TW: casual racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism.
The following stemmed from a conversation I had with a friend today. A conversation that seems to come up way too often. Other, better people than myself have already covered this, but it seems to bear repeating.
Artists: The words and images you use matter.
Seems simple enough, right? I have never met a writer, painter, poet, musician, sculptor or artist of any sort who would honestly state that what they create doesn’t matter. That it is just stupid nonsense taking up space in the world. I don’t think anyone could put the muscle, strain and abject terror that goes into creating anything if they believed that.
Yet, inevitably, some white guy (like me) will drop a cavalier “nigger” or “chink.” Some cis guy (again, like me) will make a joke about ladyboys. Some straight guy (yup, still me) will toss out “faggot” like it ain’t no thing. These things will come out in some innocuous bit in their work, used without purpose or value or an understanding of the power those words have in the minds of those most affected by them. Don’t even get me started on “retard.”*
More inevitably, when they are called out on this, the resounding response is to lighten up. They’re just words, after all. Neither sticks nor stones. Stop being so sensitive. Stop working so hard to take offense at everything.
You feel that cognitive dissonance, there? The need for people to take your work seriously, to treat it with the gravitas your greatness deserves, except for those words. The ones you are complaining about. You shouldn’t treat THOSE ones as if they matter. After all, they don’t cause harm to me, so they clearly do not cause harm to you.
Except they do. There are too many people to whom the word “nigger” carries with it memories of beatings, of being turned away, of being belittled and dehumanized. There are too many people to whom the word “faggot” is bound up in the angry glare of a parent throwing them out of the house, or back alley boot parties, or mumbled excuses about why they can’t continue to work at this establishment any more. Hell, does “cunt” ever come without the connotation of rape, when it comes flying out of the mouth of an angry man?
Some words have more power than others. Some words bear a certain cultural and historical weight to them. Sometimes, that weight is felt disproportionately by specific portions of society and not at all by others. That weight, that power, needs to be treated with respect. Reverence, even, on occasion.
That isn’t to say that there is no place for them in art. Denial is also a type of weapon and I refuse to let those who have profited from the abuse of others bury their past crimes any more than I would degrade the effect those crimes have had upon their victims. If I was writing something dealing with caustic ableism, I would be remiss if I were to ignore the existence and impact of words like “retard”. I would also be a lazy ass writer if I just leaned on that, instead of showing the more subtle ways in which ableism rears it’s head. Because I know the weight they carry, I use such words and images sparingly and with grim purpose.
I get annoyed at this because I take my work as an artist** very seriously. I use words because I believe they have power to build and to destroy, to lift up and to oppress. To bring joy and to bring pain. If I didn't, I wouldn't bother working with them at all. To see people use them so flippantly and without regard is a manner of spitting on the hard work of those who do use them carefully, reverently and with respect to all they can accomplish.
Really, shouldn't we being doing that with ALL the words we use, anyways?
*Yup, I am sticking to using examples that apply to writing. That’s the type of art I understand. There are plenty of ways to do this same shit with visual art.
**Enter self-deprecating comment here, as I feel super pretentious calling myself an artist.