Campaign to stop use of “gay” as pejorative probably won’t work.

If you spend any time around teenagers, or playing games online, you’ve probably heard someone use the phrase “That’s so gay.” Based on the context in most of the situations I’ve heard it used it’s meaning is one of “lame” or “stupid” rather than “homosexual.” I guess you could take that to mean that being a homosexual is akin to being lame or stupid, but I don’t think that’s what most of the people who use the phrase are actually trying to convey. Some of them, sure, but not most of them.

Still it’s irritated enough folks in the LGBT community that they’ve started a campaign called Think Before You Speak which aims to get people to stop using the word gay in that manner:

That’s so not going to work.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens experience homophobic remarks and harassment throughout the school day, creating an atmosphere where they feel disrespected, unwanted and unsafe. Homophobic remarks such as “that’s so gay” are the most commonly heard; these slurs are often unintentional and a common part of teens’ vernacular. Most do not recognize the consequences, but the casual use of this language often carries over into more overt harassment.

This campaign aims to raise awareness about the prevalence and consequences of anti-LGBT bias and behavior in America’s schools. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce and prevent the use of homophobic language in an effort to create a more positive environment for LGBT teens. The campaign also aims to reach adults, including

school personnel and parents; their support of this message is crucial to the success of efforts to change behavior.

In addition to the use of that particular phrase they also want to stomp out the words ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke.’ I’ve been thinking about this campaign since I first caught wind of it awhile ago and I think it’s an admirable goal, but I don’t feel it’s going to work. However I couldn’t articulate why I had that feeling. Then I saw this Penny Arcade comic strip and the accompanying blurb they wrote about it and it became clear:

Trying to regulate how people speak is a problematic endeavor.  People sometimes try to assert that Information Wants To Be Free, when that isn’t actually true, because information can’t want things.  It’s a false corollary of something that is true, though – namely, that Communication Cannot Be Contained.  A true corollary of this notion would be that People Will Say Things You Don’t Like, And May Even Hate, a shard of schoolyard wisdom I previously thought well distributed.

The incoherency springs from the fact that the spots themselves insult the target of their message, which might work to attract attention, but the actual payload of the spots isn’t savage enough to kindle any kind of genuine analysis.  They’re trying to regulate jerks by being jerks, but they’re not really jerks, so they can’t carry it off.  This is the danger of assuming that your opponent is anything like yourself.  They need to give their actual hatred of this practice a voice, every moment they were compressed into some subset of themselves, every brutal act, every misshapen poem they were forced to write, and concentrate this into a fragmentary lozenge of spoken power.

No-one responds to this kind of diffuse scolding, least of all young men, least of all from strangers who present themselves as archwizards of prim speech and perfect morality.  Bigots and stupid kids speak this way expressly to promulgate the root concepts or to provoke a reaction. Telling them to “knock it off,” as this campaign hilariously does, is like exposing your belly to these wolves.

The example image I’ve included from the campaign illustrates Tycho’s point perfectly. You say that to someone in Xbox Live that just said “that’s so gay” and they’ll just laugh at you. And then tell you how gay you are.

Part of the problem is that the people who use the phrase without the intent to demean homosexuals don’t see it as particularly pejorative. It’s like getting upset over the phrase “that sucks”, which most people would consider about as mild an epithet as any. While it’s true that that phrase has its origins in a sexual act, the usage of it almost always has nothing to do with sex and often sex is the furthest thing from the person’s mind who said it. The phrase “that’s so gay” is often seen as just as mild by those who use it.

If anything a campaign like this may end up backfiring and actually increase the usage of the phrase by those folks who enjoy winding others up. Especially on the Internet where anonymity provides many with the confidence to say whatever shocking thing they can think of for no other reason than to intentionally piss off the people who don’t like it. The truth is it’s yet another bit of slang that will probably fade out over time as new phrases come along. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with trying to discourage its usage, but this campaign is probably the wrong way to go about it.