Saturday, April 18, 2009

Slurs and self-defense

Does it matter, with discrimination, if the victims are 'really' members of the group bigots see them as representing? What if they are in some cases but not others? Who, ultimately, is responsible for defending those victimized as such-and-such? The members of the group Such-and-Such, or all recipients of slurs aimed at that group?

Example: Judith Warner concludes that insults like 'that's gay', or 'he's a fag', have "almost nothing to do with being gay," because those taunted as such in high schools across America are frequently not attracted to members of the same sex. She sees as the victims not so much gay youth as all young people who, through an artistic bent or an inadvertently glamorous scarf, find themselves accused.

Since 'gay' is not always visible, it's not surprising that homophobia has its non-gay victims, just as anti-Semitism, aimed at another sometimes-visible minority, has its gentile victims. In France a few decades ago, a non-Jewish man had his store ransacked by anti-Semites because he happened to be named "Blum." In other cases, an entire space gets identified as 'Jewish', such as a Jewish community center or synagogue, and anyone in the area is a potential victim of an anti-Semitic attack. But does the fact that some victims are not Jews make the attack one against Humanity, and not against Jews in particular?

When, after a 1980 attack on a Parisian synagogue, a certain French politician condemned the act, because, as he explained, it had hurt both Jews and "innocent" French people who just happened to be passing by. While Raymond Barre's terminology was unfortunate - "innocent" not being the way to go, implying as it does that to be Jewish is a crime - the question itself is an important one. What role do 'collateral damage' victims of bigotry even have? How should they be understood?

With both 'gay' and 'Jewish', there's an internal definition and an external one. For 'gay', it's simple enough: a man who has romantic relationships (or hopes to) exclusively (or almost) with men, and who identifies as gay. For 'Jewish', it's also straightforward, that is, until you start getting the Israeli Orthodox bureaucracy involved. A Jew is the descendant of a maternal Jewish line and identifies as Jewish, or someone who, for cultural or spiritual reasons, identifies as a Jew and has, you know, done something about it, whether or not that something would 'count' by this or that particular rabbi's standards.

Whereas, when it comes to external definitions, 'gay' includes the internal definition - those over 8 yelling 'fag' tend to know what it refers to - but opens the gates, letting into the category of 'gay' boys and men of unknown or known-to-be-straight sexuality who seem any one of the following: stereotypically gay, stereotypically female, unathletic, intelligent, attractive, unattractive, etc., etc. 'Gay' is not just some undifferentiated synonym for 'bad' in the mind of the high school bigot. OK, it might be when directed at an object (as in, 'Man, that field trip was so gay'), but it rarely is when directed at a person.

The two-definition rule also goes for Jews. Anyone who fits the internal definition counts for the external, but so does anything with stereotypically Jewish looks or behavior (and please, no comments along the lines of 'there's no such thing as looking Jewish' - we're talking about stereotypes), or anyone with a Jewish last name. Thus many people who neither thought of themselves as Jews, nor would have been thought of as such by Jews, were killed as Jews in the Holocaust. Because of this, I never know what to make of Jews today who say that by not intermarrying, or by going the Orthodox route, one is 'sticking it to Hitler'. When, when it comes down to it, simply having Jewish ancestry and not killing one's self is sticking it to Hitler as much as would any more specific behavior. But the fact that Hitler's definition included many non-Jews doesn't change the specificity of the genocide, and in its continued impact on those who are Jewish but who were not direct victims of the Holocaust. But at the same time, asking all who were/are victimized as Jews to unite in Jewish pride is ridiculous, when it means asking non-Jews to deny their own identities. Similarly, high-school anti-gay slurs most definitely are about homophobia, insofar as even if it's a straight kid who's the target, gay classmates feel themselves under attack. Yet I can't imagine asking non-gay kids tormented for being 'fags' to march in a Gay Pride parade, to defend themselves as gays, if they aren't, even if they're being attacked as such.

Confused yet?

