Friday, May 27, 2011

The Words We Choose

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." - George Orwell

  Last month, TV cameras caught Lakers guard Kobe Bryant directing a homophobic slur at an NBA referee. The next day,  Kobe released an official statement in which he said "The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone." He explained that he was frustrated and in an emotionally volatile state, when he used the term. He also called in to radio talk shows and reached out to individual gay rights activists, in an effort to make it clear that he does not harbor any animosity towards gay people. In the days that followed, the topic was discussed ad nauseum in the sports world, complete with admonishments, condemnations, and a few dismissive "but that's not how he meant it" excuses. A hefty fine was issued by the NBA, and eventually the dust settled and the subject faded away. 

  And then about six weeks later it happened again. This time TV cameras caught Bulls center Joakim Noah using the same slur. The circumstances were not exactly the same. Noah was directing the slur at an unruly fan, as opposed to a referee. And Noah is a role player for his team, while Kobe is one of the most recognizable names in all of sports. But the circumstances were similar otherwise. Noah also explained that he used the slur in the heat of the moment. And he repeatedly stated that "that's not who I am." The sports talk shows once again took up the topic, and the league once again issued a hefty fine. But the dust eventually settled here too, and the focus soon shifted back to the game on the court.  

  I find it easy enough to believe that both of these men were sincere when they said that they had no intention of offending anybody in the gay community. Prior to these incidents, there was nothing to suggest that either one of them might be homophobic. Some may find Kobe to be a bit prickly, but bigotry doesn't really seem like his style. And in Noah's case, his personal background would lead most of us to expect him to have a more open minded view of people in general. 

  But the fact remains that they both chose to use a word that is clearly recognized across all parts of American society as a derogatory term for homosexuals. And, most importantly, they both did so with the clear intention of belittling a person with that word. That action is a tacit recognition of the fact that homosexuals are viewed by many in our society as inferior or degenerate, and it implies that the person using the word shares this view. 

  That implication may turn out to be false. It may be that in a moment of utmost frustration these men reached back into a playground lexicon for a word that would provide an easy and instant sting. Perhaps in a moment of weakness, they fell back on an old crutch. And it may be that in the years since that playground, both men have matured in their thinking and have come to see the dangers and limitations inherent in such broad generalizations and prejudices. 

  And if a moment of weakness is what it was, then that should be easy enough to forgive. We've all experienced moments when we've felt pressured and made decisions that we later regret. And in that case, a sincere apology will often be followed by sincere forgiveness. 

  However, it is one thing to forgive their actions, and quite another to excuse or dismiss them. The word is offensive for a reason. It is a symbol for an attitude of hatred and intolerance, and that hatred and intolerance has concrete consequences for millions of people. Anti-gay sentiment leads to workplace discrimination and harassment. It perpetuates institutionalized forms of discrimination such as bans on gay marriage. It helps to create a hostile social environment that leads many people, especially adolescents, to suicide. And it drives many to commit violent crimes against people that are gay or perceived as gay

  Of course, using a homophobic slur is not tantamount to beating a person because they're gay. A free thinking adult can choose how he or she is affected by the words that other people apply to them, whereas a violent assault leaves far less room for choice. 

  But words do have an effect too. They contribute, in either a positive or negative manner, to the collective view of a society. And they also have an impact on the person that is speaking. And that personal impact on the speaker is something that neither of these two men seem to fully grasp. 

  When Joakim Noah says that "that's not who I am", he is mistaken. It may not be who he wants to be, or how he wants to be seen by others. But like it or not, our words, our thoughts, and our actions are exactly who we are. Even the ones we regret. So when we find ourselves doing and saying things that we truly regret, our response should be to acknowledge that aspect of our thought process that we're uncomfortable with, and recognize it as our own. And with that honest assessment in hand, we can then begin to work through and correct our faults. And once we've done that, we can then offer a sincere apology that is deserving of sincere forgiveness. And we can bridge the gap between who we are and who we want to be. 

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