Had a fascinating discussion with my critique group yesterday, after our session was done. A more knowledgeable, intelligent, and thoughtful group of women I have yet to meet. Anyway, the discussion of profanity, both in our work and in our lives, came up. I joked that I don't use bad language, but sometimes my characters do. Some of the women confessed they have varying ranges of comfort with profanity, depending on the situation and who is involved, and wondered if we give up our power to others by overreacting to certain derogatory or profane words. Then the idea that we can render offensive words inoffensive by the acceptance of their overuse was tossed into the mix, because after all, "They're only words."
The idea that we can change the character or nature of a word through reclaiming its use is not a new one. Some in the African-American community have chosen to reclaim the use of the N-word and render it powerless by using the word with casual aplomb in every day life: "Hey, N____, how you doing?" "He's one funny n______!" That sort of thing. My girlfriends and I occasionally admonish each other not to do stupid things or one of us will have to "b*tch slap" the other to bring her back to her senses, and a b*tch slap by your girlfriends is an affectionate gesture of encouragement and admonishment in that context.
So, yes, I see this argument, and I understand its purpose. However, I object to the proponents of the desensitization technique who imply I should not find words such as the "f" word or its ilk offensive in an offensive context simply because it is only a word. Words have power and meaning, and that's why I'm a writer. How can we say something isn't powerful simply because we encounter it repeatedly? If I hit my thumb with a hammer repeatedly, it will certainly go numb after a while, but does that mean it is something I want? Or that the hammer isn't just as deadly as it ever was? Certainly not. Besides,
What Martin Luther King said, was only words.
What Jesus Christ said, was only words.
What Mother Teresa said, was only words.
Dear God, what Hitler said, was only words.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words
will certainly crush me.
If you tell me to "f" off a hundred times,
Am I going to be insensate
by that last time,
or will it still bother me that you said it to begin with?
Words have power, as well they should, and I choose to continue to be offended by the ones intended to offend. Not that you don't have the right to say them; just don't deny my right to be upset when you do.