words are metaphors anyway, what's the big deal?
November 1, 2011 6:57 AM   Subscribe

I got hit with some pretty hard core cognitive dissonance last night. I'm looking for help arriving at mental homeostasis again. So it turns out that "derp" is ableist (although some say it's not). I am totally against all "isms" and so I don't enjoy feeling like I contribute. But that's not all...

I enjoy rage comics, where it is used as the name for all characters (derp, derpette, etc). In this context, it's not being used in a derogatory way, because all the characters, protagonists and antagonists, are named such.

On the other hand, many people have pointed to its source (which I can't locate) in humiliating people who are in wheelchairs or have asymmetrical facial features (a.k.a. physically and mentally handicapped). If it comes out of that, then I want no part in it.

Contention 1: Can I be comfortable enjoying humor that other people find offensive? Do I just have to draw the line somewhere, and say "I think this is funny but that's crossing the line?" Or, should I never draw the line, and continue shrinking the area of what is acceptable and what is verboten?

But! I also am a linguistic descriptivist! I think that the "meaning" of a word is what it's perceived as. Language is fluid. I feel like the same arguments that I apply against "derp etc" are the same arguments I fight against when people complain about "(kids these days / other cultures) (making up words / using words wrong)."

Applying interpretations that were never intended, I think this is inclusive instead of exclusive. We are all derps. There's nothing especially offensive about that part of the comic unless the reader views it and decides that what the creators (and readers) are doing is perpetuating language that is harmful to others.

Contention 2: How do I balance my belief that words are fluid and have only perceived meanings but no intrinsic meanings, with my belief that fag, nig, derp, retard, etc. are "bad" words because of the etymology, even if they are used in other contexts? Is it just a distance thing

The third issue I'm wrestling with is the over-all obvious conclusion: There are no derogatory terms that are acceptable. All of them are a result of saying "You are like this person who is different than us and therefore not good." Standard words, like Idiot, Jerk, Motherfucker, Crazy, Ugly, Son of a Bitch, Bitch, etc. Also other words, like "God Damned," imply distancing - you are one of the unholy. Probably words like fuck and shit could be seen this way, too, if you dug deep enough. Ah yes - sex is a wonderful thing. To use it as an insult or dirty word is to make it something corrupt, which harms people who enjoy engaging in sex.

Moreover, the very usage of derogatory language is an act of reifying perceptions. I perceive my feelings that are produced by another as anger, but instead of stating "I am angry because of how I feel about what you said," we push the moral responsibility on to the other person and say "You are a jerk." Instead of saying "I am unhappy because your error caused me more work to do," we say "You are so stupid." Or instead of saying "I am sad because nothing I can do will stop you from hurting me and the people I love" we say "They are an evil person."

Contention 3: Is this a correct interpretation? Am I just talking myself in circles here? Would trying to be totally innocuous result in me just being bland, pointless, etc?
posted by rebent to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Your comfort level is something you have to find on your own. But yes, there can be humor to be found and mined in the most offensive things.

There's no way to avoid offending someone if they're determined to be offended. The best a conscientious person can do in this life is try their best not to truly hurt someone.

Offense is not the same as hurt. Someone can just be offended to be offended and not truly injured by something. So do keep that in mind.
posted by inturnaround at 7:02 AM on November 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

You are definitely over-thinking this. A lot of humor is offensive in some way and like most other forms of communication you need to pick your battles and be aware of context/audience. Ultimately it doesn't matter what you decide here, what matters is your awareness of what you say and who is around you at the time.
posted by Kimberly at 7:13 AM on November 1, 2011

Wow, this is some beanplating. You need to decide how important this is to you, in order to function on a daily level. There's cultivating gracefulness and tact and then there's obsessing over it and becoming so involved in the process that you can no longer express yourself, including the 'shadow' parts of yourself as well as the better parts, and becoming paralyzed from that.

