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Reclaiming offensive words

The idea of reclaiming a word is a fairly simple one. The word in question must number among the ugly, hate-filled words that are often used to demean and debase. A good example would be the ‘n’ word, nigger. Another example is paki. More recently, the word slut has become the focus of attention, with a number of marches planned under the ‘slut walk’ banner in an attempt to reclaim a word that is pervasively used to demean women. The process usually involves the targets of the abuse, inverting that abuse by using the word about themselves and assuming exclusive rights over it.

For the reclaiming process to be effective, the words must be neutralised; somehow drained of all their potency and power so that the sting, when delivered by others, no longer hurts. Some people believe that this will come from repeated use, that works to desensitise the word for both abused and abuser.

Not everyone thinks it’s possible to reclaim words that have a long history of negative association and that attempts to disassociate the word from its base meaning, though laudable, are doomed to failure. Better to challenge the abuse, to stand up to the ugliness and rebel against labels that victimise and stereotype.

Despite many years of trying to reclaim the n-word, it is still widely used. The most recent example of this is James Brown, who bizarrely used the word no less than 8 times, even after it was pointed out to him that it was ‘highly offensive’.

However, what appears to be true for those who have tried ‘reclaimation’, is that the process itself gives them a real sense of being in control. The very act of adopting a positive stance against words that would ordinarily be used to vilify is empowering for them. So, to that extent, it could be seen to work.

There are still those who think it unfair, for example, to allow black people to have unfettered use of the n-word when it’s denied to others. ‘If they can say it,’ goes the cry, ‘why can’t we?’

Well, you can, but why would you want to use it? Why would you risk causing such grave offence? You’re not black. You’re not trying to empower yourself by invoking a term that has for centuries been used as a racial slur.
The attempt to reclaim a word, to re-appropriating it, is born out of a sense of pride. A wish for inclusion in a group with whom you can identify, who have shared interests and life experiences. Outside of that group, no matter how well-meaning (and I say this only to be kind because I can’t easily imagine a scenario where use of the n-word, slut, or paki, could ever be ‘well-meant’) the word will always retain its ugliness along with the hurt associated with it.

A far better approach would be to avoid using the words in the first place. These days it’s becoming increasingly hard to believe that anyone could honestly claim ignorance that calling someone a paki, or a slut, or the n-word, will cause offence. Don’t do it. Don’t use it. Don’t go there.

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  • Catherine

    I totally agree. Word have a long personal history to their use, taunts at school cut deep so until it is a ‘neutral’ word in the school playground it will remain offensive.