Why Slurs Are Bad
Content warning: childhood bullying, the R-word and other slurs, discussion of verbal abuse and harassment
I’m an intelligent person. I’m not saying this to put authoritative weight behind my arguments, since intelligence does not always confer authority. I’m saying this to contextualize my life experiences, because this essay will draw heavily from those experiences. As a child, I was given various tests and told that I should qualify for the “gifted and talented” program. After a few months, it became clear that I lacked certain traits that program requires, such as a strong motivation to work hard and a desire to exceed expectations. These traits are unrelated to intelligence, although it wasn’t until many years later that I understood that I didn’t flunk out of the gifted class because of stupidity.
My brain was different from my peers’ brains in ways that were evident from a very early age. As an adult I began to identify with the autism spectrum, and I recently decided to seek an official diagnosis. The autistic traits I displayed as a child included an inability to converse fluidly, to understand group dynamics, or to follow social trends and fashions; this made me a prime target for bullying. There was no adult who recognized my difference that early, and could intervene and explain that my differences did not make me less capable or worthy than the rest of the class. Even if there had, I don’t know think it would have made a difference; it might have even made it worse.
One day during a summer vacation, I was climbing a tree in a nearby park when a sometimes-bully from my class came by and saw me there. I don’t know how his day had been going or who had recently hurt him, but he decided to entertain himself by standing at the bottom of the tree and calling me a retard until I cried. I felt trapped; since he was standing at the base of the tree I didn’t feel safe coming down so I could run away. So I tried to debate with him in good faith. I told him I wasn’t a retard, and he told me that I was too retarded to realize that I was retarded. I told him that I was smart enough for gifted classes; he told me that I wasn’t, that the teachers and my parents had just lied to me to make me feel better. He told me that I would never be as good as the other kids because my brain wasn’t good enough.
This hurt. I remember it clearly to this day as one of the two worst instances of bullying I ever endured. What made it especially hard was that nothing the bully said could really be disproven in that moment; if I really was, as he said, too retarded to know that I was retarded, then any counter-evidence I could come up with would automatically be suspect. And if the adults in my life were lying to spare my feelings, their word would be equally unreliable. It was one of my first experiences of a bully positioning himself as the sole authority on my reality by undermining trust in all other sources of knowledge. This abuse tactic is a common one that I battle every day in my adult life, including in the political sphere.
It is not widely recognized in my society that “retard” is a slur that can hurt people in ways that go beyond your basic insults and jibes, that can hurt people with neurological differences in the same way that the n-word can hurt black people and the f-word can hurt lgbt people. It’s not even widely recognized that people with neurological differences are worthy of equal dignity and opportunity and respect as neurotypical people. This is why I think it’s important to highlight the fundamental lie embedded in that bully’s argument: he was talking to a child who actually was intelligent, and had the capacity for accurate self-knowledge. My parents and teachers were not lying to me, at least not about that fundamental condition of my brain. The fact that he could, by using only words, undermine the truth in a way that continues to affect me decades later is a testament to the power of verbal harassment and abuse, even when wielded by a casual acquaintance in public.
Yes, slurs hurt. All insults hurt, if you’re doing it right. But that’s not why they’re bad. If done right, the use of slurs in a targeted harassment campaign — such as that enacted on me by the bully that day — can undermine the persuasive strength of truth and prevent people from realizing their true potential, essentially keeping oppressed people from escaping their oppression. I did continue to pursue intellectual activities and accomplishments in defiance of that bully’s words, but I would be lying if I said that I haven’t asked myself, every time, What if I’m not smart enough? What if I fail and everyone laughs at me? These seeds of doubt have continued to grow, and need to be cut down periodically or they’ll overtake my brain and it will be as if I never had the ability in the first place. A slur, if used properly, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Tell someone over and over that they’re not good enough and will never be allowed to achieve, and they may never even try. That’s the explicit goal of many harassment campaigns: to keep oppressed people from getting ideas above their station, or getting too uppity, or trying to get the good jobs or move to the nice neighborhoods, especially when outright institutional discrimination seems to be weakening. Gotta keep ’em in their place, no matter what the means.
In other words, slurs, harassment, hate speech, and bullying don’t just hurt people’s feelings. They hurt people’s freedom.
Of course I can only speak to my own experience, and so I can’t say that, for instance, racial slurs affect people of color the same way that the r-word affects me. But I can’t help but wonder how much overlap there must be. The n-word has been used in various ways to define black identity as inferior and subordinate, and thereby discourage black people from, depending on the historical era, revolting against their masters, trying to improve their economic or legal status, becoming too friendly with their white neighbors, moving into white communities, applying for white people’s jobs, running for public office — in other words, from doing what they want with their lives.