There are no derogatory terms that are acceptable.
Of course not. That's the whole point of derogation - to make them into 'the other' in some way, the not-you, generally heirarchically lesser than you. A perfectly egalitarian society wouldn't have one (except maybe for non-egalitarians) but that comes with its own set of faults that I'm not going to even begin to touch here.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 7:17 AM on November 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have you ever seen Blazing Saddles? If not, give it a watch. It's practically a study in how rather offensive terms and concepts -- the words "nigger", "chink" and "faggot" are used in the very opening scene -- can work not just toward humor, but social progress, all without being academic or heavy-handed.
posted by griphus at 7:22 AM on November 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Know your meme traces this back to South Park and contains no pictures of people that appear to be handicapped in any way.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:26 AM on November 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

You don't have to have control over what you find funny, you merely have to control what you say and do.

I laugh at TONS of things online, or with close friends, that I would never dream of saying myself in mixed company or posting on the Internet, etc.

"Derp" is one of those things. It really obviously comes out of the sort of mocking "retard noise" that people make at each other. It's less obvious in some comics, waaaay more obvious in others, depending on what kind of person made the comic.

By sometimes saying or laughing these things in private, am I an ablist monster? I don't think so. Humor is complicated! But I never, ever want to be in a position where I am unintentionally causing someone pain using words like the ones you listed. That is not an option for me. And frankly, I wish more people felt that way, because when I overhear someone using "gay" to describe something they don't like, I get really angry and silently wish fatal diseases upon them.
posted by hermitosis at 7:28 AM on November 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Along with Blazing Saddles, I'd also recommend exploring some of John Callahan's cartooning. A lot of humor involves taking stereotypes that we hold, whether or not we want to, and exploring other ways that we can relate to them.
posted by straw at 7:28 AM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Rage comics are offensive, that is the core of their humor. This isn't about words, this is about what you find funny and if you can live with that. Don't hide behind some over-analysis of words so that you don't have to do the work of becoming comfortable with who you are or changing who you are if you are not comfortable with it.
posted by bdc34 at 7:28 AM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a much longer post to write about the function of joyous empathy in seeing funny faces, without reference to handicaps. But that doesn't matter really. There's no accounting for taste, there is no such thing as a utopia, and you cannot foist your standards on others with any sort of reliable outcome.

You can just try to not be a dick and lead by example. So use more positive non-ableist words, be more descriptive in your language, and be happy with that without relying on shared philosophical acceptance.
posted by hanoixan at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2011

On the other hand, many people have pointed to its source (which I can't locate)

I'm not finding this source either. Which isn't to say that that's not its origin, but I can't find any evidence of it.

I also think you're overthinking this, and I say this as someone who isn't shy about asking people to think about the language they use (e.g. "that's so gay"), at least when I'm in the room (digital room or actual room).

There are no derogatory terms that are acceptable.

As Weighted Companion Cube points out, well, yeah - that's the whole point of them.

Moreover, the very usage of derogatory language is an act of reifying perceptions. I perceive my feelings that are produced by another as anger, but instead of stating "I am angry because of how I feel about what you said," we push the moral responsibility on to the other person and say "You are a jerk." Instead of saying "I am unhappy because your error caused me more work to do," we say "You are so stupid." Or instead of saying "I am sad because nothing I can do will stop you from hurting me and the people I love" we say "They are an evil person."

Sometimes the moral responsibility does in fact lie with the person who injures you. The one time I was nearly gay-bashed was not a case where me reframing the incident as "I was frightened when you chased me" does anyone any good: The fact is the guy chose to call me names and chase me down an escalator - carefully peeling responsibility from his actions in order to not, what, call his actions by their true name seems, well, dumb to me. He already knew that what he was doing was scaring the shit out of me; that's at least in part why he was doing it.
posted by rtha at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

There are no derogatory terms that are acceptable.

I honestly find myself trying to live there. A reasoned dismissal of an action, attitude or belief is much, much more satisfying than a simple stock derogatory insult, and causes no collateral damage. It's not a propriety thing - it's a matter of trying to say what you mean - I don't mean that so-and-so is an asshole, I mean that they are behaving selfishly and shortsightedly. Or whatever.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:31 AM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

herp derp has nothing to do with making fun of the handicapped. One guy saying that does doesn't make it so.

