the chilling effect

for class tonight we had to read Michael Cunningham’s “Mister Brother” (which, incidentally, you too can read if you follow that link).

at one point in the story Mister Brother says, “Out, faggot.”

in discussing the story we talked about that line, because as it turns out Mister Brother’s brother is gay.

i said the line outloud to the class, because i was wondering if, perhaps, Mister Brother knew his brother was gay, or if it was just the lame taunt of an older brother.

we discussed the story for awhile, and then had a break. when the class reconvened we had to have a little talk about offensive language. it turns out one of the women in the class was offended by our use of the word faggot in our discussion.

i was stunned. and i was appalled. maybe i’m insensitive. but instead of saying “faggot” like the author did she would prefer that was say something like homosexual slur.

my mind is blown. this is a writing class. and it’s the sort of class that you take because you want to write. there’s no college credit, no grades, just something you do for the love of words.

and here, now, there are words i can’t say. it just seems so very, very wrong. i’m disappointed and i’m a little upset about it all. i started taking these classes because i want to use all the words. and now i can’t. now, i have to worry about stepping on toes and being offensive and making sure everyone’s comfortable. and since when is art supposed to be comfortable?

it’s just so fucking wrong that i can’t use the word “faggot.” it bothers me that now i have to watch what i say.

i should have spoken up. but i was so blown away by this i didn’t even know what to say. it’s just amazing that in a writing class we’re saying some words are off limits.

isn’t that completely insane? doesn’t that defeat the whole point?

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15 Comments

  1. jodi 25.Sep.03 at 10:40 pm

    p.s. if you go and take a look at the color photo on this page you can see beautiful robert, he’s on the far left in the back. mmm.

    Reply
  2. NBFB 26.Sep.03 at 7:00 am

    Notice how he lives in St. Paul? See, smart people do live there.

    And about that “homosexual slur”…
    Sorry Jodi, but you’re wrong. No one said they were “offended”. No one said you can’t use all the words.

    We were simply asked to be conscious of our choice of words while discussing works that may use what many consider to be offensive language.

    Words like that are very hateful and can breed lots of hostility. We just need to be aware of that and not repeat those phrases when it’s not necessary.

    When referring to that particular part of the story, was it absolutely necessary for you to quote the character so precisely? If you would have used different words, would the class have known what you were talking about? I believe they would have.

    All she wanted us to be aware of, quoting someone else isn’t justification for repeating hateful words. If you can get your point accross (during the discussion, we’re not talking about any writing, say anything you want in a story) with different words, then please do so. That’s all.

    I believe her concern is valid and I plan to respect that. I think you should to.

    Reply
  3. jodi 26.Sep.03 at 8:27 am

    see, i saw the whole episode differently.

    it never even occured to me not to quote the story. maybe i’m more insensitive than i thought.

    i think on this one, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Reply
  4. Natalie 26.Sep.03 at 9:35 am

    I’m with Jodi on this one.

    Should Jodi have said, instead of “Out, faggot”, “Out, homosexual slur”? I mean *really*. That’s ridiculous and the phrase loses its power when you remove the word. Having just read the story–which I didn’t care much for, but that’s neither here nor there–it appears to me that the author used it very purposefully for a reason. You do a disservice to the story by drawing a line between what words are acceptable on the page and which ones are acceptable to be used when talking about the story, in particular when talking about the author’s use of language to convey X, Y, or Z.

    Did this woman also object to people using the word moron w/r/t the beginning of the story? Because, you know, that’s offensive to people who are retarded (which is another loaded word). And I suppose her copy of Huck Finn has all the now-seen-as-racial-epithets-but-acceptable-at-the-time words crossed out and replaced with currently acceptable phrases.

    And yes, by telling her that she needs to refrain from *quoting a story accurately* in order to not offend a class member, she is being told she can’t use all the words. Because the implication is there that she’d better not write a story with anything offensive in it, either. Even if lip service is paid to her right to use whatever words she wants, the underlying message is that she’d better not offend. Because, really, is this woman going to be able to get past being offended and see what’s really being said? Somehow, I doubt it.

    This sort of shit is why I gave up on writing workshops and serious writing.

    Reply
  5. Thomas 26.Sep.03 at 9:35 am

    Inflammatory words, especially when written in the modern age, are picked precisely for their impact. Telling someone to “go away” has a lot let impact than telling someone to “go outside and play hide and go fuck yourself”; The former, a general dismissal; The latter laden with spite and venom.

    I believe that your discussion was appropriate; Was the comment “faggot” of a chiding sort as brothers are apt to do (Certainly people are rethinking the use of “retard” as a pejorative term, yet you’d be hard pressed to find siblings who are so “correct” that it is not used for the impact it can, and inevitably, carries) or was it a remark of prejudice; Even though he was his brother, did his revulsion at his sibling’s lifestyle elicit his use of the word?