When someone uses the r-word, they’re not just trying to hurt someone’s feelings. They’re saying, “You can’t go to college. You can’t get a job using your mind. You can’t understand the world or your place in it. You can’t keep up with your peers in any way that really matters. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.” As far as I can tell from having studied race relations in the US, racial slurs serve the same purpose. They’re used to tell people of color “You can’t choose your path in life. You can’t achieve your ambitions. You can’t be a full participant in society. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.” Slurs are a tool in a concerted effort to undermine and limit human potential and liberty. The same can be said of misgendering or deadnaming transgender people. Even if you call everyone “dude,” or if you’re just used to calling them “she”, the effect of being misgendered repeatedly and sometimes deliberately has the effect of telling a transgender person “You can’t live the way you want to. You can’t be trusted to define yourself. You can’t change your social role or status. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t. And you shouldn’t even try.” When women attempt to pursue their ambitions in male-dominated fields, or promote their own autonomy in either private or public spheres, they’re often met with a similar barrage of insults — bitch, slut, whore, pig, cow, et cetera — with the explicit intent of discouraging them from doing what they want. Again, the message is “You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.”
All of these kinds of harassment and abuse have historically come with an implied or explicit threat of violence to enforce compliance, and it is risky to proceed if there is even the slightest chance the threat will be carried out. Since an implied threat is difficult to prove to authorities, relying on institutional protection is usually impossible unless those words are recognized as inherently harmful. In this way, a single word, supported by a particular social climate, can tangibly limit a person’s feasible options in life.
I began this essay with a story of a specific, individual act of harassment by one person on one day. I chose that story because it stands out in my memory vividly, and I thought I could write about it in a way that could effectively convey my experience. But it’s important that I point out that this one event would not have had such an impact, either in that moment or in the many years that followed, without the enforcement of many other acts of bullying and harassment that took place throughout my childhood. It also would not have been as effective if I hadn’t seen other people being bullied with the same word for their neurological differences, which helped me absorb the terrible stigma associated with such differences, creating a deep and lasting shame.
As a child I was taught to chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” As a teen, I was told “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” (attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt). As an adult in cognitive behavioral therapy, I learned to be skeptical of ideas that make me feel hopeless or incapable, whether they came from others or from my own mind. And for the most part, it’s possible, even simple, to ignore or dismiss the words of a person who’s only trying to get your goat. But if it’s not just one person obviously trying to hurt you, but political structures, religious groups, educational institutions, and trusted authorities throughout your life telling you that you’re not good enough or that you will never be able to do what you want and shouldn’t even try, it is impossible to ignore. Because what if they’re right? Surely that many people can’t be so certain about it unless there is some truth behind it. It takes a lot more work, a lot more research, and a lot more courage to dismiss lies that have widespread institutional support, and not every member of an oppressed group has the personal resources to embark on that kind of intellectual project. The work of convincing yourself you can achieve your ambitions begins to overshadow the ambitions themselves, effectively canceling out whatever freedom you may gain in the process.
Ideally, individual freedom of speech should mean that you can call me whatever you want and I shouldn’t have the power to stop you simply on the basis that it makes me feel bad. Individual freedom of movement means that you can stand in front of the door as I walk into my school if you think I’m not worthy of my academic ambitions. But if you got a lot of people to stand in my way as I try to enter the school, shouting at me that I don’t deserve an education and should just go home, then you may just prevent me from going to school that day, and I may question the wisdom of coming the next day either. When American schools began to be integrated, black students were often blocked from entering their schools in exactly this way. One person standing outside the door of the school would have posed no major obstacle. A massive, shouting crowd of people is a serious threat. In the same way, one act of harassment by one person may not have an effect in the long term, but a lifetime of similar acts coming from many directions can have a devastating effect on individual freedom.
When the topic of hate speech comes up as a potential exception of freedom of speech, I’m cautiously on the side of limiting hate speech at risk of being accused of censorship. After all, freedom of speech is meaningless if speech has no potential to catalyze change in the world, and when one person’s freedom is being used to limit another person’s freedom we need to make a decision about whose freedom is more worthy of protection. And I don’t think that an individual’s freedom to say insulting things is more valuable than another individual’s freedom to choose their path in life — to go to school, to live where they want, to work in the career they want, to marry who they choose, to parent, to create, or to lead.
I hope that you consider this next time someone tells you that your words are hurtful, and you feel yourself clench up in anticipation of defending your freedom of speech or insisting that people need to toughen up or are too easily offended. You’ve been warned that your actions have consequences far outreaching your intentions, and if you really do intend no harm, then you will heed the warning. Otherwise, you may unintentionally find yourself complicit in oppressions you find abhorrent. You don’t want that, do you?
Thank you for reading and for being considerate of others.