Posted tagged ‘empathy’

Words Words Words

February 9, 2012

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“.


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.