musings > general

On the F-word. No, not that F-word.

28 Dec, 2019 · 7 min read

Between the overindulgence, the needed break from the rest of the world, and existing in the liminal space that is the no-mans land between years, there’s something about this period of time that makes big discussions so much more common.

For many this year, the fuel for that fire came from the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special. Specifically, the part where Ruth Jones’ Nessa, and Rob Brydon’s Bryn sing Kirsty McCall and The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. In it, they leave in the controversial lyric, “you scumbag you maggot, you cheap lousy f*ggot”.

This has caused a lot concern and discussion, including among a group of my friends. This post is a summation of a series of very long message I posted in one group, trying to articulate my thoughts on the use of the word.

Because who doesn’t need the opinion of yet another heterosexual man on this?

Can the word exist without the homophobic connotations?

There is an argument that just because the word exists, it doesn’t mean that it is always said as a slur against homosexuals. Similarly, does one give a word a certain amount of undue power by not actively trying to desensitize the word?

If I’m being honest, a part of me has sympathy with that thought process. In this post I had the internal conversation around whether I should censor the word or not. I’m clearly not trying to offend anyone, so perhaps by not censoring it, I can in some way help remove some of the word’s power?

Ultimately though, as a heterosexual individual, perhaps I don’t have the power to desensitize the F word - in much the same way that as a non-black individual, I don’t have the power to desensitize the N word.

As a slight sidebar, I think that might be one of the reasons Corden and Jones decided to keep F in, but have it sung by a repressed homosexual character - rather than a confident heterosexual one.

I have used the F word, uncensored, in a number of WhatsApp chats over the last couple of days. I haven’t really thought about it - we were discussing the use of the word in the show, so I used the word.

In some if those conversations, it was made clear to me that people in the group found the word upsetting. Knowing that, I immediately stopped and won’t use the word again. Not because the word is generally upsetting - I’ve always on some level known that some people take offense - but rather specifically upsetting to someone in that group.

But what makes that an acceptable tipping point? I guess I don’t instinctively associate F as a slur in the way I would with the N-word, in part because I’m not as conditioned to it. I grew up with the F word under that same umbrella of playground insults that you used because the word sounded good, without any understanding of what it meant. (Obviously I don’t still think that, but growing up that was the association - ‘gay’ or ‘ret*rd’ were playground insults not because we were consciously homophobic or ableist, but because we were too dumb/unaware to know that what we were saying was offensive beyond our intent with the word).

The media, and society has done a pretty good job over the last couple of decades of making sure that non black people are aware they don’t own N as a word and can’t use it. Maybe societally we just aren’t there yet with F?

That was a slight tangent, but point I was trying to make was that I understand wanting to use charged language in a context where you just want to discuss it - particularly in a space where you believe that the word isn’t going to “inherently” (bad choice of word) offend or upset anyone. E.g., discussing the F word in a group of heterosexual people.

That said, as soon as it’s apparent that someone in the space you are discussing the language makes it clear that they aren’t comfortable with it, then you should probably stop.

Why are you only stopping when there’s people you know are upset?

For my money, the natural place for that conversation to go then is why does the language used make that person uncomfortable - and that’s a particularly interesting conversation when the person who is uncomfortable doesn’t obviously identify with the label used. E.g. a white person being uncomfortable around the use of the N word. Ultimately that discussion - and ones like it - eventually gets society to the point where a white person knows not to use the N word even when signing along in a club.

All of this is to say that I think there is a journey to follow with all challenging language, and part of that journey is figuring out the middle ground to have the conversation. I’m not going to pretend that’s a particularly profound statement - if anything, it’s an obvious point that I took something of a scenic route to get to.

Maybe (posits the heterosexual man), in this case the key thing is that everyone knows the F word is offensive, but that people differ on where on the “sliding scale of offensive” they think it sits.

Person A (let’s call them Pete), might be closer to the “I meant it in the same spirit as meaningless playground insults” end of the scale, compared to Person B (who we can call Dawn) perhaps being closer to the “but the history of the word puts it at the N word level slur” end of the scale.

For the Petes of the world, that the word is offensive is not reason enough to not use it. Indeed, there are plenty of offensive words we use that few people take issue with.

For me, understanding that F is offensive has it seems not been enough to stop me using it in “safe spaces” (by which in this context I mean conversations with people who know me well enough to take it as read that I am not homophobic) unless directly called out on it. Once a Dawn does call me out, I’ll stop using the word in that space without a second thought. But in a different safe space, I might not immediately make that connection.

It’s not because I don’t care about the word’s negative connotations, it’s that up until now I’m a little ashamed to admit that it hasn’t really been something that I’ve thought a great deal about.

So what are you going to do?

How do I shift further down the Pete-Dawn scale - not just in individual situations, but as an unconscious state of mind?

I agree that we should probably work towards a vernacular that doesn’t have the F word in it, and that requires me (and everyone, but I can only change me directly, and everyone else by proxy) to not have to do the mental switch from “this is a safe space, it doesn’t matter what you say” to “you should be mindful of what you say in case it hurts someone”.

That shouldn’t be a switch - it should always be a “you should be mindful”. If more people stopped using the word it would fallout of our language - and that only comes if people stop using it everywhere.

So maybe that’s the way into that conversation? Not “you shouldn’t say it because it’s hurtful to people that aren’t in this conversation” but “we should be better than this because we must represent what civilised and mindful language looks like”.