(c) by Mary Griggs
We’ve all heard people exercising their privilege by trivializing particular ‘isms. Nothing is guaranteed to send me into the stratosphere faster than to be told to “lighten up” when I’ve been offended by sexist/ racist/ homophobic/ transphobic remarks or jokes.
When such remarks or jokes are made (or, worse, defended), it is a condoning of the notion that those who are the butt of the joke are funny, worthy of being laughed at or not to be taken seriously. It perpetuates and normalizes their silencing and degradation.
Many people think it is only necessary to protest against extreme forms of oppression – women who face honor killings in Islamic countries, for instance, or LGBT people who have lost their jobs after coming out. When they contrast such blatant injustice with everyday prejudice, they feel justified in dismissing concerns for other people’s pain as silly.
While it is very important for us to object to such obvious forms of discrimination and inequality, it doesn’t mean subtle bigotry is acceptable. We don’t draw lines where some levels of prejudice are okay. Further, when you look at the larger picture (including violence against women, gays, lesbians and trans folks which is easier after they’ve been dehumanized), it is not trivial at all.
Asking someone to not use slurs or terminology that others find offensive is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment gives people the right to say many things, including things that insult others. But, it doesn’t obligate anyone to use such words or obligate anyone else to condone their use. A simple matter of respecting current norms for human decency and empathy mean that we stop ourselves from needlessly harming people by using terms they find offensive.
If someone thinks something I said was offensive, my response is actually to change the way I’m saying those things so it doesn’t offend people. I know that you absolutely cannot avoid offending everyone, but offending people for the fun of it is called being a bully. If you have any concern for the feelings of others (which is not a weakness but a strength) I think you should try to avoid saying things that are deliberately harmful and devalue individual members of certain social categories.
There are many areas we must work on to create a society free from discrimination but I emphatically believe that the words we use can have an impact and influence our ability to even discuss the issues facing us, much less address them.
At the very least, stop asking people who find this offensive to “lighten up” – they have very valid reasons to feel the way they do.