Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"That's So Gay": Hate Speech?

Vanessa, over at feministing, has a post up on what schools should do to curb the behavior of teens who use the phrase "that's so gay." This phrase has been around a long time and it lives not just on high school, middle school, and elementary school campuses, but is regularly uttered by my undergraduates.

According to Vanessa, an elementary school in Fresno suspended a student for uttering this phrase at a soccer game and then sent a letter home to parents, directing them to have conversations with their kids about appropriate use of language. The ACLU responded to this case by insisting that context matters. I am with the ACLU on this one.

While I no longer hear a harmless phrase being uttered when young kids or teens say "that's so gay," I am fairly confident that most of those who say it are not overtly homophobic (Vanessa considers this homophobic speech). One of the commenter's on feministing's post equated the phrase "that's so gay" with "that's so black" or "that's so jew," but I don't see it. I think the proper analogy would be phrases like "you gypped me." When a child or adult uses that phrase, it is certainly not present to their mind that they are disparaging Romani (gypsies). Sure, the phrase has a history rooted in the racist attitudes toward the Romani, but as Nietzsche ("On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense") or Derrida ("White Mythology") show us, metaphors tend to become "dead" in language and thereby hide, for users, their origins.

What is also interesting about the phrase "that's so gay," is that 50 years ago, the phrase would've meant "that's so wonderful." Language is essentially metaphorical and dynamic. I think that one reason why so many of us lefties abandoned the "political correctness" movement was due to our realization that if you dig deep enough you will find that almost all speech is tainted with the racist, sexist, classist, imperialist, ad nauseaum attitudes of our cultures. Sure, WS folks still try to avoid using the word "disseminate" to refer to the influence of ideas and most of us, out of respect, but there is no punishment for using that phrase in your scholarship, lectures, or conversation. (God help us if there was!)

While we want to encourage young children to grow up tolerant, I think this battle against the phrase "that's so gay," is a waste of energy. Hell, I have heard my gay students use that phrase. I am hard pressed to see it as an example of hate speech, although the more mature one gets, the less likely one is to use such a phrase at all. Can you imagine a Board Meeting in which a member rejects a proposal by saying "that's so gay"?

My approach would be to educate the users about the connotation of that phrase and how it might be unintentionally offensive to gay people. Help students make the connection. But, to try to quash this sort of speech with suspensions is, to my mind, to make this phrase all the more powerful. What kid doesn't love to trangress boundaries in this way?