Teens talk funny. They say things like "yer" to mean "I agree wholeheartedly" and "sketchy" to mean "suspicious and possible a rapist." Now, while every generation has it's own lingo, and spending so much time with teens has led to me adopting plenty of these speech patterns, there are a few things that they say, along with some adults, that some feel are extremely, even if accidentally, offensive. Those are "gay," "fag," and "retard."
We'll attack "retard" first. It's almost universally accepted that when someone says you are a retard or are retarded that it has nothing to do with an actual mental disability. It simply means you're being dumb, doing something stupid, or both. Everyone knows this, yet some are still offended by it. I, personally, am not offended, but I realize why some would be--especially those with family or friends with mental disabilities. They're used to people making fun of their loved ones by using these words. I'm torn on the subject. The technical terminology has been changed to several more PC terms like "mentally challenged," "mentally disabled," and even "exceptional." So retard is almost always NOT a direct attack on the mentally challenged. Times have changed. Maybe it's as acceptable as stupid, dumb, or idiot. You can't constantly worry about who you are offending, and it's become so much a part of our daily verbal ejaculations that it's hard to yell at every kid that says "retard." But, I do worry that I might be wrong, and if that's the case, I apologize.
Next comes "gay." Gay almost never means homosexual in today's teenage lexicon. It just means lame or boring or sometimes too feminine. Now, while we do not refer to the mentally challenge as mentally retarded anymore, we do still call homosexuals "gays." In fact, most homosexuals I know refer to themselves as gay. So, in my opinion, there is a difference here. I have to admit, I've let a "gay" slip here and there. I was an insensitive teenager once upon a time, and it's hard not to just let old habits slide. But I've come to be annoyed by those who use the term "gay" a bit. I understand they don't mean it, in most cases, as a slight to homosexuals. They simply don't think at all. I will, from time to time, let them know that they should say what they mean and mean what they say, but I will forgive the transgression from time to time. I'm a very forgiving person.
Finally, we come to "Faggot." Faggot was never an acceptable term for homosexuals--it has always been an insult. Sometimes teens use it as an insult for a friend jokingly having nothing to do with homosexuality, but usually it is a sign of homophobia. Even when not used on a gay or lesbian individual, it is a way of saying "you're just as bad as those foggots who I hate for being gay." There's historical context for it, too. It originally came from burning mass quantities of homosexuals to death for being different. Some students joke, "What? It's just a bundle of sticks for burning. That's what it says in the dictionary." Then I follow up with "Do you know why that term became used by some to homosexuals?" And, of course, they don't. I liken "faggot" to "nigger" in that the words just conjure up feelings of violent hatred and a history of murder, torture, and pain. They are ways to dehumanize. They create victims. I don't say it. I don't like others saying it.
This is an issue for me because I am so anti-censorship it hurts. Also, fear of a word only increases it's power. There are those that say we should overuse the words in order to "take them back" and lesson their impact on society. I'm not so sure. But, as usual, I can see both points. I don't know.
I was teaching Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning to my students in order to use them to judge characters, something I do every semester because I find it fascinating and it helps students to find sympathy for characters who may not always be perfect. Kohlberg's point was that morality isn't embedded in an act but rather the reasoning behind the act. It's not what you do but why you do it. So, if I truly believe that, which I think I do, I would have to say that using those words, any of them, in itself is not immoral. It's the way they're being used and why they're being used that matters. That, of course, would force us to judge every time we heard those words why they were being used. So, maybe I'm being retarded or gay, maybe I'm a big faggot or even a pussy, but if you have another word you can use instead, why not chose that word and avoid the whole damn controversy in the first place?
That being said, however, we have to be careful when it comes to these words being used in literature. Even if you believe using these words makes a kid the Antichrist, you can't deny that some do talk like this. Some talk like this constantly. So when characters in a work of literature use them, let's not attribute them to the author. We can't confuse the ideas and thoughts of characters with the author. Somebody wrote the Saw series of movies. Is he a serial killer? (Maybe subconsciously if we want to get into Freud and all that.) What about Mark Twain? Was he a racist for using the word "nigger" 2.7 billion times in his writing? Some think so. They are dumb. So if a character drops a few "retards" and "fags," let's not crucify the author. It's a short jump from making that mistake to total censorship.
Down with the man.