george carlin and the gay pejorative

I observed an interesting conversation the other day in an IRC channel for photography I hang out in. Well, okay, it wasn’t very interesting, but it spurred an interesting line of thought in me. Someone in the room dropped the word “gay” in typical pejorative adjective context: “criticism is gay”, I think it was. Someone else chimed in with the obligatory scolding that you ought not use the word “gay” as a pejorative. The person in question defended his usage with the (rather tired) evolution of language defense, and then went the extra step of citing George Carlin as an authority that he was right. Now, I’m a big fan of Carlin, so I was a little irritated at this.

Obviously, he’s referring to George Carlin’s expansive career-long fight against the tyranny of euphemism and political correctness. Carlin was outspoken on this topic, frequently condemning society’s constant redefinition and creation of new labels to replace old ones that were deemed offensive. His routine on the word “nigger” is fairly notorious, as was his stance on the term “crippled” and other such labels, new and old. I’m a big fan of Carlin in many ways, including his take on the fallacy of obscenity, but I think he may have been a little myopic or generous in his “they’re just words” stance regarding euphemism (and, possibly, epithets). The line between them isn’t always so easily drawn. Curious, I did a bit of research to find out if Carlin ever explicitly spoke about the use of “gay” as an adjective/pejorative. I couldn’t find anything, so to my knowledge he never addressed it directly (though he was an early and vocal supporter of gay rights long before it was even a particularly hot topic). What I did find, though, was a startling number of arguments similar to the above conversation, where Carlin’s “it’s just words” stances on obscenity and/or euphemism were used to justify or dismiss criticisms of using “gay” in this way. “Don’t be so uptight”, the line goes, “it’s just a word.. allow me to quote George Carlin on obscenity, blah blah”. This troubled me, because I don’t think that’s what Carlin really intended at all.

In his bit on the reviled N-word, he contends that it’s okay when Richard Pryor uses it, because he’s black – it’s all the racist assholes out there that are the problem. “It’s the context that counts,” he said. Carlin’s choice of Pryor as an example proved slightly ironic, as Pryor notoriously stopped using the word in a very public and orchestrated bid to get people to stop using it. Probably because Pryor realized something that Carlin may have missed (or that he’s simply misunderstood about, I’m not sure): that words have power.

Carlin is right that context matters, but context is a tricky and subtle thing. There are labels that are slightly benign, but carry an unfavorably negative connotation (e.g. “crippled”, or “disabled”). Then there are labels that perhaps simply harken to a less tolerant time, and thus are viewed negatively (“colored”, “negro”, or even “black”). There are also labels that serve no other purpose than to dehumanize and demean (“nigger”). There are also, though, cases of labels like “gay” being used as an adjective to explicitly imply a negative connotation. “That’s gay” == “That’s bad.” This isn’t as simple as a case of “just words”, because in this case, “gay” isn’t being used merely to refer to a gay person. It’s literally being used to correlate homosexuality with badness. So while it might be a little silly to get your feathers ruffled over someone using “disabled” or “black” to refer to a person, it’s slightly different when the use of the word literally implies negativity. When a “racist asshole”, as Carlin put it, uses the word “nigger”, that’s a bad thing. When someone uses the word “gay” to imply negativity, that’s a bad thing.

Sure, I know: the evolution of language will invariably result in situations like these. A word may evolve over time and become entrenched to the point that the person using it may not even be consciously associating the word with its negative origin. And so it doesn’t make someone a bad person if they use the word in this way, but it doesn’t make it innocuous, either. Whether it was intended or not, subtlely, and subconsciously, the association between “gay” and “bad” is being maintained in our cultural lexicon nonetheless.

This isn’t a call for authoritarian censorship of the words, of course. I’m simply advocating a little awareness. Obviously, I can’t speak for George Carlin, and regrettably, he’s no longer around to let us know what he thinks. But euphemism and pejorative are not the same thing, and I think it’s a misappropriation of Carlin’s legacy to use his stance against the former to defend the egregious use of the latter.