Where two or more people are gathered, social rules are there in the midst of them. Those rules are both expressed and communicated by what our bodies and mouths say to one another. As adults we float in and out of social situations that require us to perform different social rules and rituals if we are going to be active participants in the group. When those rules are breached, we risk our good standing with the rest of the people in the group. Offending people is a great way to put our social standing in jeopardy.
Most of the functions of the brain have to do with survival. Language is a tool the brain uses in order to exert desires and will in the world. There are reasons for every word that comes out of our mouths even if we are unsure what those reasons are. In short, language is power. It is one of the engines that makes a society work or crumble. Seen through this lens language that offends can either be viewed as something to take back power someone else has or to exert the power that we already possess.
Some offensive words are reused and repackage in order to reclaim them. Let’s look at the very complex uses of the word “bitch.” “Bitch” is perfectly acceptable when used at the Westminster Kennel Club to refer to a female dog that is ready to breed. It’s also tongue-in-cheek among many gay men to talk about other men almost as a term of endearment or if someone is being cheeky or sarcastic. Even this context has its controversy. But “bitch” is also an offensive term to denigrate women as “whining” or “mean” as in the term “resting bitch face.” Women are supposed to smile and be nice to everyone or they are on par with an angry or needy female dog being prepped for breeding. Not very nice is it?
We have to do better to look at the reasons for the words we use that are unambiguously offensive in certain contexts. When we use these words we are following a set of social rules whether we are aware of them or not. We are also manipulating our power in the world. Getting someone to laugh is an exchange of power. If I use “bitch” in a way that is funny, I am manipulating someone’s emotional responses inside of a social framework by breaking conventions and rules. After people criticized Beyonce’s Superbowl 50 routine as “anti-white” because it broke a set of social rules, Saturday Night Live produced a brilliant parody of those complaints like a court jester mocking the king on behalf of the lower classes of society. Comedy is often used to take back the power that people use in order to protect their standing at the top of a society. Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammy Awards is an example of doing this not to be funny, but specifically to get people talking about race in a way that visually displayed how a once powerful people were enslaved and then imprisoned.
Whether or not we should be offensive is based on social context, social role, and the reasons behind the use of these words. Most of us aren’t in the place to speak negatively or criticize anyone else. What they are doing is none of our business. If we insist on our right to use words like “retarded,” “bitch,” “lame,” “tranny,” or even “fat” we must first address the reasons for why these words are so important to retain in our vocabularies. To what end are we achieving if we call a gay person a “fag?” The truth is that we are either observing or breaking the rules of the social groups we have chosen to be part of in order to maintain our status within the group itself. We use these words to influence the power in the group and this is a function of our own survival mechanisms. When words that are offensive to others are part of the social fabric of our group, they are used to exert power in a group survival effort. But is it really worth it?
In a free society, we are legally protected to offend people up to the point where the liberty of their conscience is at risk. But just because it is legal does not mean it’s useful or morally upstanding. Socrates is famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Before we defend our use of language that knowingly offends someone else or an entire group of people, we would do well to examine the life we are living. To what end is the language we are using influencing the world in which we are choosing to live? And is that the world we really want?