Monday, 18 February 2013

Fag Break


There, I said it. Well, typed it. Shocking, isn’t it? Except, not really. I doubt anyone’s offended or outraged, just because that word is sitting there on the page. What’s the context? And what made me want to use it in the first place? Until you can answer those questions, it’s simply six letters in a familiar sequence. For all you know, I could be talking about a bundle of kindling, or a mildly anachronistic meatball. And yet, there are those who would argue that the word should be consigned to Room 101 of the OED, no questions asked.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of 'faggot'. I could happily spend the rest of my life without ever hearing it used, or seeing it feature in yet another story about some brainless US sportsman lashing out on Twitter. But it’s still just a word, albeit one with considerable power. Especially when wielded by a careless, unthinking or malevolent speaker. 

It might be almost twenty years old, but the point made in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s fascinating documentary The Celluloid Closet, about Hollywood’s portrayal of casual homophobia, still resonates. 'Faggot' is the only pejorative that can be used by a film’s lead character, without instantly marking them out as a bad guy in dire need of redemption. Now, ask yourself when you last watched a movie (that wasn’t made by Quentin Tarantino) where the hero got away with calling someone 'Nigger'.

Despite this, many people argue that to compare ‘faggot’ with the N-word is a matter of false equivalency. In fact, they're both politically charged and emotionally loaded terms. Remember the fuss that kicked off when Radio One tried to ban Fairytale of New York? The broadcasters argued, not incorrectly, that the song’s use of the lyric “You cheap, lousy faggot” could offend listeners. However, in the context of the song, the word made sense, since Kirsty MacColl was clearly singing in character. Not that such nuance is observed by the people I usually hear singing along in the pub. If you’ve ever been called, or referred to, as a faggot, you'd become a little more sensitive to the extra emphasis that people tend to place on that particular word, as if they’ve been given momentary license to say something rebellious. Equally, a similar controversy came to light recently when the BBC re-aired Fawlty Towers, minus some of the Major’s more socially unacceptable dialogue. Although this was another example of character as context, the fact remains that society has also evolved in the forty years since the show was first broadcast. Watching it now, the Major's casual racism no longer represents the mildly inappropriate ramblings of an elderly eccentric - it threatens to derail the entire episode.

The two parallel issues of racism and homophobia are currently rearing their heads again, since R&B star Azealia Banks is making a concerted effort to reopen the debate. This all started last month, when the New York-based rapper began a Twitter-feud with Perez Hilton, a man with no shortage of celebrity nemeses. When Banks dismissed him as a “messy faggot,” critics were quick to take her to task for her thoughtless use of language. But rather than issue a simple mea culpa, the provocative musician decided to tackle society’s fixation with the word, head-on. Initially, Banks assumed that she could wield her own bisexual identity as some kind of defence against any accusation of homophobia, displaying the same kind of misplaced logic that saw Jade Goody refuting accusations of racism on account of her being "half black."

In a way, she's right to question our obsession with language, and a culture of knee-jerk offence taking. But she must also accept that we each have a responsibility for the words that we choose. Initially, she argued that "A faggot is not a homosexual male. A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There's a BIG difference." Let's set aside the issues of a woman who perceives female behaviour to be a negative characteristic, worthy of scorn. Instead, let's focus on what counts here - individual redefinition. She's still at it, now elaborating on her original theory and stating that "Faggot means coward, liar, backstabber" then asking her followers how they would define the word. This is problematic, since she's accusing the rest of the world for choosing to take offence, but shifting the goal-posts by coming up with her own definitions. Try to imagine visiting your grandmother and calling her a cunt, then argung that you've decided you meant it as a term of female empowerment. Good luck getting yourself back in the will.

I'm sure that many people might rationalise their use of the word differently. But ultimately, it all comes down to intent. For all the talk of communities reclaiming and reappropriating the words that have hurt them, what matters here is how they are used in the moment. This is where the accusations of false equivalency between faggot and the n-word don't hold water. If it’s a word that still has the power to belittle, bully or harm, then it’s bad. If it’s a word you wouldn’t want your kids using, it’s bad. And if it’s a word that’s ever been yelled at someone as a pejorative or insult, it's bad.

But is Azealia right - have we all become hyper-sensitive? Are the forces of political correctness clamping down on our right to free speech? Not at all. No-one's saying she can't use it. And we’re not saying there’s no room for debate about the shifting nature of language, and how words become more or less acceptable over time. We’re simply saying that the right to speak freely doesn't automatically insulate you from the criticism of those you've opted to offend. 

More importantly, it's also worth considering the point that Neo-marxist Jonathan Neale made in his must-read book, 'What's Wrong With America.' Analysing the way the rich and the powerful have conspired for the last 100 years to keep different sectors of society at each other's throats - pittting immigrants, women, blacks, gays and unionists against each other - Neale argues that the more time we spend battling the small stuff, the more likely it is that we'll take our eyes off the bigger picture. In doing so, we fail to spot the real villains in our midst. Azealia needs to recognise that as a black, LGBT woman, she's faces no small number of battles. And just like the rest of us, she needs all the friends she can get. 

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