Feel free to derp away.
posted by empath at 7:31 AM on November 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Isn't "derp" from South Park originally? And didn't it originate not from the disabled kids on the show but from "regular" people being willfully stupid?

I mean, if the origin of the phrase and not its current usage (which doesn't seem to be pointed in any way at the disabled) is what's concerning you, doesn't this carry some weight?
posted by Aquaman at 7:32 AM on November 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

its current usage (which doesn't seem to be pointed in any way at the disabled)

With a little googling I can find plenty of examples that refute this -- pictures of actually disabled people labeled with DERP captions, or pictures of non-disabled people that make them appear to be disabled.
posted by hermitosis at 7:38 AM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I had to give "derp" a dictionary definition, it would be "The imaginary sound someone makes when they are being or doing something stupid." That leaves the word open to all sorts of abuse (like the captions of disabled people) and normal use (Responding to making a mental mistake by exclaiming, "DERP!").

It also should be noted that there seems to be a difference between the the use of "derp" as I defined it and the meme iteration. The latter is what I think is being described as ableist. The former is more akin to how it is used in rage comics ("derping along", etc.) Because it is a newer word, a person's first exposure to it will probably determine what they think about it.

So, I say derp away. If you end up offending someone the best you can do is explain how the image macros are an abuse of the term - they could just as easily be putting "stupid", "duh" or "FAIL" on a lot of those pictures and be just as hurtful.
posted by charred husk at 7:57 AM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you limit yourself only to things that no one anywhere finds offensive, your life will be very bland. And you will be a slave.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:01 AM on November 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

I always think of it as situational, based on power relations and "family". Obviously, power relations are complicated and so an accurate interpretation is always a moving target.

In general, white folks have structural racial privilege at this historical moment. That may change; it is not always true in every situation globally. But it is broadly true in the US right now. So white folks don't get to use racialized humor, because when we use it the entire weight of our systemic privilege is behind them.

In certain specific instances - in some close friendships or in a particular social setting - racial insults are the norm, but no one should presume this "family" privilege without having the closeness and trust-building that go with it.

Similarly, the more structural privilege you have, the more careful you should be about using language which "others" people who are already at a structural disadvantage.

This is why "honky" has always been sort of a minor comic insult (see early seventies Doonesbury if you doubt me) but "n*****" has always been grave language. A white person might get pissed off if they're called a cracker or a honky (or they might not), but it's not language that calls up images of racist beatings by POC, job discrimination by POC, lynchings of white folks by POC, etc. Calling someone "white boy" is usually in the context of "oh, you think you're so great, but you are really [naive/ignorant/untalented/out of your depth]". It's generally a reactive insult.

So language is situational. There are no permanent rules, and you need to be constantly aware of context and others' reactions. Some folks call this "code switching"...and people whose language is not privileged generally "code switch" adroitly as a matter of course.

Also, I'd say that the more abstract the figure being referenced as an insult, the less significant the insult. So "c--ks-----r" is not abstract, because it's insulting to non-straight dudes. "Motherfucker" is pretty abstract - there is no organized constituency of people having incestuous sex. "Asshole" relies on some kind of meh ideas about the body and abjection, but since it's an ordinary part of the human anatomy, there really is no person being referenced. Ill-wishing someone, as "god-damn you", seems to be in another category.

Just on a personal note: if you're feeling frustrated about the language that you're "allowed" to use, take a break from thinking about it. In my experience, people of privilege (including me) often get into this headspace of "those [PEOPLE] won't allow me to say ANYTHING anymore and they're all so sensitive and what makes them the boss of the world and I'm just going to say WHATEVER I WANT even if some people say it's racist"....and then things just get terrible.

