By Peter Lawrence Kane

A few years ago, Rahm Emanuel, currently Mayor of Chicago but a member of the Obama Administration at the time, got busted for using the word “retarded.” Ironically, the person who called him out publicly was none other than Sarah Palin, who is the mother of a child with Down Syndrome and who, in spite of her many glaring faults, was right.

There have been other controversies lately about word usage, from the question of whether it’s OK to call someone a tranny to the Washington Redskins’ name. Skirmishes like these usually get inflamed very quickly. Hasty accusations make decent people sound like self-righteous scolds, while those on the receiving end grow defensive and less inclined to put their more empathetic feet forward. You might have your “slurs of endearment,” as it were, and it’s not like you can retroactively un-say them. I used to say retarded ten times a day, and while I wasn’t being deliberately vindictive, nobody wants to admit to being thoughtless. It’s a tic, and still is, sometimes.

One problem is that it can be OK to use words in general conversation that play out worse in print or on the air. For example, GLAAD lists gender-bender as a no-no, the supposed ridiculousness of which has been used as evidence of political correctness run amok by non-trans people defending their use of tranny. But GLAAD – which used to be the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation until they realized, oops, that didn’t quite cover it – is a media watchdog, not the word police for everybody. It’s fine to call David Bowie a gender-bender, because he is. It’s not OK to refer to, say, Chelsea Manning that way, as Fox News did. That’s what GLAAD is after.

English speakers are lucky that we don’t live in a universe where every noun gets assigned an arbitrary gender at birth, the way Romance languages do. People do still refer to wines as feminine but at least vaginas aren’t masculine. But gendered language shows up everywhere – and it’s almost always a cliché. Telling someone to “man up” or “don’t get your panties in a twist” is as common as it is egregious – although again, worse when written than spoken. Fireman, stewardess, masseuse – usage like this isn’t the end of the world, but firefighter, flight attendant and massage therapist are better for not presuming a job is exclusive for one gender. 

“That’s lame” comes out of a lot of mouths, including mine. At Mission High School, some teachers wear buttons with red diagonal lines slashed across the phrase “That’s So Gay.” I’m sure that when a student gets chided in the hall for calling somebody’s backpack gay, they protest that they didn’t mean, “like gay-gay” just as I don’t mean, “Fuck disabled people.” But we’re not all in the business of educating young minds. Unless a word is unambiguously fucked up, there might not be an urgent need to pounce on people, online or in conversation. Conspicuously not using iffy language sends a strong enough signal, and your future self will thank you, even if the person you’re talking to doesn’t pick up on it. Because words matter. They matter a lot.

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