Bigots use obnoxious language to parade their obnoxious views. They spit out vile words that demean women, black people, people with disabilities, lesbians, gays—or anyone else they want to target.
Most people recognise and oppose this kind of blatantly racist or sexist use of language. But the same words can be used in different contexts that are less straightforward to judge.
Some people argue that we can “reclaim” oppressive words and change their meaning by using them in our own way. Others argue that words that would be sexist in many contexts take on a different meaning when used against, say, Tory ministers.
Some say words are “just words”, and have relatively little effect. Others take the opposite view, and see struggles over language as an important if not vital way of winning serious change in society.
Socialists start from the fact that the language we use is produced by the world we live in. That means language is marked by the political and economic inequalities that scar our society.
Language alone does not oppress people—it is capitalist society that does that. But language can’t be divorced from society and used however we like. Meanings can’t be dictated by individual intentions.
For instance, many young people use the word “gay” to mean “poor quality” or “cheesy”. They might protest that they didn’t mean anything homophobic by it. But the word “gay” also means homosexual. So using it to mean “poor quality” has a homophobic effect even if that wasn’t consciously intended.
Words can and do legitimise and bolster discrimination. If we are serious about equality, we have to challenge the language that demeans or belittles oppressed groups.
Meanings of words shift over time as society changes. We can see this in the way that mass struggle has shaped language.
Black American activists in the 1960s fought for the use of the term “black” instead of “coloured”. Women fought to be called women rather than “girls”. The Gay Liberation Front used the slogan “Gay Pride” to demand respect for gay people.
These were huge advances. It is far better to live in a world where bigots are challenged than one where racist and sexist words are commonplace.
Political struggles have led to changes in language, changes that in turn consolidate the gains of those struggles. Socialists understand and respect that.
But this doesn’t mean that changing language necessarily flows into changing society. That is the problem with the idea that we can challenge oppression by “reclaiming” oppressive language.
Adopting oppressive words can seem like a way of turning the tables on the bigots. It can feel as if we’re disarming them—that by taking away their words, we are taking away their weapons.
One example is the debate around the word “queer”. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists have adopted this term as their own, and tried to give it a liberatory meaning. But this hasn’t and won’t stop “queer” being used as a hate word against LGBT people.
Another example is last year’s “Slutwalk” protests against sexism. Women organised these demonstrations after a police officer in Canada suggested that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” to protect themselves from rape.
“Slut” is a derogatory term used to insult women based on their supposed sexual behaviour.
It promotes the false idea of women as naturally pure and chaste in order to denounce those who don’t conform to this stereotype.
The protests highlighted women’s oppression and attracted people who wanted to fight it. But adopting the word “slut” didn’t change its meaning in wider society. It created divisions in the ranks of those who wanted to fight sexism.
The bigots can draw confidence from this. They see women using the word “slut” as a licence for them to use it too. So “reclaiming” oppressive words doesn’t ultimately strengthen the fight against oppression—it makes it harder.
Movements for women’s liberation and LGBT liberation are on the rise and gaining in confidence.
But during periods of demoralisation and defeat people turn to fighting on the narrow terrain of language. They can lose confidence in the possibility of transforming the world more fundamentally.
Transforming the world is the key to transforming ideas.
In strikes, revolts or revolutions, the racist, sexist or homophobic ideas cultivated over a lifetime can disintegrate within days.
As the revolutionary Karl Marx put it, through struggle people cast off “the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.