    To deny the author his voice, his words, is paramount to censure of his very ideas; Why read the book in the first place when it’s littered with the “bad words”. I hear China is having a field day with Hillary Clinton’s book along the same vein. (I pointedly bring up this example due to the strong liberal icon Hillary is and how it must offend the very core of the liberals to have their Matron Saint’s words altered, yet most commit and extol these practices themselves. Thus I drive home the underlying hypocritical dichotomy of said behavior; Censoring is a sharp blade that cuts both ways and kills honest thought.)

    In the end, it’s my view that if I say “a spade is a spade”, then let it forever be retold in that exact fashion whether or not it was meant as the hateful term “nigger” or a excavation tool. Judge me as you will, but let me stay verbatim.

    Reply
  6. Thomas 26.Sep.03 at 9:41 am

    I see I just (repeatedly) echoed Natalie’s sentiments. I feel quite foolish.

    Thank you Natalie for allowing me to be a “Yes Man”.

    Reply
  7. Bonny 26.Sep.03 at 10:05 am

    “Faggot” is kind of a fun word to say.

    Reply
  8. ketut 26.Sep.03 at 11:25 am

    another yes man here.

    I am having a hard time in my class with kids using swear words. I am not opposed to swearing if it is the correct word to use in each situation, unfortunately swearing has become gratuitous and makes the words lose power. How do I convey that it’s lazy to fucking use the fucking “f” word every fucking time you fucking open your fucking mouth? especially with the little shits. *JK*

    Reply
  9. Dana 26.Sep.03 at 11:30 am

    Speaking AS a liberal I find it grating that in a class on the use of the language that some language needs to be treated as radioactive.

    Our side of the fence invented Political Corectness as a reaction to our barbaric treatment of people for the last few centuries. It was warranted, but it’s been an overcorrection.

    In particular for a WRITER to even notice the usage presages to me a fascism of thought which will destroy whole segments of ideas.

    There ARE no bad words. Only bad thoughts. Oh, and clearly bad people. I would NOT tolerate this woman OR her bad thoughts.

    Reply
  10. girl 26.Sep.03 at 11:39 am

    I’m going to have to disagree with NBFB, too. while I wasn’t there, it seems to me that Jodi was merely quoting a line from a book. she was in no way using the word in a derogatory fashion as if to insult someone in the class. people really need to drop the PC bullshit and not be so sensitive about everything. I find the word “faggot” and “fag” very offensive. in fact, I reported a coworker of mine for using terms such as this to refer to other coworkers and customers. but he wasn’t quoting a line of text. he was being rude, ignorant, and insulting. it sounds like the character in the book you were reading was being insulting as well, but does that make Jodi rude for quoting it? no.

    blah. I could go on and on here, but I won’t. I think I’ve made my point.

    Reply
  11. girl 26.Sep.03 at 11:43 am

    actually, one more thing. this reminds me very much of the “n-word” being used by Huck Finn and teachers trying to ban the book rather than discussing it with their students. I think someone was recently discussing that on their blog, but for the life of me I can’t remember who it was.

    Reply
  12. Tam 26.Sep.03 at 2:58 pm

    Reminds me of when I attempted to go back to school and get a BA in English. I was one of 6 white kids in a class of 25 and we were reading Flannery O’Connor. The only shining spot of that class was the conversation we held the entire first week of classes talking about written words, social conventions of the time, and hindsight being 20/20. We didn’t stoop to being PC even though the “N-word” was thrown around way too often.

    Its a shame your class couldn’t have been full of adults.

    Reply
  13. UH 26.Sep.03 at 5:13 pm

    Faggots are so touchy.

    Reply
  14. magicvixen 26.Sep.03 at 6:36 pm

    jodi, use all the words…and quote all the words…just dont fling malicious words at others out of hate, intolerance and ignorance. apparently, that lady just didn’t know the difference.

    Reply
  15. Joots 29.Sep.03 at 9:57 am

    You absolutely must use the same words as the author. Otherwise, you’re discussing another work. If the teacher is sensitive to hate there should be a way around this issue. We don’t like all the words and how they’re used, but they’re not our truths, they’re the characters. The real question should have been whether or not to include the story in the curriculum. It’s an important and necessary discussion for writers to have, and for your instructor to facilitate. I would imagine the real truth is that this woman (and it’s not like I don’t understand her concern) probably wishes she could own this word as others, so she can protect them from harm. Unfortunately, again, the words are there for the using, and we simply can’t, can’t, can’t risk losing them. The irony in this situation is that the most appropriate thing to do would be to say “faggot”, because then it’s clear it’s not your choice of words but the author’s.

    Reply

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