On bowdlerizing offensive words

by look i have opinions

Quick rant. I just heard somebody arguing that in a rational discussion, bowdlerized mentions of offensive words (“f****t,” “c—t,” “the N word”) convey exactly the same things as mentions of the actual words. Wrong. They convey the same things plus at least one of these added, unspoken messages:

  1. “Rationally or not, I associate these words with so much hurt/insult that mentioning them explicitly would cause me discomfort.”
  2. “I (or my editors) recognize that many other people associate these words with hurt/insult.”
  3. “It is beneath me (or my editors) to handle these words except at arm’s length.”

All of the above messages can be affectations, of course, not just #3. The first two can even be self-serving and harmful. Sometimes a man will use message #2 to show how much he “respects” women’s irrational emotional responses. Likewise, white people sometimes feel the need to handle racism with kid gloves not to protect actual victims of racism, but to protect ourselves (#1) and other white people (#2) from a sense of blame.

But that doesn’t mean bowdlerization is bad. Regardless of intent, it can protect people who deserve protection. It also reinforces a social norm that can be good and valuable. Call it message #2a: “The people who might be hurt/insulted by this word are important. Their feelings/viewpoints matter.” Even misused, that’s not a bad message.

I’ve been present at discussions where certain people repeated offensive words over and over and over—words that they themselves had clearly never been harmed by. They weren’t using the words offensively, only mentioning and discussing them. Their intentions were innocent. And yet it didn’t seem to occur to them that somebody else might have a visceral reaction to a word, or that the casual repetition of it might grate on people’s nerves. It struck me as painfully clueless.