The last month or so the “T” word has been on the internet quite a bit lately. A minor storm erupted over drag performer RuPaul’s use of it as part of their show. Dan Savage created an uproar of his own when a 17-year-old challenged his open use of it during a discussion regarding the reclamation of slurs. I am far less disturbed by his use of it than I am his, and his co-panelists, reactions both toward a minor and then toward the public at large for calling them out for those reactions. Slurs, the reclamation thereof, and figuring out where, when, and for whom it is OK to use them is difficult, especially when examining the history behind them. I think I have figured out a way of thinking about it that works. Try this on for size:
Tickling. That is right: Tickling. At some point or another, many, maybe even most, of us have been tickled or felt the urge to tickle someone. The thing is, reactions to tickling are many and varied. Some people get a good laugh. Some even feel a sort of release in it. Some people are ambivalent, and others are actually frightened or hurt by it. Knowing this, if we are tickling someone and they ask us to stop and express hurt or anger over it, we generally accept that it is proper to apologize and promise not to do it again. Likewise we do not generally dive into groups of people tickling everyone we can reach, especially with strangers, because we do not know what everyone’s boundaries are.
That is kind of what is happening when people use a slur. Some folks are not phased by it. I know for my part I do not find the “T” word bothersome. I do not use it in public forums though, because there are people out there that are hurt by it. Likewise if I use it, or any slur, and someone tells me they are hurt by it, I apologize, and promise to do my best not to do so again. It really is not that hard.
This is not about censorship. No one serious is saying we should make the “T” word illegal, just as those discussing racial justice have never suggested making the “N” word illegal. I will fight to the death for people’s legal rights to use those words if they so choose. I will, however, also fight to the death to instill in those same people the knowledge that with that right comes the responsibility to be mindful of the boundaries of others. We all have our limits, our triggers, and our histories. It is not too much to ask that folks think twice before wading into a crowd and tickling away.