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Every Minority Has a Word

I am going to warn everyone that today’s blog I am going to use words that most people consider horribly offensive. I will however not be using them in an offensive manner, but I don’t think it is appropriate to use a euphemism instead. Louis C.K. put it best when he said that the “N-word” is offensive to him (as it is to me). So I will not be using it.

It seems that these days every minority has a word that is theirs alone. What I mean is that there are words which it is only acceptable for those within that minority to use. It started with the word, “nigger.” Black people can use that word freely, but only black people. I get that it is an offensive insult and I would never call anyone a nigger. I don’t think black people should call each other niggers either.

Then Sarah Palin stepped in to the game and insisted that no one use the word, “retarded.” As a retard herself, I am guessing she wants exclusive rights to that word. That is where I started to get uncomfortable. But since Sarah Palin is… well… retarded, I didn’t think much about it.

Recently however I was listening to one of my favorite radio talk show hosts and he (as a gay man) took ownership of the word, “faggot.” He puts this word in the same category as the word, “nigger.” I can see his point of view here. I would never call a gay person a faggot just as I would never call a black person a nigger. I still will call Sarah Palin retarded however. But why can’t we use these terms in a more clinical manner like I am using them here? Why is it that some people can use these terms and some people can’t? It is in these aspects that I take some disagreement.

However my disagreements aside, why can’t atheists join in this game too? What word can we own exclusively? Obviously we use the term “atheist” already and we often also use terms like “godless” and “heathen.”  Should we insist that only atheists can call each other atheist and everyone else must call us something else? Or maybe atheist is equivalent to “black” or “gay” and we should get offended by being called, “godless” by anyone except ourselves of course.

I want to point out that offense is taken and not given. So in my mind, we choose what words offend us. However, as it is with all things it is the thought that counts. So obviously if someone intends offense it is more likely that I will take offense. In other words, almost any time a religious believer refers to us by any name with the intent of being offensive or mean, we would be well within reason to take offense. Still, I want a word just for our community that no one else can call us. I want to join in these reindeer games. ;-)

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  • http://mygodlesslife.com Tris

    Good points!

    I would like to point out that the term ‘atheist’ was first coined as a perjorative, and is still used as such by a great number of theists to this day. So when someone calls another person a ‘faggot’, ‘nigger’ or ‘atheist’, they are being inherently offensive, but where does the use of these terms begin and end?

    Is one being perjarotive towards someone if these terms are used behind their backs, for instance? Who is it that takes offence? Like you, I find the terms nigger and faggot offensive despite not being either. I am an atheist, though, so should I be offended by its use either as a direct perjorative or an indirect proscription? Well, yes, of course, if for no other reason that it is inherently perjorative. So why do I consider myself to be atheist?

    The simple answer is that its description is accurate – in so far as it goes. I do not believe in the existence of a god or gods. But this says nothing about what I am. If I were a non-believing homosexual African-American, my atheism says nothing inherent about who I am, whereas being a faggot and a nigger does. The fact is, as has been noted by many a wit, that being called an atheist is akin to calling ‘off’ a television channel, or ‘not collecting stamps’ is a hobby. The ‘atheist’ label does not describe us at all, BUT it does describe what people think about us.

    Obviously atheists use the term ‘atheist’ without the perjorative baggage, just as ‘niggers’ and ‘faggots’ do, but why should we do that if such a term does not describe who we actually are? I contend that we shouldn’t. The word ‘atheist’ serves no useful function for either those that use the term in the perjorative sense, nor for those that do not. I just chose to shun an unnecessary label because I do not believe in God, or do not collect stamps.

    Perhaps we should just concentrate on what we actually do – critical thnking, reasoned thought, etc, – rather than trying to fill a niche that does not exist.

    As for ‘retarded’? It is a adjective – a word that describes a noun – so one can openly call Sarah Palin a retarded politician, without fear of insulting all politicians. It is a direct attribution to her personally as a subset of all politicians, rather than a statement like ‘all retarded politicians’, which whilst accurate to a certain degree, is not necessarily representative of all politicians. We can be retarded atheists, niggers and faggots, but that too would be too sweeping a generalisation for anyone to take seriously. However, with particular regard to Sarah Palin, it is a perfectly valid statement to make.

  • William Hamby

    Atheist is certainly intended as a pejorative in a lot of cases. The problem with the comparison of “atheist” and “nigger” is that we atheists are intellectually proud of our atheism. We think of being an informed atheist as actually being superior to being a theist. So when someone we consider our inferior calls us atheist, we hear it as an ironic compliment.

    When a slave owner called his slave a nigger, he was a socio-economic superior calling his inferior a name which reinforced his power. There was also the common belief that blacks were intellectually inferior — another species, even. And since precious few blacks were allowed to be educated well enough to know better, the word had incredible power to reinforce the belief — in blacks.

    Having said that, though… I think your broad point is a strong one. Offense is dependent on both the intent and the reception. I don’t take offense at being called atheist. I take offense when it’s obvious that the other person has a completely ignorant belief in what atheism means, what it represents, and what it “necessitates” about me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jared-DeMarzo/529787433 Jared DeMarzo

    I think “heathen” is a good one, as like the other words, it was originally intended as a negative.

  • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com Andy The Nerd

    Sarah Palin isn’t only representing herself, she’s representing her child with Down’s Syndrome. People with DS (also those with autism etc.) are frequently called “retarded” as a ableist slur, and it’s high time that word was put on the shelf along with “nigger” and “faggot”.

    • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

      For everyone in all contexts? Or just for those not in the minority and only in a derogatory context? That is the question here. Also, what word can atheists take offense from?

      • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com Andy The Nerd

        Here, I’ll do your research for you: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2593659/whats_wrong_with_the_word_retard.html?cat=9 http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/16/ableist-word-profile-retarded/ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q Does it help that the last one is from “faggot” Jane Lynch and not that “retard” Sarah Palin?

        • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

          Again, what if you aren’t using the word “Retard” in that fashion or in that context? With respect to that second article I don’t see the issue with using the term to describe an idea, but the writer seems to agree with me on other contexts of the word use. And the video supports exactly what I said. Those words should not be used in that fashion… by anyone! So what research are you doing for me? I don’t think we necessarily disagree here. I made it quite clear that such contexts are unacceptable. I think you missed the point of this blog post.

          • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com Andy The Nerd

            “I still will call Sarah Palin retarded however.” No, it came through loud and clear.

            • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

              If that is all you got out of this blog post than it didn’t “come through loud and clear.” :-(

              • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com Andy The Nerd

                What, that you’re willfully going to perpetuate the systematic use of language to harm an entire class of people? That’s pretty damn significant.

                • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch


  • Anonymous

    So, you don’t use those specific words because they are “offensive insults” towards black people or gay people… but using an offensive insult for people with disabilities is A-OK?

    • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

      I know Sarah Palin acts like she has a disability, but she really doesn’t, lol. Still, I think you are focusing on a minor thing in the blog post rather than the actual topics being discussed.

      • Anonymous

        You said, “I get that it is an offensive insult and I would never call anyone a nigger.” Did you mean to say, “I would never call any black person a nigger”?

        If you meant what you said the first time (anyone, not just black people), then I don’t really understand why you think it is bad to call *anyone* a nigger, but find it acceptable to call anyone “retarded” as long as they don’t actually have a disability.

        I can’t help but focus on this “minor thing” because I really don’t consider the use of ableist slurs “minor.”

        • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

          Well, I don’t know if I would call a non-black person a nigger. I can’t think of a situation where that would make sense, but I don’t want to rule it out either.

          But again, that really isn’t the issue of the blog post. It is a separate debate and I am willing to have that debate another time. But for this blog post, I would like to try to stick to the topic at hand.

  • First-time blog visiter

    I don’t really see your point. African Americans take offense at people outside their minority group using the N word because of its historical significance and association with institutional slavery, servitude, etc. That’s a good reason. Sarah Palin (who is “retarded”) objects to the word “retarded” also for understandable reasons, less good, but understandable: it implies that mentally handicapped individuals are defined by their handicap, whereas obviously there’s so much more to them. Even if “retarded” is accurately descriptive, it does tend to reduce the individuals, so it’s ok, and I try not to use the word retarded.

    But there has to be some sort of rational basis underlying objections to the use of such words. If there is one, then it can be added to the list. I don’t say why “atheist” or “godless” or “heathen” should fall into this category? These are labels atheists more or less are fine with, from my experience. So why make a pointless political gesture and create a new word taboo?

    I do like your last point, though I do have a reservation. What I like is the point that the extent to which we are offended by any term is at least in part dependent on the intention of the user of that word. That’s absolutely true. But offense is BOTH taken and given. You’re implying that individuals have no responsibility to not offend others by saying that. I’m not sure if you mean exactly that, but human beings will “naturally” be offended by certain things. It’s not their felt for being so. You’d have to be completely asocial and hence unhuman to be completely “unoffendable”. For example, when Christians are offended by an artist urinating on a painting of jesus, that is a natural reaction. They should not respond violently, but it is within the bounds of reason to be offended. In that case, offense is both given and taken. As rational and radically individualistic as one is, he/she will always care about the feelings/views of others, and that “care” or “concern” with other humans can be thought of simplistically as having two components: (1) emotional and (2) rational. Individuals are not responsible for the emotional reaction (e.g. being offended by urine on jesus’ painting, the idea that atheists are immoral/immoral, or cartoons depicting muhammad as a violent pedophile). We should expect them to rationally control their emotions, however. But even there it should be emphasized that reason can only “control” emotion to a certain extent, and that if the “giver” of the offense has done such a great job in shaking the “taker” of the offense emotionally, then how to allocate responsibilities for actions becomes hazier. Anyway, I’ll stop now. I do like your point about the offender’s intention being very relevant. Thanks for the piece.

  • The Logician

    I’m surprised you didn’t cite Louis C.K.’s bit about the word “faggot”. In the bit, he rightly points out that there is a non-sexuality-related meaning for “faggot”, that is, a meaning that doesn’t connote homosexuality at all, just that someone is acting annoying or like an asshole, or that something is stupid. The same can be said for “fag” and “gay”. You could also, though to a lesser extent, say something similar about “retard” and “retarded”: there is a meaning for the word that has nothing to do with someone’s/something’s mental ability (especially if it’s something inanimate). I just wanted to point out that “faggot” and “retard” (and related terms) are not in the same group as racial slurs, as the final link in this post suggests.

    I don’t really have a suggestion for the kind of word atheists could use in this vein, however. There really isn’t a precedent like there are with racial slurs, especially “nigger”. Perhaps a new term could be coined? That would seem rather artificial though.

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