Words have Power.
Few folks will challenge you for saying that. It's a truism. But we still let our children hide behind the screed that "...words will never hurt me." We can't have it both ways.
Part of me is very close to running off in another direction and beginning to scream at you in all caps about the hypocrisy with which we raise our children, but I shall resist for the moment. No, I want to talk, literally about the power that is contained in words. Specifically words that have amassed power because of their history.
Words like Queer. Like Gay. Like Faggot. Not just reclaimed or rehabilitated words. But irredeemable words like racial slurs. And words that have power because they are taboo. Like Fuck. Like Ass. Like Fetish.
First, I'm not going to spend time explaining the power of language to you. I'm not about hand-holding today. If you are questioning the validity of my assertion you can stop reading right now. None of the rest of this is gonna make you happy. Because I want to get right to the heart of the matter.
Just because a word has Power, doesn't mean that power is ours for the taking.
I LOVE the word faggot. I mean I am infatuated with it. I like using it self-referentially. In the right context I like it when other people call me a faggot too. I revel in the power of it. Because I've made that power my own.
The first time I was called a Fag was probably sometime in 4th or 5th grade. It's hard to remember. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was bad. Isn't that always the way the first time we are victimized? Isn't it true that we never really know what we're being abused for? All we know is that there's something fundamentally wrong with us. The word of power becomes a symbol of all that we must not be. And often before we have the language to talk about how we feel, we start trying to hide away anything associated with that word. We consign to the labyrinth the parts of ourselves that come when that word is called.
And now, as an adult, I know that there is nothing wrong with being a Fag. And because I know that, claiming my place as a Fag brings all those parts of me that went scurrying into the dark back to the light. It doesn't really redeem the word. The word doesn't need redemption. It redeems the parts of myself that people taught me were evil.
When I use the word Faggot I feel powerful. I feel the power I surrendered surge back into me. It gives me permission to embrace those things. And over time that power begins to fade. Not because the word has lost meaning, but because I've reclaimed and reintegrated the power I had given it.
But there are words whose power isn't mine to claim
Like racial slurs. I can't currently think of a context where a white person should even type variants of a particular slur for black folk. I definitely can't think of a context where they should speak it. Why? Because in the mouth of a white person that word can only be a weapon. I literally cannot do good with that power. And I have the capacity to do a lot of harm with it.
That's a fairly commonly accepted truth. But there are plenty of less obvious examples. Here are two words of power that I don't think are mine and why.
As in the diminutive or pejorative form of the word clitoris. Words that describe our anatomy are powerful. They are particularly powerful in their diminutive forms because the foreshortening or abbreviation of the word removes the clinicality of it and opens connotations of a sexual nature. But I was assigned male at birth. I don't have a clit. I'm not trans-femme. I don't ever jive with referring to my cock as a clit.
You might ask why I feel the need to point this out, since I don't have any desire to use the power in this word. Well, it just so happens that there are a LOT of cisgender men; gay, bi, and straight; who absolutely love to refer to their dick as a 'tiny clit,' or other variation. (Note, there are as many or more folks who refer to their ass-holes as their cunt, but I just can't go there at the moment.)
Now normally I'm not one to take umbrage with what folks choose to do in their play. But there is this weird liminal space, particularly on the internet, where folks' exposure play intersects with sexism and misogyny. Your husband telling you that your tiny clit is useless and you're going to fuck a 'real man' instead is one thing in your bedroom. It's another thing on twitter. Where hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people are going to be exposed to your recitation of a violent sexist trope. A recitation I might add, that you are doing in earnest because the power of the word is causing you to get off.
This is a misuse of that power. You don't have the right to it. And using it in public perpetuates a landslide of sexism, misogyny, transmisogyny, and transphobia.
You may be able to see where I'm going here. People like me, who are in to the Dominance and Submission aspects of BDSM are absolutely obsessed with the word. I don't blame them. The power is dripping off of it. Being called a slave absolutely sends shivers down my back.
But the thing is, slavery is a real and damaging thing. It is an evil that has existed throughout history and continues in both acknowledged and unacknowledged ways to this very day. While the idea of slavery is powerful and, for some, ennobling; it is also a very real and very harmful fact of life for real people. The power of that word should be used to evoke the horrors of human enslavement. Taking it for myself and my sexual gratification feels incredibly vulgar to me.
You're such a buzz-kill. Can't you let anyone have any fun?
Maybe I am a buzz-kill. But the truth is, I don't really care. And I don't really care if YOU misuse these words (or any of the many others on my personal lexicon of power-words-that-aren't-mine). It's for you to decide where the line is. But it might not hurt to spend some time thinking about the words of power you invoke. Where that power is coming from. And where it's going to when you invoke it.