FAIR WARNING: I use the words in their unabbreviated versions in this post.
This week’s South Park episode took another stab at the interesting way language is used in American society. The boys spend the episode convincing everybody that “faggot” and “fag” should refer to annoying Harley riders, going so far as to try to change the printed dictionary definition. Even the gays rally against the fags. By my count, permutations of the word appeared 86 times in the episode.
GLAAD says they got the joke, but it wasn’t funny:
This is a slur whose meaning remains rooted in homophobia. And while many South Park viewers will understand the sophisticated satire and critique in last night’s episode, others won’t – and if even a small number of those take from this a message that using the “F-word” is OK, it worsens the hostile climate that many in our community continue to face.
Joe over at Joe.My.God noticed an excellent comment on the NYT piece that I’d like to expand upon: “If they had used the “n” word instead of the “f” word, what would the response have been?”
Let’s get real for a second. Words are combinations of sounds created by different contact points in our mouth. They don’t have any higher power other than what humanity has determined they should have. Humans have been naming things since we could. Naming is so important that when someone wrote a book about the supposed “first” humans, they were given names and given the responsibility to name just about everything else. We needs words to describe things, and unfortunately, when people are looking to describe things negatively, there are words for that too.
There are a lot of words that society considers “profane” (reminding us of the religious privilege to set standards in society by what pleases and displeases God). There are the words that refer to things we find to be gross (fuck, shit, douche, asshole, piss, cunt, etc.) and the expressions that directly disrespect God (“Go to hell,” Goddammit,” etc.). The gross words earned their disgust because of their literal definitions and the sensitivity of believers helped the direct profanity of God develop its literary power. But then there is a whole different category of words designed to specifically target people because of who they are. These are words that have no other possible meaning and that can never be reappropriated.
The existence of these words is a permanent stain on humanity. The fact that there was a time that people thought these words needed to exist or thought there was reason to use them is an ugliness we can never undo. We can’t forget them, we can’t hide them, we can only do our best to not say them. Their etymologies are irrelevant because in modern American English they can only mean one thing.
“Nigger” only means one thing. I cringed typing it, and you probably cringed reading it. It’s there. It’s never going away. We have to recognize that we cannot escape the hate behind it. Members of the black community might find strength in attempting to “reclaim” it, but I see nothing to reclaim. It only means one thing. There are members of our species who did (and still do) think that one race of people was intellectually and morally inferior to another by their very existence, and this was a word to convey their hatred and disgust for those people. It can mean nothing else and there is no way to use it that would not imply the deepest offense and hatred to an entire segment of our population. Some might be unforgiving in my choice to type it out in this post, but I hope you come to see that is the very point I wish to convey about it. (Go back and read my first paragraph—were you as upset by my three uses of the f-word?)
I typed the n-word out once, and the paragraphs of disclaimer for why I did so are probably not enough to appease those who are infuriated by its existence. We are all right to be furious that we cannot escape the past and to be unforgiving to those who might try to ignore that past for their own devices.
This is what South Park demonstrated this week in the most hypocritical way, though I expect Trey Parker and Matt Stone would admit as much. They fell on this one to make their point. GLAAD is exactly right: the f-word causes immense pain and anguish for our community. Regardless of its intricate etymology (which the South Park episode actually details accurately), the f-word only means one thing in modern American English. Unlike the way I wrote this post, South Park used an offensive word often and unapologetically, and it is easy to see how the satire might be lost on viewers.
As a member of the gay community, I openly despise the f-word to the same extent I despise the n-word. I have been called it enough times to know the pure spite behind it. I don’t use it, and I refuse to humor other gay men who might choose to openly identify by it. When I hear someone say, “Omigod, I KNOW! I’m like a total fag!” I hear an invitation for abuse. I see a disrespect for those who have been so hurt by the word. Some have committed suicide for such taunts. For some it’s the last word they hear as they are beaten to death. There is nothing gained by trying to embrace it.
South Park is amazing art. Its goal is to make us think and engage in dialogue and to that end it continues to be very successful. But think about if you had casually heard the word “nigger” about once every 15 seconds for an entire episode of television. Would it take the existence of an organization like GLAAD to be the sole voice defending the defamed group? I doubt it. We would all condemn it (as I still expect many will condemn me for using it in this post, a condemnation I would welcome because it proves my point).
We got a harsh reminder this past week from Maine that we are a long way from queer equality. People can unflinchingly vote away marriage equality. People are susceptible to myths and lies that portray the gay community in a negative and hurtful light. While some like to think everything is peachy keen when it comes to LGBT issues, we have a long way to go in changing not just the laws, but the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.
Watching this South Park episode can be extremely painful, but in a week full of pain, it should serve as an extra reminder of how far behind we are. The point of the episode isn’t just that you can’t change the definition of an offensive word. The mere fact that South Park could get away with this episode should be a wake-up call to how insensitive the public is to the continued plight of the gay community.