In Mental Jailbreak's first ever post, we will examine something light and easy to be sure to get off on a good foot. (Since we don't know each other very well yet, that's dry sarcasm bleeding through in the very first sentence of this website's existence.)
We're going to talk about casual use of words considered by many to be offensive, hurtful, or even hate speech. Specifically, I want to talk about the F word.
Please point your attention to exhibit A, a clip from the 2003 comedy, "Old School":
There it is. "I recommend you stop being such a f*****." I'd be lying if I said the timing and delivery of that scene didn't make me laugh. I believe comedy, when done right, has a special role in society to be able to make fun of almost anything without reproach. If you can't laugh at a well-delivered joke then you're probably taking life too seriously.
So why am I writing about this topic? I believe there is value in understanding how our words affect other people and being conscious of those potential impacts. This is especially true today when there is such a focus on protecting people from potentially offensive speech. I think it's easy to react wildly to one side of an issue or another and condemn individuals as being "hateful" because of the words they use, but I believe communication and the culture that breeds it are both far more nuanced than a simple good/bad type categorization of words. From my own personal life experience, analyzing the casual use of the F word growing up I think serves as a good starting point for a discussion.
This is a phrase that was very common amongst my schoolmates and I growing up and as you can see was still used and considered funny in mainstream entertainment when "Old School" was released in the early 2000's. We only very vaguely understood as children the reference to gay people. The word was used as a way to demean another kid and exert social dominance over him, without respect to his sexuality. Between friends, it had a playful undertone and no real harm was meant. Between non-friends, perhaps in a bullying scenario, there was definitely much more intent to mentally injure the recipient of the word. But I should note that I have no personal recollection of observing the word being used as a slur directly towards a gay student. I'm not saying it didn't happen, as I'm sure it did. I can only express my perspective and recollection from that time.
When I grew up in the 90's, we did not see skin color or sexuality as anything of any important consequence. Kids were kids and we were all friends, even if a little cruel and darwinian at times. Somehow these terms and phrases permeated our consciousness as ways to demean, even though the original hateful intent towards gay people was not passed on to us.
All uses of this term essentially served the same purpose and could be used interchangeably. Make the recipient feel less than, inferior, and shamed. Tear the other person down to build yourself up and attempt to improve your flimsy social status. There was no apparent prejudicial hate in that exchange beyond juvenile and immature social interactions of boys. I would describe it more as, depending on the incident, falling somewhere on a spectrum between light-hearted ragging and insecure bullying, which can be just as damaging as intentional prejudicial hate speech, but I think the difference is worth noting.
It should also be pointed out the futile nature of trying to build yourself up by tearing another down. This is a topic I'd like to explore more fully in a future post, but suffice it to say the concept was lost on me growing up. I suspect the same was and is true for many other people, young and old alike.
As an adult looking back, it’s clear to me now that, while we did not have prejudicial hate in our hearts when using these phrases amongst friends, the origin of these words clearly stems from hate and oppression of women and gay people and we did not respect that fact. The apparent cultural norm of using those phrases made us numb to the true meaning behind them. We just..."went with the flow" of using that language.
It seems so obvious now, but when you don't stop to analyze the world around you, the people and media you interact with have a programming effect on your mind. It's a minor version of mob mentality almost. It's why good kids can get in trouble if they hang around bad influences. If your three best friends all think something is okay, funny, or even awesome, it's extremely difficult as an adolescent to think for yourself in the face of such easy acceptance. Heck, it's hard for most adults! Human beings crave acceptance and love from the people around you. Thinking for yourself, and having a difference of opinion is a more challenging path.
Going with the flow is the path of least resistance. I believe this "going with the flow" causes a great many people of all ages to say, think, and do things for inauthentic reasons. I urge you to resist this feeling! Determining what your authentic self truly wants to say, think or do...and do that! The mental trick of it all is that by "going with the flow" of your closest influences, you think you're gaining their acceptance, but really you're just gaining their approval for being who they want you to be. When you have the courage to truly think for yourself, be original, and be authentic, people will love you more than you could have ever imagined. It may not be the same people...but it will be the right people.
For most of my life I dismissed people as being too sensitive if they got offended by hearing these words. In my mind, the lack of hateful intent, and often a joking undertone (as seen in the movie clip above) made it okay to say those words. But as someone who never felt the feelings first hand of being demeaned by another simply because of your skin color, sexuality, or gender, it's impossible for me to understand their perspective fully. The best I can do is listen.
What I realize now is the extent to which other people have lived different lives than my own straight, white self, and those different life experiences give them a markedly different perspective on things like this. Hearing the word "f*****" can be incredibly painful for a gay person who suffered oppressive actions or judgements in his or her life, and it's good to be mindful of and sensitive to that possibility. I start to understand the term "white privilege" as a general concept when looking at a topic like this through the lens of people different from myself. It's part of what inspired me to create Mental Jailbreak to continue to challenge myself to grow and understand the world and inspire others to do the same.
So what has been your experience with this word? I'd like to hear from you.
Andy is a curious soul with INFJ-T personality who likes to examine life closely and lives for those moments of deep revelation and spiritual connection.