The goal of ThinkB4YouSpeak.com is to attempt to counter the homophobic remarks (such as “that’s so gay”) that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers face. The main motivation for this campaign is that the casual use of such phrases, it is claimed, can lead to more overt hostility against LGBT.
As a college professor, I do deal with some teenagers (mainly 18-19 year old students). However, students tend to feel some small degree of reluctance to throw slurs around in front of professors (but less so than in the past). My main dealings with teenagers “in the wild” has been in the context of online gaming, mainly Halo 3 and other such shooters.
I used to play Halo 3 online on Xbox live quite often. While I enjoy the actual game, the post game banter can be rather horrific. If my team wins, the vanquished all too often throw out a chorus of vulgarities and insults. In the rare event that my team loses, we are regularly treated to shouted obscenities. If I am playing a “pickup game” with random people, woe to the player who has a bad game-his performance is critiqued with such phrases as “fag” , “that was so gay”, and “you c**k sucking, a** f***ing fag!” While this does not happen all the time, I am always surprised when I hear a calm voice saying “good game” or “wow, that was close…you guys played well.” So, if my own experience is any indication of how teens (and adults) behave, the folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have their work cut out for them.
One question that arises is the matter of whether the use of such phrases and terms should be a matter of concern. On the one hand, kids just use whatever words happen to be in vogue as insults at the time. As such, I suspect that most kids who use “gay” or “fag” as an insult do not really harbor deep hatred of homosexuals and the use of such terms does not cause them to act against LGBT. They use such phrases reflexively and without much thought. In fact, the terms are most often applied to straight people in response to things that have no connection to sexual orientation at all. For example, if someone says “that was gay how that guy sniped me like that” in a Halo game, he is just expressing his displeasure at being sniped and not expressing any hostility towards LGBTs. Of course, LGBTs will feel upset if they here such terms being used, but we all have to face things that upset and annoy us.
On the other hand, some people who use the phrases and terms do harbor hostility towards LGBTs and the repeated use of such terms no doubt adds to their views. After all, as Aristotle argued, we are what we do. Someone who regularly uses such phrases and terms will be affected by them and it will shape his character. In the Republic Plato also argues about how what we observe can corrupt us. While he was discussing poetry and the arts, his arguments would seem to apply here as well. If someone hears such phrases being used as insults, they can be corrupted into using those terms and also corrupted into the mindset behind such views. While it is a long distance between saying “that is so gay” and attacking homosexuals with a baseball bat, the first step towards that swing begins with the language.
Further, there is the harm done to the LGBTs. While I am straight, I can imagine what it would be like for a LGBT to hear those things. After all, I was called “nerd” and “track hack”(an insult against people who run track) in school and did not like that. Even if it never escalated into more overt hostility, it would still be needlessly unpleasant.
Granting that it is harmful for such phrases to be used, the next matter is what is to be done about it.
The folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have launched a campaign to attempt to curb the use of such phrases. Their current campaign works like this: they have various advertisements that replace the “gay” in the phrase “that’s so gay” with the target of the ad (that is, the type of folks who tend to use the “that’s so gay” phrase). One example is “that’s so jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence” and another is “that’s so gamer guy who has more video games than friends.” They even have on targeted at cheerleaders that says “that’s so cheerleader who like can’t like say smart stuff.”
Like the fine folks at Penny Arcade I have my doubts about the effectiveness of such an approach.
First, there is the point made by Aristotle in his writings on moral education. Aristotle argues that most people cannot be made good (or at least less bad) by mere words. As he argues, most people are ruled by fear rather than shame and are only deterred by punishments. The main reason he gives as to why mere words will not work is that “dislodging by arguments long embedded habit is difficult if not impossible.”
Having faced off against the target audience for these advertisements online, I am quite confident that they will not work. I will admit that there are some people who use “that’s so gay” in a state of naive ignorance and can be corrected by being made aware of the serious implication of their usage. However, the sort of folks who scream “fag” and “that is gay” as they play Halo 3 are most likely not amenable to reason. They are folks of this sort and are largely immune to attempts to get them to reflect. The folks that are most likely to be more overtly hostile towards LGBTs are of this sort or even worse and clearly will not be lead into the light so easily.
Second, the specific approach taken is a poor one. The ads seem to be an attempt to get the target into a “reversing the situation” mode. That is, the target is supposed to feel the cruel sting of the insult and thus be made the feel the pain the LGBTs feel when they hear “that’s so gay.” There are numerous problems with this.
The main problem is, as noted above, the target audience most in need of enlightenment is the most resistant to such an approach. A secondary problem is that trying to be a jerk (even in a weak and lame way) to counter jerks is not an effective strategy. This is like trying to counter stupidity by acting stupid or hatred by hating. Another problem is that the ads lack sting. While the “that’s so gay” probably really hurts some LGBT folks, I suspect that almost no one will feel the cruel sting of oppression from these lame attacks. To use a game analogy, the ThinkB4 folks have entered the battleground wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and cut-off jeans. They are armed with bouquets of flowers. Their opposition is wearing battle armor and armed with big guns. Did I mention that the guns have chain saws on them? They are, as was pointed out at Penny Arcade, woefully under armed for the opposition.
Thus, while the campaign has noble motives and goals, their methodology is lacking.
Because of the moral right to free expression, it would be wrong to compel people not to use such language. Naturally, the overtly hostile behavior can be checked and stopped, but merely saying nasty things is not adequate grounds for the application of compulsive means.
So, what should be done? Well, it does make sense to try to correct people. That can, in some cases, work. While it won’t change how people think in a direct way, it can deter people from saying obnoxious things in public.
Another option, the one I have used when really annoyed, is to forgo slapping folks with a bouquet of flowers and rip at them with a real verbal weapon. While this is probably morally dubious, it is quite satisfying. For example, here is an incident from when I was playing Halo 3:
Player: “You fag! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck!”
Me: “That is not very sportsman like.”
Player: “You’re a fag! You F@cking suck! You F@cking suck!”
Me: “Is that all you’ve got? Don’t you have anything original in the way of insults?”
Me: “You just keep saying the same thing over. What about some originality, buddy?”
Player: “You’re a fag!”
Me: “That is not original. You just keep saying that.”
Player: “F@ck you, you fag!”
Me: “It is my considered opinion that you f@ck dogs.”
Player: “What!? What did you say, you fag?”
Me: “You heard me just fine, you poodle f@cker.”
While I probably should not advocate this approach, if you want to make someone feel the cruel sting of language, you need to use something with the right sort of caliber. The lame approach of ThinkB4 lacks that sort of firepower, but my approach worked quite well.
Naturally, I think that a more rational approach would be preferable. But, to paraphrase Aristotle, some people listen to reason, but you have to put the f@cking boot to others.