The Age of Offensive Language

Everybody in my school in the South Bronx used the word "nigger." It was as common for any of us to use that word as it was to utter "damn." When I got to Yale, however, I knew I had to accommodate my speech to the sensibilities of the liberal elite and the reactionary cultural houses on campus.

Nonetheless, my guard slipped a few times, and the reaction of my peers taught me that Americans are changing the English language at a pace that is guaranteed to cause friction between different segments of society, particularly between people from an oral tradition and those of a more literary background. Something happens to your brain when you spend countless hours reading, it's as if your brain translates what you hear, giving you a little bit more time to contemplate an answer. The literary world puts more emphasis on a single word, a single emotion, and the legacy behind those words and emotions.

When you spend your entire day interacting with a large number of people, single emotions and single words have less meaning. Combine that with Dominican culture -- where words like "fattie" and "negro" are used rather liberally and sometimes as terms of endearment -- and you end up with people who find it very difficult to empathize with the sensibilities of the literary elite, those who have enough time to learn the legacy, the history behind a word.

Granted, people in the Bronx get into fights over words, but it's usually when those words are directed at them. If in the Bronx you call a big black guy a "fag," you can expect that his knuckles will want to get to know your face. However, I can't recall that anyone in the Bronx ever got into a fight because somebody used an offensive word in their presence; the same was not true at Yale. 

It was freshman year and I was having lunch at Commons, when for some reason I casually utter the word "nigger." A light-skinned girl who was sitting at the same table turned around and angrily snapped, "if you use that word one more time, I will slap you!" 

A word that was part of my everyday life in the 'hood suddenly had to be extricated from my vocabulary, lest I offend upper-middle class individuals with less African blood than me. But I learned my lesson. 

That same year, there was a big scandal over the fact that The Rumpus -- the oldest college tabloid -- was using racially insensitive humor. The Rumpus was publishing offensive lines such as "black women have purple vaginas," so a talking-down-to was convened by the cultural houses, where they called for defunding The Rumpus. I was bored and stumbling around Old Campus, so I casually walked into the verbal lynching. A student of Asian descent grabbed the microphone and started voicing his own concerns about how The Rumpus was portraying Asian Americans in a stereotypical manner, then he casually uttered the word "nigger." A black guy from across the auditorium shouted angrily: "Don't use that word!"

The Asian student became extremely nervous and said: "sorry, the n-word." I learned right there that an emotional outburst over a word not directed at me was perfectly acceptable, and even celebrated as courageous. I toned it down after freshman year, but then came senior year. 

I was again sitting at Commons, having a conversation with a freshman who was in my history class. Somehow we get to the topic of transwomen. I utter the word "shemale," and the freshman angrily screams: "Don't use that word!"

I had never met a transperson, didn't know what the preferred nomenclature was, and my classmate wasn't trans, but she thought that reacting angrily to hearing the word "shemale" was perfectly acceptable. When I get corrected in an angry tone, it always puts me on edge, makes me angry at the other person. Nonetheless, I smiled and hid my rage and said, "thanks for giving me the memo." Later that day, I went on google and tried to determine what the appropriate terms were for transgender people. 

Dutch Santa's happy assistants.
I've been out of the US for a few years, and have no plans of returning in the foreseeable future, so I can expect that my English will fall behind the times, and that certain cultural memos will pass me by. Hanging out with Irish people who use the word "cunt" and walking around oblivious to Dutch people wearing blackface in order to fully commit themselves to the role of Sinterklaas' slave assistant means that I may have to borrow a politically correct dictionary if I should ever decide to return to America. 

While I do agree that a certain people have the right to determine which words offend them, it seems to me that it's happening more quickly than some people can keep up. I left the US because I don't agree with our global war policy, and don't want to pay taxes to that end. Further, I find the American diet to be an abomination. I only wish it were more acceptable to sit at a table and angrily tell someone: "Don't eat factory-farmed meat in front of me! It's offensive!"

 I think that I would have bought into the "let's get offended" crap if it were seriously rooted in global consciousness. See, in my 4 years at Yale, I never heard anyone angrily snap at anything related to Iraq, Afghanistan, our loss of civil liberties, or anything important of the sort. Most columns in the school newspaper dealt with someone offended at the use of the word "exotic," or how their Irish heritage means they are oppressed, or something of the sort; you're not oppressed by a global financial elite who care only about profit, you're oppressed because of an aspect of your identity.

I remember a 6'3" Irish-American guy (3rd or 4th generation) -- who was such a big, tough-looking motherfucker that I thought he could not easily succumb to "racism-induced emotional pain" -- start talking about his Irish heritage. "They used to tell us that we spoke as if we had a shoe in our mouths," he stated. I started laughing, for some reason the image of someone talking with a shoe in their mouth caused me to laugh uncontrollably. "That's hilarious," I said, when the big guy of Irish descent cries, "no, it's not funny, it's offensive!" He was truly hurt at the fact that I was laughing, so I apologized, walked away, and was too nervous to ever acknowledge his presence again.

Americans no longer get angry at their country being plundered, or their rights being eroded, they get angry at an ever-expanding list of offensive words, images, and reactions. Even if there is no offensive or malicious intent behind the words, it does not matter. You mustn't laugh and you must keep up-to-date. In fact, I suggest that anyone who may visit the US refrain from any attempts at humor, and to also refrain from vocalizing any observations about people; it's the best way to avoid a crisis of identity politics.