Eye of the Editors: Speaking up against toxic language

Opinion: Students should speak up when their peers use slurs or other disrespectful language as their words as their words normalize toxic and harmful behavior

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this saying may be applicable to shallow, teasing remarks, in truth, language can be a powerfully harmful force, especially when used to target one’s identity or looks.

Often, our generation is judged for being overly sensitive in regard to traditional social stigmas and discrimination. However, in this age of information, we are more educated than ever about the effects of slurs and the power they can have over an individual. Despite the resources available to us, though, many immature high school students continue to use such vocabulary on a day-to-day basis, spouting slurs and making rape jokes to either sound cool or based, or because they simply lack empathy. They get away with such inexcusable behavior because those around them choose not to speak out, for fear of being cast out or called a white knight.

Many excuse this kind of behavior by labelling it satirical or just a joke. However, the issue of using slurs on a regular basis is a serious problem. Although one’s tone while using such language may not be malicious, it is important to know that they are terms and phrases loaded with their own histories; simply calling them a joke doesn’t eliminate the associated stigma or the harm they cause.

All this to say, slurs are more than just words. They are inextricably tied to a history of degradation and discrimination, attitudes and concepts that can never be disregarded. While in recent years, certain communities have repurposed and reclaimed historically offensive slurs, this movement has led to prevalent, casual misuse of racial slurs. This has been observed all over social media and in person, perhaps most infamously when people say they have the n-word pass. These individuals feel entitled to use slurs despite having no direct connection to the history or community behind them, using the pass as an excuse for their own ignorance. Regardless of whether one supposedly has permission to say a slur, the word does not lose its meaning just because it’s being used in a casual manner.

Some try to integrate slurs or other hurtful language into jokes, claiming to be using sardonic comedy as an excuse. High schoolers often joke about raping their female classmates to one another, or even to their faces, in what they see as a joking manner. This so-called edgy humor is nothing but an excuse for misogynists, racists, homophobes and other discriminatory individuals to spread hate speech in a more societally palatable format. Afterall, the sole purpose of slurs and threats is ultimately to harm. It should never be acceptable to use slurs or joke about raping someone, even in the presence of close friends.

So, how do we prevent the further misuse and spread of such language? The answer lies in confrontation and education. It is our responsibility to inform not only ourselves, but also our peers, about the power of their words. Though some may feel hesitant to correct their peers or call them out if they witness them using slurs or making inappropriate jokes, in the end the worst that could happen is refusal, or light teasing. While the fear of being ostracized by others may be intimidating, ask yourself this: Would you rather continue to associate with bigoted students who won’t take a friend’s concerns into consideration, or stand up for your own beliefs and the safety of your peers? 

It is entirely hypocritical to claim to be progressive, yet refuse to acknowledge that the people you surround yourself with are impeding societal development. Ultimately, we must all work toward the denormalization of racism, homophobia, sexism and more through the discontinued use of slurs and by educating those around us on the damage such words can cause.