You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last
–the Pogues/Fairytale of New York
Being a person of the recently single variety, I logged into OKCupid a week or so ago to update my profile. I had totally forgotten that my profile references a time when Santa called me an ungrateful cunt. I had taken the train to Tacoma to see Ma and Little L, and Santa tumbled into the seat next to me. He was quite intoxicated. He slurred that he could tell I’d been a very good little girl and asked me if I’d like a villa in Provence for Christmas. When I asked if maybe it could be in Tuscany instead, he called me an ungrateful cunt and went on his way.
Yes, I’m serious. Santa.
So that got me thinking about words, like everything does.
When is it OK to tolerate a slur?
Obviously, it’s not appropriate in everyday conversation. It’s definitely not ever OK to call someone a faggot, nigger or cunt. Well, *almost* never on that last one…I do have an exception or two there. No, not if it’s Santa. Generally speaking, though, I think we’d all mostly agree that it’s not ever OK to call people that sort of names. If we hear it, I’d like to think we’d call people on it.
But are there situations when it is OK, or even desirable? Maybe when used in a song or a book in which the artist needs to depict the sort of people who do use this kind of language? Or on the news when reporting that people directed those words at someone?
The classic example is Tom Sawyer and the “n-word.” Or there’s the snippet of the song Fairytale of New York by the Pogues I’ve quoted at the top of this piece. It’s a great song, but it makes me twitch every time they get to that part. And it should. The people in the song are the kind of people you probably wouldn’t want to be around much. The kind of people who talk like that to each other. The kind of people who used to feel like the King and Queen of New York, but are now drug addicts or drunks who spend their holidays in the drunk tank reduced to screaming their hopelessness at each other. The use of the word faggot is appropriate to the atmosphere of the song, even though it’s a word I hate.
And how do you feel about referring to words like cunt or nigger as “the c-word” or “the n-word?” I’ve alluded to this before, I think. It bothers me when people use euphemisms to describe slurs. It robs the words of the very thing that makes them so vile–their power to virtually punch someone in the gut.
For example when a couple of assholes in a truck drove past a child’s party waving a Confederate flag and yelling nigger out the window, should the reporters have used the word nigger in their reporting or should they have used “the n-word” instead? Most opted for “the n-word” which disappointed me.
In my opinion, the word should be reported as said. No one likes hearing a racial or sexual slur, but reducing a harsh word to a euphemism makes it seems less impactful. It diminishes the effect of what was actually said. If I read “they drove past a group of little girls and screamed the n-word at them” it doesn’t sound all that bad. We have to translate it in our heads, which distances us from the impact of the word. If I read “they drove past a group of little girls and screamed nigger at them” then it sounds as bad as it is. It hits me harder. It makes me think “who in the HELL does that to little kids?”
Using a euphemism diminishes the harm done. And it a weird sort of way, it makes the word sort of an untouchable entity. It gives it more substance by making it into a sort of totem of power.
And maybe that makes the word a little bit stronger.