If this makes any sense... 'gay' used as an epithet means 'gay' to the people using it, it just doesn't mean the same 'gay' that gays themselves, and that those respectful of gays who thus defer to gays for the definition, would use. But, if we borrow from vocabulary used in the Jewish case, we could say that 'the gays' are those who are gay-as-understood-by-bigots, whereas 'gays' are gays as defined by gay people themselves. 'The Jews' are, of course, that menacing entity acting in concert, claws and horns at the ready, whereas 'Jews' are a collection of mostly unremarkable individuals, living out our mediocre lives. Yet ultimately, the defense of 'the gays' falls on 'gays', because there's really no way for 'the gays' - a group that includes non-gays - to organize. Again, if any of this makes any sense...

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's a double helix of an argument but it makes sense.
--EH

PG said...

I don't think you're giving enough space to the meaning of "gay" that really seems to be most common among Kids These Days. A few years ago when my cousin was 13, I heard him refer to his little brother (then 9) as "so gay" for enjoying some no-longer-modish video game. I scolded him not for insulting his brother (who may or may not be gay -- who knows with the sexuality of a kid who isn't interested in porn yet?), but for using the word "gay" to mean "stupid" or "uncool." I consider insulting one's siblings a perquisite of having them, but I didn't want him to think it was OK to use "gay" as an insult even when he didn't mean "homosexual." And of course this usage is the most common on South Park, especially now that Big Gay Al rarely appears.

I therefore disagree with Warner that we should worry about the injury to all young people of this kind of use of "gay." At least for the kids with whom I interact, I don't mind if they insult each other generally, but I don't want them to associate "gay" with "bad" in their rhetoric even if they don't consciously have negative attitudes toward gay people. The injury of the unconscious negativism that the rhetorical association creates is an injury to gay people specifically.

There doesn't seem to be any similar use for "Jew." I suppose there's the verb usage "jewed down" to refer to hard bargaining, but even that can be a form of self-compliment on one's economic sophistication (e.g. "I got a great deal, really jewed the guy down").

Phoebe said...

As insults go, how literal they are varies widely. No one uses "bitch" to literally mean being a canine. Or "motherfucker" to mean engaging in that incestuous relationship. But "gay", when used by those old enough to know what "gay" means (I guessed over 8 - that might have been a low estimate).

Jew-inspired recess-hour name-calling is largely a thing of the past, at least in parts of America where there are actual Jews. I've heard it does continue in places (US/Europe) without. The situations are not analogous in that sense. My point was only that 'Jew' as an insult/as used by an anti-Semite is not the same definition of 'Jew' as Jews themselves use, not just because it's pejorative, but because it refers to a much larger set of people. As in, not all anti-Semitism is 'about' those a Jew would consider a Jew. Just as all homophobia isn't 'about' people a gay person would consider gay. But that doesn't make anti-Semitism less about Jews, or homophobia less about gays.

Anyway...

PG said...

If we're getting really literal, no one uses "gay" to insult someone as "how happy and joyful you are!" But the example of "bitch" is useful to hold up against gay. If every time one kid calls another "gay" as a synonym for "uncool," that's an instance of overt homophobia, then any time someone refers to a guy in a subservient position as "you're her bitch!" seems at least as much if not more clearly an instance of misogyny. I.e., if a mindset where "gay" = uncool must be homophobic, then "bitch" = inferior must be misogynist. Which is kind of odd because "bitch" in a certain type of feminist's reclaiming shtick is supposed to refer to a woman who is strong and unafraid.

Phoebe said...

I think at this point gay literally means joyful or homosexual. 'Bitch,' meanwhile, only has a derogatory meaning when used in reference to humans. 'Bitch' would them be closer to 'fag' than to 'gay'. The equivalent insult would be - is, I suppose - 'girl'.

PG said...

If we want to analogize carefully to bitch, we'd have to go for another word normally applied to an animal but then used about women and *really* an insult when used regarding a man: "pussy."

Phoebe said...

OK, but that one has a pretty clear male counterpart: "dick." Since calling a woman a man is not as insulting as calling a man a woman, there's no special meaning to calling a woman a "dick" in our society.

Just to be clear - I meant that "girl" was analogous not to "bitch" but to "gay" - as in, something that can be used as a neutral descriptor or as an insult, depending the context/target.

Nick said...

Once I find a copy, I'm going to lend you Lee Edelman's Homographesis, since I think you'll find it particularly useful on this topic -- the constant over- and under-inscription of identities...