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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Are We Each Our Own Dictionary?


In the past few weeks, I've had heated debates about words that many deem offensive ranging from the N Word to female (versus woman). One argument that continues to rear it's illogical head is, "Words only have the power that you give them." For example, in Decoded, when speaking about "nigger", Jay-Z says,
To me, it's just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention.


The problem is, that's not how language and words work. Despite E-40's relentless efforts, words don't have the meanings and/or power that we personally assign them. Words come with way more baggage than Badu could have ever predicted. The "I give words power" argument gives people license to use words to mean whatever they would like, in whatever fashion they'd like with no consideration to their actual meaning, alleged power, and propensity to offend and harm others. Furthermore, it renders dictionaries, history, societal trends, socialization, denotations, connotations, and other contributing factors invalid.

A variant of this argument that also comes from "This Sounds Good But Doesn't Make Any Sense Land", is "Words can only offend you if you allow them to."

Last I checked, the majority of folks don't enjoy or seek out opportunities to be offended; it just happens.You can tell someone that you mean "nigga" as a term of endearment akin to brother, but it won't matter to my grandparents, because their history of the word is as a term of castigation. So this adult version of "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is nonsense. Everyone's received a text message, an email, or piece of mail from Sallie Mae that has personally hurt their feelings. You probably weren't choosing to be offended, it just happened because of the nature of the words and/or the message.

Sometimes, I WISH that these arguments were true. I wish I could decide that, and I'm quoting a friend, "fornication really means eating mayonnaise sandwiches on Tuesdays at 11:35 AM." The words only have power argument has potential to be the greatest loophole of all time!

So why do people default to this "Words... Power... Blah Blah" Argument?
1. We're creatures of habit. And if you've grown up saying something your whole life, who feels like changing?

2. No one likes being told that what they say (or do) could possibly be offensive; it comes off as a personal attack. They'd rather default to, "How dare you be offended! Stop feeling offended!"

3. You meant the term in an offensive way and now you're backpedaling.

4. You heard someone else use the Words/Power line, so you think it's legit. But nah. Saying something over and over (Like "Here Here! The Rapture is May 21st!") doesn't make it true.

Rule of Thumb
My friend Katie, who of course is a doctoral student in psychology said it best,
If someone tells you the use of a word offends them, why argue with them? Either continue to use it and offend them or consider the variety and diversity of people's experiences and listen, learn and adjust.
If your words are offensive to others, unless they're a paranoid anti-ism-ist on every topic, it's probably a legitimate concern. Ask questions and try to act accordingly. I explained to a few friends why I preferred slim to skinny and my pal, David, said, "That's a great point. I get that." That's all it takes. Talking. Not this bee ess argument surrounding words and adjusting power levels and what not.

Thoughts? Submit them via Facebook or IntenseDebate below. The carpet is yours.