People have been calling one another names since we first started communicating with each other. Going all the way back to stone age times, back when language was a series of grunts and crude pictures scraped into a wall, there was still a desire to insult one another. And the names we said, at first, were meant to identify individuality, a statement of “I am.” Remember the old foreign language classes you took back in middle and high school? What is the first thing you learned? Yo soy. Je suis. I am.
In those early times someone’s name might have been Eeeeeerrrrrrrrrn, or some other throaty grumble, and those sounds would stick. Someone may even learn to introduce themselves with this string of jabbering, pointing to themselves and saying “Eeeeeerrrrrrrrn!” This would someday evolve into Eric or Ernie, but that is a tale for another time. The etymology of language can be fascinating.
But what I am here to discuss today are the terrible words we like to use to downgrade another group of people, to put them in their place. The sort of names we invent to protect ourselves from feeling guilt over how we are treating them. Of course these are slurs, racial and otherwise, but as society developed and philosophical ideals took over the primitive nature of mankind, prejudice of this sort expanded and then scattered. There are always new ways to hurt somebody with words.
Of course we have the standard, the famous and the general–race, gender, religion and the highlighting of personal flaws or genetic abnormalities. These are all very easy, like the pictures on the wall of a cave. We see something. We consider why we are different. We decide that somehow one or the other or both or all are inferior to ourselves, and we need a way to lump the whole mass into some disposable group–to call them a name and then dismiss them.
When I was in college–this was graduate school, smaller sessions filled with people who believed they had somehow figured out the world (let’s try some name calling: ‘academics.’ Or what about ‘arrogant, pretentious assholes,’ myself included?)–I took a class called the Etymology of Language. In many ways the title of the course was a mistake in its own right, the ‘Language’ superfluous considering the meaning of the other word ( “The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.”)
This course, being a part of the English degree I was then pursuing, required us to read and understand and then translate Old English (which is a foreign language), Middle English (filled with thys and thous and odd spellings of familiar words), and many other derivations of the English Language as it has developed through the days, including slang and various modern cultural pronunciations. Here is an example: Ic bilhete óú in Old English becomes I hate you in both Middle and Modern English (Although ‘I hateth thee’ is more likely among the educated middle ages English speaker).
Anyway, for my final essay I decided to do a history of racial slurs. It was, to me, a very important history lesson. To my professor, and the rest of my class, it was wholly unacceptable. When I refused to take on another subject so late in the semester, after working very hard on this, the professor settled by giving me a B-, at the very least realizing that I had translated something she never knew.
Of all the words that are anathema today, certainly ‘nigger’ makes its presence felt more strongly than just about any other sound. It has a brutal and terrible history, and is ultimately nothing more than a cheap insult that once did not even refer to race. Coming from the root ‘niggardly,’ which means cheap or stingy, this actually referred to the selfish bastards in England–the Scrooge-like monsters, as well as the treatment of the slavers aboard the ship, after claiming a tribe of people, chaining them below deck and enjoying watching their suffering. The slavers would be very sparse on food, serving the new slaves ‘out of a niggardly hand.’ Somehow the word was altered and the meaning changed, transitioned to a term of cruelty to mark an oppressed group of people. Slavers would laugh at how their property was treated. They would show them no generosity, not an ounce of kindness, bestowing upon them the very a ‘niggardly’ portion of the means of survival. The next time you hear someone say this word, either laughing in passing, perhaps among friendly African-Americans or others with African roots, giving yet another new meaning to the term, or in the cold blankness of blind hatred, remember what the word really means.
‘Faggot’ is another of the more common debasements of people today. It is more commonly known that ‘faggot’ once meant ‘a bundle of sticks bound together for fuel.’ Know how this one evolved? Know what this bundle of sticks bound together for fuel was used for? That’s right. The burning of homosexuals for violating whichever controlling power believed violated their God’s law.
All of these awful words have similar backgrounds in cruelty (for a fascinating history, check out the many slurs about the Scottish, which almost parallels the Jews, who, of course, have been the target of the most prejudice in human history; or maybe Native Americans and other aboriginal tribes, reduced in America to ‘redskins,’ one of the cheapest and least imaginative ways to label a people. For the Scottish see http://www.rsdb.org/race/scottish and for just about everyone else see http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/slurs.htm).
But this piece is not meant as a celebration of the terrible things people say, and have said to one another throughout time. What I really wish to talk about is the evolution of language. How how these words grown and changed over time. What has become the new focus of hatred? How do we define what makes a person horrible?
Have you ever looked at someone, maybe talked with someone, and thought to yourself how much better the world would be if that person were dead? Do you think how much of an asshole they are, and how they ruin everything they touch? Have you seen such hatred grow inside yourself before you turn away and do your best to forget that such a creature exists? It’s hard. We have an instinct for hate. Often we need to hate. Many people even hate the people who express their hatred for others. This is ultimately no different. It is the same generalizing function, writing off a class as completely lost.
Today much of our generalizing focuses around politics. These words are as cheap as Camel Humper or Chili Shitter or Chinaman. We call each other ‘lib cuck; or ‘trumptard,’ or something so mindless that it completely defies meaning. ‘Lib cuck?’ Liberal cuckold? Does this mean that liberals are so weak they allow their spouses to fuck other people, or at the very least tolerate it? And Trumptard? The fuck? It is a twist on the past-tense slur ‘retard,’ which most people hardly ever say anymore due to the frighteningly recent humanization of the mentally disabled. Then this is combined with the name of a political leader to define his followers? How stupid is that?
The right and the left today settle for calling one another names and not believing each other serious about their beliefs. To the right it seems impossible that a person could believe in equal liberty and welcoming others into this land of opportunity. They must be getting paid. They are just protesting to cause trouble, believing in absolutely nothing. Goddamn liberals.
The left is certainly no better, lumping all right-wing true believers in as orthodox racists, taking a floating image of a modern Nazi rally and assuming that every single person they disagree with must feel the same way. This is flatly stupid. It is pure generalization. It is really no different than the racism, at least in the way such prejudice is formed, that they accuse others of supporting. Goddamn fascists.
Calling people names, generalizing them, stereotyping them, is a far too easy way to ignore people you disagree with, or that we refuse to understand. It avoids the true danger of human interaction. Because once we get to know someone, individually, chances are that we will find a much better reason to hate them. And this is the true value of generalization. It saves us the bother of accepting one another in a far too crowded world.