A part of social consciousness is instinctive (otherwise societies wouldn’t exist) but it needs to be refined through discussion and reflection. There are no black and white answers for what’s “best” and “right”. To build a better society, you have to look at all the angles and make your own personal judgements.

And take action. Discussion is the beginning, but it isn’t the end. Join advocacy groups, volunteer, teach children. Ignorance is fought with knowledge, hate is fought with love, oppression is fought with liberation.

You want to make a difference? Do it through positivity. Make society grow instead of repressing it.

That goes for the hate-speakers and the word-banners and all of us in between.

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27 Comments on “Words Words Words”


  1. I guess I didn’t feel like my post was on another side of your post (it was to debate why words ARE so important) so much as illustrating that I feel words are indicators and messengers for ideas I find socially loathe-worthy, which is why I examine them and discuss WHY they are hurtful and harmful and what they really represent.

    I also say, as someone regularly called an extremist, that most extremists aren’t really against personal audiences, at least in the realms we’re discussing. Most of this is regarding mixed audiences, though I do think at a certain point there’s no real need to use particular words because all they do is reinforce particularly harmful ideas, even when everyone is fine with using them. (see using slurs with other similar people, none of whom have ever been personally affected by them)

    I was trying to illustrate, with said example, that words carry an emotional significance and a power that isn’t solely created by just the audience.

    • Ophelie Says:

      I didn’t mean your post was “other side”! By “other” side, I meant that I had just criticized those who use the “just be less sensitive” excuse and I was switching over to doubting the usefulness of word banning. I’ll see if I can edit it to convey my meaning better.

      I’m very much in the middle. I believe in respect and empathy, but at the same time, words are human creations and don’t exist without humans. Their power does depend on the audience, however that specific meaning and amount of power is attributed by the audience doesn’t excuse cruelty.

  2. Jehjeh Says:

    Nice post, I’m looking forward to the long director’s cut ;)

  3. Grimmtooth Says:

    “Does that mean it’s ok to insult people’s weight, and when they are hurt, tell them that they should just change their view of the word “fat”?”

    Too many words.

    “Does that mean it’s ok to insult people …”

    And there’s the key. If one is setting out to be insulting, it doesn’t matter what words are actually used. The insult is the thing. As you conclude later, the lack of respect is what ends up driving the interactions, so if one sets out to be insulting, that’s the way it’s going to go.

    • Ophelie Says:

      My wind is long! You’re absolutely right, I could have summed the whole thing up as “I think that the meaning of words is relative, but it’s no excuse to be a jerk”

      I think I did need to play with my thoughts and thus why the post ended up being unnecessarily long and circular. It was fun to write. Maybe I’ll sleep better tonight because I’ll be thinking less.

      • Grimmtooth Says:

        Oh, not to criticize. I just thought there was an even more fundamental truth tucked away in there.

        Being no stranger to long rambly blog posts, for sure :)


  4. Awesome! just awesome post *clap*

    “However, fight cruelty, fight disrespect, fight ignorance, fight hate – and the words will vanish on their own.”

    I love that sentence. Thanks for writing it.

    I used to be someone that kind of tried to police the use of words in our vent, I have since moved to kind of shit the policing from just advocating respect. We all have lines and not crossing each others lines its what I think respect is all about.

    I write in a similar fashion on my non wow blog, I get way too wordy and sometimes incoherent, lol but it is a lot cheaper than therapy. I did not get bored reading it so I don’t think it was all that wordy.

    • Ophelie Says:

      Thanks :)

      I scandalize many of my fellow bloggers by admitting that I don’t correct people’s vocabulary, but what matters to me is that I can be in a respectful environment, but not necessarily an always politically correct one. It also feels less weird to kick someone for being a jerk, rather than kicking them for “saying a bad word”.


  5. [...] “Life is just one damn thing after another”  Bossy Pally had a lovely post on Words, and their effect and I thought I would do a little post [...]

  6. Stubborn Says:

    Dear Ophelie,

    As an English teacher, disliker of Political Correctness, word-lover, and censure-hater, I really enjoyed this post. I’ll go so far as to say that this might be one of the most eloquently written posts I’ve seen on word usage, meaning, and control.

    I like to be moderate on about as much as I can be and look for common ground as often as I can, and I really feel that you did a great job of aiming for that while also getting your main point across. After what’s happened recently to one of our community, I’m certainly more conscious of words that some people use in battlegrounds, and after reading ACM’s post on “slut” plate, I felt that she’d made a good point but knew that it was never a term I’d have used and that I wasn’t motivated enough to respond one way or the other.

    That said, I recently got a comment on my post that without calling me sexist basically called me and all other male bloggers sexist. I didn’t engage the anger of the comment but responded as usual by looking for common ground, but it was hard for me to refrain from pointing out the irony of what the comment had said, which was basically that “all guys” need to realize that girls play MMOs and sometimes are the ones dragging their boyfriends in (which I concede the point about). I was pretty happy with my response; it’s on Part 1 of my current series if anyone cares to see it.

    Anyway, I frequently fall back on a quote from the American Library Association (or so I think): “Tolerance is meaningless without tolerating the intolerable.” It’s why I still read Gevlon every day (who I’ve come to love in the way you love a horrid little bird who wakes you up by singing outside your window every morning all summer) and why I look for common ground with every comment I get. I feel like your post nailed that feeling.

    Lastly, I loved this line the most:
    “What bothers me is that strangers went out of their way for no other reason than to attempt to cause me pain.”
    It sums up basically everything I’ve felt about WoW jerks in a single, eloquent line. Great post!

