A Simple Analogy, But I Think It Works

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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.

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19 thoughts on “A Simple Analogy, But I Think It Works

    • Thank you very much. I hope folks can look at the broader issue this way. I can get riled up, and I AM deeply disappointed with anyone who casually uses slurs, but one can point that out in a way that hopefully educates.

  1. For me, context and speaker are of the utmost important. I won’t be using the N word, the T word, or any other racial slur, no matter how reclaimed. I’m a heterosexual white woman with no claim whatsoever to these terms.

    I’ll try to get through the rest of this reply without actually swearing, because I get the sense that you try not to, and my tongue is a blue one.

    Chaucer’s favorite C word, on the other hand, is one of my favorites as well. I won’t even pretend it isn’t a sexist sexual insult. But it’s one of those words I can hurl around like the F bomb (another personal favorite). Plus, thanks to sexism, it’s a lot harder to issue a rather thorough sexually laced putdown without that term. But if I hear a guy use it in a manner I find inappropriate or demeaning, I’m offended. Somebody told me, and I think it makes a lot of sense, that a member of the affected community is the one best placed to decide how to use a term. When a community has been marginalized, it’s even more important to respect attempts to reclaim without legitimizing slurs.

  2. “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 whole paragraph, thank you. I’m with you 100%

    Personally, on a more angry level, I also feel as though we give words too much power. I know as an aspiring writer, that is a terrible thing to say but it’s a feeling there nonetheless. They often get used for shock value. Saying F***! is still SHOCKING to some people. In the same tone, say DARNIT! and it’s amusing if even acknowledged.

    Maybe I’m just talking out of my a-word.

    • Thank you, April, for adding to the dialogue.

      I understand where you are coming from, but if we did not give words power they would also not have the power to shape the world for the better.

  3. So true, we should never say or do anything that knowingly hurts other people…end of story. And if we make a mistake (which we will surely do), we apologize. These are the basics of being a human. Too bad some humans just don’t get it.

    • “which we will surely do” Well stated mamarific. It is something I think we all understand, which makes it so much more frustrating when celebrities like Savage compare being called out to being called “Hitler.” No one is saying that, we are asking them to think a little, and be compassionate.

  4. I have PTSD over tickling. lol My older sibs and their dates used to tickle me mercilessly (I’m much younger than they are) and I used to have dreams that I’d reach the top of the stairs in my childhood home, only to have a guy in a tuxedo jump out of nowhere and tickle me to death. How nuts is that? I told them to stop. But did they listen? Therapy. 😉

  5. Great analogy! It really captures the essence of how powerful words really are. Regardless of your intent, joking or not, words have the ability to hurt far more than physical acts. You did a great job at equalizing something that so many people fail to understand! Great job.

  6. I love your analogy. Don’t tickle strangers. Don’t tickle people until you know if they’ll be hurt or offended. And don’t be mad at them if they don’t want to be tickled, just learn to keep your hands to yourself!

    • Thank you. As I said elsewhere, I hope this is the kind of thing that gets through to folks that otherwise get upset when called out. It isn’t an accusation, just an explanation.

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