I don’t get a vote in the US presidential elections. I’m not a US citizen. Just an interested observer, sitting back with a box of popcorn and wondering how this latest wrinkle in world history will play out.
The daily dramas emanating from the US, the dramas that seem to consume the world’s consciousness, constantly remind me of the power of words.
“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.” – Sigmund Freud
You probably can’t remember back to June 2015 – a lot has happened since then. One of the controversies of that year was when then-President Obama made some unusually direct statements on race relations, in the wake of a shooting in Charleston:
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
In the aftermath of that statement, the focus seemed to be on whether it was appropriate for the President to have used the ‘n-word’ – as it’s politely referred to – not so much on the complexity of race-relations in the US.
Obama’s successor in the White House seems to not only have completely reinvented the concept of what’s appropriate Presidential language, but also to have little regard for the context or consequences of what he’s saying:
“I think there’s blame on both sides…You have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” – President Trump, responding to questions about protests in Charlottesville, August 2017
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired?'” – President Trump, speaking at a rally in Alabama, September 2017
“I think it will all work out very well, and also for you with your wall, your border. I mean, we have a border situation in the United States, and you have one over here. But I hear it’s going to work out very well here.” – President Trump, in an official news conference, comparing the prospect of a post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the border between the US and Mexico, June 2019
“For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!” – President Trump, taking to Twitter to criticise NASA and suggest that the Moon is part of Mars.
Comparing Obama versus Trump is a fascinating contrast in the use of language, and also provides us with useful examples of how volatile some words can become - particularly words that have been used as terms of hate, oppression, or victimisation.
Words have power. ‘Nigger’ can be used for shock value. ‘Fine people’ can be used to legitimise white supremacy. ‘Son of a bitch’ could be racial profiling or possibly just another example of locker-room talk.
Sometimes, words of hate, oppression, or victimisation can be appropriated by the very people that they’ve been used against. You can hear ‘nigger’ being used in music and street culture, but its use by anyone outside the communities who identify as African-American is highly problematic.
Another example of this kind of appropriation is the word ‘tranny’. A derivation of the word transvestite, ‘tranny’ used to be a fairly powerful insult routinely thrown at anyone not conforming with traditional gender roles. It’s a word that the trans community generally finds quite offensive. RuPaul was one of the first to appropriate and celebrate the term, and I’ve seen gender-queer performers in London embrace it and use it as a word of power.
Like most gay guys, when I was growing up it seemed that somehow everyone instinctively knew that I was gay before I did. Or maybe I was just hyper-sensitive to any suggestion that I might be gay – it was the kind of weakness that kids seem to be able to pick up on and relentlessly exploit. It’s bullying. It’s what kids do to each other in some kind of Lord Of The Flies trial-by-fire. I hated being called gay. I hated being called queer, or poof, or pansy, or any of those other words that were used by others to define my difference.
It was songwriter Diane Warren - speaking through the medium of Cher - who said:
“Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes.”
I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the word ‘nigger’ because I’m not black – it’s not my word, it’s a word that has been used to oppress and discriminate and still carries a lot of emotional weight with it. Likewise, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the word ‘tranny’ because I’m not trans or gender-queer - it’s not my word, it’s a word that has been used to insult and humiliate people and still carries a lot of emotional weight with it. But both of these words are great examples of how language can help break the cycle of victimisation. If the worst thing you can say about me is what I am proud to call myself, then you’re going to have to find a new way to hurt me, a new way to try to bring me down.
I’m gay. I used to be afraid of that word. I used to deny that word. Hearing that word, being labelled with that word made me confused and uncertain, it made me feel vulnerable. Not any more – I’m gay and I own that word, it’s a word that I now take pride in, it’s a word that truly defines me, and it’s a word that gives me power and strength.
Whether we’re using words for shock-value, to build someone up, or to tear someone down. Don’t forget that words have a magical power.