    Sincerely,
    Stubborn

    • Ophelie Says:

      As an English teacher, you must have also been distracted by the amount of typos I made (it was very kind of you to not say anything about them). I reread my post and I have a lot of editing to do, hehe.

      Thank you for your comment!

      Writing genders in English is a headache! I do use “them”, because it’s the closest to the French “on” which is a genderless, vague pronoun, usually plural but can be use singular as well. Plus in French, the word “individual” is male, so if you’re talking about an individual, you can use “he”, even if the individual is female. “Person” is a female noun, so you can use “she” even if the person is male. Far more practical for writing about nondescript people.

      • Stubborn Says:

        Yes, English is a terrible language, full of apparent contradictions caused by the piling on of many other linguistic traditions. Our spelling is basically a joke to word-lovers world wide, and yet so many English teachers in America get very snobbish about proper grammar and spelling and so forth when in fact almost every other language is 1 letter per sound, and in English there’s at least 2 ways to make basically every sound.

        That said, I’m not too sure about how I’d feel about an “English Academy” “protecting” our language, since I’m all for language changing, normalizing, and moving with the times. That’s not to say I think it’s “wrong” to have one (besides, I believe you’re in Canada, not France), but English desperately needs to evolve, so I don’t want anyone stopping it.

        Once again, great post, and don’t worry about typos; language is for communicating; if you communicate your point well, nothing else really matters.

        • Ophelie Says:

          I like having l’Académie Française because whenever I have a question about the proper way to say or write something, I can get a clear answer. All the rules are spelled out. (As a result, though, in school I had to study grammar intensely for 11 years before I was allowed to study any sort of literature.) With English, when I have a question about the language, I have a read a dozen references that each give a different answer and then I take a educated guess.

          I suppose it does slow change. The French rules change all the time so the language does evolve, just not as fast as it would otherwise. Besides, with English being so dominant in the Western world, I suspect that if French weren’t protected, it would turn into almost-English pretty quickly.

  7. tom Says:

    Great post! I think a lot of people, and not just in the current WoW debate, have the mistaken belief that meaning/power is intrinsic to a collection of letters. It’s nice to see a well-written piece coming from a more nuanced perspective.
    I knew there was a reason to keep you in Google Reader! :)

  8. Talarian Says:

    “Not to mention that it all felt very immature. As if my teammates were saying “HEY! LOOK AT ME! I’M USING A BAD WORD! AREN’T I BADASS?” I dunno about you, but if I’m going to babysit 12 year olds, I expect to be paid. In money.)”

    *Applause* And this here is the crux of the problem, I think. Those strangers that went out of their way to insult you? Those folks trying to justify their rudeness in using hateful terminology?

    They’re just trying to be a part of a (different) group. They’re trying to garner a certain cachet with their supposed friends. It was never about you, and as you intimate, that lack of empathy is really what hurts.

    • Ophelie Says:

      Yes! That’s always what I’ve thought as well. While true hate certainly exists, it seems to me that the majority of hate talk on the internet is just kids trying to look “cool”. Which in itself is a little disturbing.

  9. Xsinthis Says:

    Excellent post, you really hit the nail on the head. (I wish I had more to contribute, but you did such an excellent job, I just thought I’d say how much I enjoyed this post)

  10. Morrigu Says:

    There is one aspect of WoW (hell, the entire Internet come to think of it) that I have never been able to understand and that is the whole flinging around insulting and derogatory terms for ‘fun’. I’m guessing the whole anonymity of the Internet thing has something to do with it but these people obviously get some kind of sick pleasure out of it and I just can’t get my head round it. I imagine they are the kind of individual who only shouts insults at you in the street once they are a good distance away from you or in a passing car.

    Seriously, I would love to live in a world where people can be who they want to be without being insulted or threatened, but I’m less and less hopeful this will ever happen when I can’t even play a game without having crap aimed at me.

    • Ophelie Says:

      I see in real life too. I imagine them to be the kind of people who vandalize property and leave their trash lying around. And I do occasionally run into people who can’t string a sentence together without throwing in a few hate words, but it is easier to avoid in real life. And then in on the internet you end up with a lot of people who see that kind of behaviour as badass and want to copy it, as well as a lot of kids who are really influenceable.

      In game I try to play with older and more mature people, it helps.

  11. Ozolin Says:

    Great post. The tendency of many “hard-core” raiders I’ve been in contact with in WoW to belittle and insult people who aren’t as good as they are (in their eyes) and to generally be “cool” and “tough” using hateful words makes me sad. It has significantly lessened my enjoyment of the game.

    • Ophelie Says:

      What’s sad is that it’s usually people who think of themselves as hardcore. I know a few high end raiders from blogging and from twitter, they describe their guilds as very professional.

      It is really annoying, trying to pug a raid and not knowing if I’ll end up with a bunch of idiots. (Though interestingly enough, LFR has been surprisingly clean, though there is the occasional person with a temper problem)

  12. Saif Says:

    Man, great post.

    I started to write a response but it was turning into a book so I’ll just say, great post, and I totally empathize with your point. Words can be dangerous, and while censuring things isn’t the answer, self-moderation and empathy are crucial.

    • Ophelie Says:

      Thanks! I’d love to read your novel of a response if you feel like writing it (you could even use it as a post on your own blog)

  13. quori Says:

    Hey Ophelia…

    /cheer
    <3 you woman!!!

    Q


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