Do Words Matter? Readers Respond

Dear Readers,

Mom and I are enjoying our summer, but still want to keep the conversation going.  How can we go to the beach, take long walks on the Buffalo waterfront, or have a G & T but still provide something to think about? Ask you, our faithful readers, to write for us of course!

For our last post, mom wrote about the power of language, and how phrases like “that’s so gay” can be harmful to individuals, even though the speaker may not intend any harm.  “Words do matter,” she wrote.

This idea is not something new.  English teachers—like mom and I—spend our careers teaching that very idea.  LGBT activists have spent a great deal of time and effort raising awareness about the power of derogatory language (like GLSEN’s Think Before You Speak campaign).  There is now even a new board game that seeks to reclaim the phrase “That’s So Gay” and create a “positive opportunity to educate LGBTQs and our allies” and “break down stereotypes while having some fun with our LGBTQ history.”


However, not everyone sees a problem. In a recent article in The Washington Post titled “Maybe it’s okay for kids to say ‘that’s so gay’” author and researcher Mark McCormack argues many young people are not speaking with homophobic intent when they use the phrase, and that the efforts of LGBT organizations are better directed to more pressing issues, like combating homophobia in schools, pursuing equality, and confronting heterosexual privilege.

What do you think? Do words matter? Are some words and phrases so laden with power that they should be avoided? Or does an individual speaker’s intent mitigate that power? We are opening our heretofore private conversation to you, and ask you to respond with your thoughts. Don’t be shy–tell us what you think!

Enjoy your August!



4 thoughts on “Do Words Matter? Readers Respond

  1. Dear Linda and Christopher

    Last night David and I went to a Kensington High School 1970s alumni reunion–you know, where we taught in the mid-1900s (;-). This decade and these students were so important and formative to me as a teacher. When I think of these years, I somehow only remember students and teachers, no administrators, parent groups, no outside world, really, only literature, history, math, home ec, gym, art, music, a foreign language, and so on. Students and teachers. Learning and struggling. Success and some not-so-success. Happiness and, have I mentioned, struggle. And somehow it was a magical time. Last night “students” — 57-58 year olds — told us of their lives: long marrieds; grandkids; retirements. Donald showed me his beautiful brick house in North Carolina that he built himself, as he shly said, “I didn’t graduate.” On the other hand, Sandra died about ten years ago. Timothy, my all time favorite, died May 1, 1981. Patricia moved her grandmother from New Orleans to live with her in Chicago. David is a Baptist minister.

    My point is the world goes on, that’s no surprise. Students become who they are meant to be if they are respected, have the right to learn, and have shelter from the storm some people wage outside. What is still a surprise to me are the egotists, narcissists, and worse, who want to intrude into the world of students and teachers: People who should sit down and shut up. Adults who should be seen and not heard. People who want to speak when they are not spoken to. People who think their words matter more than the hearts and minds of students and teachers. I’m glad you asked.
    Love from Cathy


  2. Dear Christopher,

    This week, you asked us if words really matter? You also asked if the intent of the speaker mitigates the power of harmful words? My answers are: yes, words do matter and while intent has the potential to soften the power, words still matter. I answer these questions from the perspective of a white gay woman who is the mother of a black child. Finally, I work with adults who, in adulthood, have lost the ability to speak (which is a whole other story when thinking about the intention of words).

    Words mattered to me as a new mother, and matter to me now, as an older mother. While holding my gorgeous infant in my arms, I would be asked: “Where did you get her, Africa?” “Is the father black?” “Did her birthmother do drugs?” From a little child in pre-school, “You look like a monkey”. From the kindergarten teacher at the first day of school, “Don’t worry, I will watch out for her, I know these kids typically have difficulty learning.”

    Yes. Words matter.

    Did the intent mitigate the pain of any of these words? No, not so much.

    Was the intent of the kindergarten teacher, for example, to harm me and/or my daughter? Of course not. If asked about her intent, her response might have been that she was an observant, over-protective teacher. However, because of her ignorance, her words were extremely harmful to me on that first day of kindergarten.

    Was the intent of the little pre-school classmate to harm when she made the monkey reference? I think not. Intention that did not matter when my daughter was crying that night as she told the story, “But Mama, I am a little girl, not a monkey, why would she say that?”

    Words do matter.

    As for the intentions that drive the comments, well, that seems more complex.

    While well-intended negative words are certainly better than ill-intended negative words, the “words” remains the same. I would like to think that the well-intention comes from a healthier psychologic place in which case the person would be open to education or feedback about how and why their words stung. On the other hand, I imagine the ill-intention might come from a darker, more rigid place, in which case there would be little hope for enlightenment.

    Just my two cents to your question. Thank you for opening up your post to your faithful readers. I am one of them. I enjoy the thoughtful, open and brave exchange between you and your mom. Thank you both for being who you are and for creating your blog. May those who take time to read it walk away looking at the world just a little differently. I know that I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christopher:

      Thanks so much for posting the link to the Washington Post article.

      My biggest frustration with McCormack’s piece is that he is operating under the assumption that the concern is homophobia. A far better question is whether using the word makes someone oppressive, not homophobic.

      Pointing out that gay youths use the word is about as valuable as saying that some African Americans use the N-word so everyone should be able to. Just because some people use a word or a phrase that is subversive to a demographic they happen to be a part of, does excuse them from being a part of a systemic oppression.

      Furthermore, the argument that these youths are “reclaiming” the word is nonsensical as well. In regard to the N-word, that was a word used to oppress people for generations, and now that African-Americans have largely been integrated into society (Yes, racism is still a huge problem!) some people within that community want to reclaim that word.

      The important difference between the N-word example and the phrase “that’s so gay,” is that being gay is a category people currently use to identify themselves, not a word currently used to harm (like the word fag). Using a term that people currently use to identify themselves as a way to disparage something is simply to draw a comparison between someone’s identity and something undesirable.

      To argue that the use of the phrase by ignorant youths justifies systemic oppression and nullifies the effect the phase has on the self-esteem of others is thoughtless, myopic, and absurd.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Linda
        As a young teacher of liberal persuasions, I was frankly shocked and upset when I first heard the phrase in my 8th grade class, “That’s so gay!” Anyone who has taught knows it’s not just once a day, either. My best friend in college was a gay guy that I adored; we went out dancing at night, to poetry readings, and early morning breakfasts on the way home from Sat. night. Hearing that phrase plunged me into the freezing water of crazy adolescent prejudices. Another one that popped up all the time was, “He’s a woman.” On so many levels, this was really hard to handle. And of course, talking to them about it only exacerbated the problem. Not to mention, being a woman, that was the ultimate ‘low’, right? I imagine it’s still the same, I don’t know. Maybe these things are now dealt with in sessions on bullying!
        Linda Pfiel-Lauren

        Liked by 1 person

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