The Power of Words and Context

Words have power right?  That’s what we’re taught from a very young age.  From adages such as “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” to admonishing the use of swear words, as a culture we generally see words as powerful instruments.  This is why certain words become culturally taboo, such as many racial slurs.  These make sense, because those racial slurs usually have only one function: to degrade an entire group of people.  But what happens when people start trying to police a word that has multiple functions?  Well, an example occurred earlier this month.

Jon Jafari (alias Jontron) is an internet comedian who makes videos on Youtube.  He’s generally a silly guy, making weird faces and weird voices while reviewing things like video games and movies.  But recently, he got a lot of flak over something he said.  He posted a status on Twitter, which you can see below, and it was this status that caused an intense backlash.

Jontron Twitter

At question here is his use of the word “retarded”.  This is what people online latched onto and got angry about.  Let’s take a look at the context.

“‘Playstation Now’ is the most painfully retarded thing I’ve seen in a while”.  The context, combined with subsequent posts on his twitter, shows that his focus was on the idea of Playstation Now, which is a sort of video game streaming service.  It seems clear that he was calling the idea or the service itself “retarded”.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t so clear to a lot of other people, who either assumed that Jon meant it in another light or just simply don’t like hearing the word at all.

What followed quickly swirled out of control.  It all resulted in a bunch of so-called “social justice warriors” on the site known as Tumblr creating a smear campaign against Jon for his use of the word.  For my part, I was unable to really find any of this campaign due in part to the fact that it occurred a couple of weeks ago, and mostly due to the fact that I do not have a Tumblr profile and personally do not wish to make one.

My issue with these events is not what Jon said in that status.  In fact, the only thing I can really fault him for is trying to use sarcasm on the internet to express a point.  Sarcasm doesn’t translate well in text, even if you know the person very well.  I commonly get caught up mistaking sarcasm for seriousness when talking to people on Facebook or Skype.

My issue with these events is that it shows a kind of trend going on in our culture.  In the past we’ve been extremely vitriolic and hateful toward people with differences and disabilities.  We still are in a lot of ways, but  we’ve also course corrected in many areas.  But in some cases we course corrected too much it seems, as in the case of the word “retarded”.  It’s become a little taboo of its own in spots, being hated as a word because certain people automatically assume that its use is meant to denigrate the mentally challenged.  The problem is that the word has multiple uses, multiple definitions.  It has indeed been used to put down people with metal disabilities, but if we deny its use based solely on that one aspect of it, we might as well deny the use of other words including but not limited to: stupid, imbecile, moron, idiot, and dumb.  These all mean similar things to “retarded”, and yet no one is out there questioning their use.

Here’s another example, the word “chink”.  In its literal context, chink refers to a break in a piece of armor.  You’ve probably often heard it used in the metaphor “a chink in someone’s armor”, meaning a glimpse into their inner self, that part of a person usually hidden due to fear of not being accepted or being hurt.  But, in the right context, “chink” is also something much worse.  If used at the wrong time, it becomes a racial slur for those of Asian descent.  The thing is, we don’t go around policing the word for two basic reasons.  One, it has too much of a proper context to be forbidden.  And two, racial slurs are so culturally taboo that anyone who used it in that way would be rightfully ostracized and despised.  Here’s a scene from a TV show that hilariously depicts the distinction.

But this cultural over-sensitivity is a dangerous thing.  We censor swear words on television because we’re afraid of their affects on children.  We question the impact of video games on our youth, sometimes taking steps to try to ban the violent ones outright.  We attempt to police what people say because we think that it will negatively impact the lives of others.  We draw lines in the sand, attempting to control and restrict patterns of thought and behavior.  And while such things can be good, we often try to overstep our bounds.

Words exist to be used, as simple as that.  Words are not, by definition, evil.  It is their context that makes them what they are.  In the case of Jontron, the context of “retarded” explicitly shows that he did not intend to use it as a means to demoralize people with disabilities, nor would he ever do such a thing.  But it is this cultural sensitivity that caused people to lash out at him over his use of the word.  It was our own insecurity that caused the controversy in the first place, our assumption that anyone who uses this word is doing it for malevolent purposes.

And then people band together, calling themselves “social justice warriors” and fighting over things like this.  Honestly, there are so many other problems out there, even just in our own country, that need attention that focusing on someone’s use of the word “retarded” is, well, retarded.  It’s different from racial slurs, because most racial slurs exist only as racial slurs.  The word “retarded” does not.  It has multiple meanings, and legitimate uses.  That’s the fascinating (and frustrating) thing about the English language, our words can have so many different meanings and applications.  To ban one of those multifaceted words, just because one of the meanings may be offensive to some, would be absolute lunacy.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.