Against verbal substitution

When I was in middle and high school, my friends and I used the word “gay” a lot. (Actually, I tended to use cleaner language than most of my peers and I don’t recall saying it myself. But it’s a near-certainty that I did on occasion.) Playing Garou, Mark of the Wolves: “that combo is so gay.” Complaining about homework: “This assignment is gay.” The considered opinion about a friend having to stay in on a school night: “That’s gay.”

I’m glad that we grew out of this phase. It’s just so boring. Of course it is, because it’s adolescent, and adolescent sensibilities are unsophisticated. But there was something irreplaceable about our use of that word. It’s not an overstatement to say that the character of my childhood would have been different without it.

What I could never quite explain to those who objected to this was that “gay” meant something unique. You cannot eliminate that word without forbidding someone from expressing a certain sentiment.

People have suggested saying “lame” or “stupid” instead, but those do not mean the same thing. My facility with language isn’t sufficient to explain the nuances here, but I believe the difference between “gay” and “lame” is that the latter is usually out of touch, while the former is closer to “unfair”. Dad jokes are lame, but not gay. (Example dad joke found by quick googling: “On all of my medical forms growing up my dad wrote ‘red’ for my blood type. To this day, no one knows my actual blood type.”) A 10:00 PM park curfew is gay, but not lame. There are cases where either could apply, but like almost any pair of words, they do not have full overlap. The important point is that replacing a word necessarily means forbidding the meaning that someone originally intended to express.

If this isn’t convincing, consider that people also object to “lame” on similar grounds. If we replace “gay” by “lame,” and “lame” by “stupid,” and “stupid” by “silly” — all transcriptions that people have written impassioned articles to advocate for — then can you still really believe that we’re saying the same thing in the end?

It’s a perfectly respectable position that the costs of people using “gay” in a derogatory sense outweigh the benefit of being able to express that particular adolescent dismissal. But we ought to be clear on what we’re doing, and that is not just language policing. It’s meaning policing, because language is how we convey meaning. And the the cost-benefit case for disallowing people to express certain meanings should require a very high burden of proof.

(That said, I wholly endorse “tabooing” words so that people have to clarify their meaning during a discussion. One of my book groups has tabooed “interesting” because that word was allowing us to be too non-specific about what engages us. I’ve found the same trick helpful for discussions about religion and morality, among other things. This should not be confused with a claim that no one should ever say “interesting,” or “God,” or “right.”)

I’ll give one example where this kind of language seems particularly indispensable. When discussing physics education research with Starburst, he proposed that social factors are too neglected by some pedagogy theory. His example pertains to the “clicker” fad from around the time we started college. These are devices that allow you to register multiple choice answers during a lecture. The professor might put up a slide, for example, that says “The acceleration of a freely falling body: (a) increases with mass, (b) decreases with mass, (c) is independent of mass.” You click a button on a remote for (a), (b), or (c), and the distribution of student responses updates on the projector in real time. This is supposed to keep students actively engaged and tick some other ticky boxes that teaching research has found ought to be ticked. But in both our experiences, it doesn’t work because clicking those buttons…well, it’s just so lame. You can dress that up in more mature language, but doing so will obscure the experience of the 17- and 18-year-old students in those classes, which could have significant consequences.

[Starburst does not necessarily endorse any of this post, including my interpretation of this conversation from probably three years ago.]

So do we say “gay” in a derogatory manner or not? Personally, I haven’t had the slightest temptation to do so for many years. It’s not very useful to me because I don’t want to express what it means, and that’s because I don’t have the unserious, cynical disposition of a teenage boy. But if someone does feel compelled to say it, my recommendation is that we help them understand all of its meanings first. They should know that it can be hurtful. They should know that it is rarely beneficial to express what it means. They should know how to use more specific words when they have something more specific to say. They should know these things just like they should know them about “fuck.” Then if they decide that it’s what they mean to say and they feel the need to say it, we should hear them out in the language where they can most naturally express their perspective.

2 thoughts on “Against verbal substitution

  1. a rose by any other says:

    I get what you’re saying, but here’s a point in favor of enforcing/encouraging verbal substitution.
    Language is dynamic, and in many cases culture (especially adolescent culture) is very good at coming up with new words to say almost the same thing. I don’t know what the kids these days say, but I think words like “cool” that stick around a long time are the exception more than the rule.
    Language probably tends to evolve partly to fill in frequently considered gaps in semantic space. So if we can successfully remove a word from acceptable usage, my guess is a new word will replace it or even more efficiently tile semantic space. Then the consequences of verbal substitution are only transient effects.
    Assuming I’m right about that, I guess the question becomes one of time scales: how long will it take before suppressing a word has negligible effects on expressiveness? In which case I suppose you may say, too long to ameliorate the effects on individuals.

    • JR says:

      This is a good point, and I think it’s even possible that the transient effects on individuals who are denied that language is not meaningfully negative! My opinion about this comes largely from discomfort with how much we control children. I don’t want to put myself in the position of maybe making it impossible for them to adequately express their thoughts, even temporarily. But as I hope I conveyed, I’m all for talking to people about the thoughts that they do express, not to mention encouraging them to focus on aspects of life for which “gayness” and “lameness” are not such essential concepts. Part of why I never try to express those feelings is that I have arranged my life to avoid the things that generate those feelings, and high schoolers could probably use some help in doing the same even though they have less control than adults.

      In principle, I think these kinds of questions should or could be dealt with case by case. But I basically don’t trust myself, let alone people who are a lot more inclined toward censorship than me, to figure out when restricting someone’s toolbox of expression is “worth it.” The fact that language usually gets filled in doesn’t provide a clear enough path to restoring that expressivity for me to get on board.

      tl;dr: consequentialism is hard and I am bad at it

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