Also, some folks use "those PEOPLE are so SENSITIVE and they have so many demands and it's just IMPOSSIBLE" as an excuse when they really want to use racist and cruel language. They blame their use of the language on those "impossible" people who are making "ridiculous" "politically correct" demands, but really, they just want to delegitimate "those people" so that they can enjoy using racist, sexist and homophobic slurs without feeling bad. You may need to ask yourself if this is you.
posted by Frowner at 8:11 AM on November 1, 2011 [22 favorites]

Humanity will never be rid of the impulse to make fun of the stupid. Don't be cruel on purpose; try not to be cruel inadvertantly. Recognize that you will sometimes fail. And also that we will always value some things more than others (intelligence, courage, talent, love, dignity) and revealed incongruities involving the lack or loss of those things will always be funny. That's about all you can do, really.
posted by Diablevert at 8:23 AM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm on my way out and don't have time to tackle this one in depth, but I would suggest that you do some background reading on ableist language that goes further than "one random person on Tumblr says yes and one says no".

Perhaps start here: http://www.disabledfeminists.com/2009/11/23/o-language-again/
posted by camyram at 8:35 AM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am also a descriptivist for the most part. However the world of communication is made up of everyone who uses language, not just me. So I have to look at how other people use language and understand that people's ideas of meaning are informed by other people's use of the same language that I use. So, it's usually impossible to use any sort of insult that will not bother someone, though I suppose you could work on your mean-sounding nonsense words. That said, you should concern yourself about whether the insults you use are possibly offensive to the people in your social and work communities, and what your relationship is to the people who are affected/offended/harmed by your language.

Language is a fraught topic. As is privilege. As is trying to discuss either of these with people who have a different background in the meaning and use of words and privilege than you do, or who have a different relationship to whatever the power structure is in your community, country or workplace. So a good communicator, to my mind, is mindful of those things. While I don't know if it's a good goal to never cause offense, you're more effective if you never cause offense unintentionally [or make it right if you do] and if you set reasonable expectations of what people can expect if they communicate with you and be consistent.

Then you're more than welcome to tell people "Well I'm sorry if you're offended by my use of the word 'motherfucker' but I've thought about it and I've decided I'm okay with my use of this word and you'll need to think about how you feel about that..." [I mean not actually have these conversations per se, but have that be the general gist]. At some level if people are going to be offended because I call something I dislike "lame" then we can talk about it and we're both adults and we can decide how we want to work that out. What I want to not do is inadvertently offend someone who I am not trying to offend because I am being lazy and not thinking ["Oh gosh did I just say 'retard' to my boss who has a developmentally disabled brother. Jesus, I suck"] I get away from most of this, personally, by really ratcheting down my offensive-type speech when I'm in anything I'd consider mixed company.

There are also crusaders who will get all up in your business because they're offended FOR other people. You can choose what you want to do about these situations. My basic feeling is that even if I don't necessarily agree with people's interpretations of words I'm rarely put out by not using them around them, if they'll forgive my occasional slip. I don't view this as censorship, I view it as manners. That said I think it's also manners not to get up in people's business about an occasional poor word choice, but activism is all about deciding to make a big deal out of things that other people are ignoring [possibly at their peril] and language is a moving target.

I did a thesis paper in colleg eon the so-called "generic" he in English and how it was so clearly, according to the linguistic data available at the time, still interpreted as male no matter how it was intended but it was a constant struggle to get people not to use it. Now we see Facebook using singular "they" construction and I silently gloat in my thesis committee's direction when I think about it. Point being, you can never be sure both where language IS but also where it's shifting to. You have to think about what the points are you're trying to make and where you fall along a number of continuums [always polite vs always keeping it real, risk taking vs risk averse reinofrcing power structures vs speaking truth to power nice vs jerk, etc]. You can't totally determine what people are going to think about you but you can, with some effort, make sure you're being clear, effective and deliberate in your speech.
posted by jessamyn at 8:43 AM on November 1, 2011 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for all your very thoughtful, informative responses. I would reply to each of you personally but I do not want to threadsquat.

I am still upset with myself about this topic, but C.D. never goes away that quickly. I think I know how I will change my mind/actions, even if I'm not yet at that stage.

My conclusions, based on your advice:

1. Yes, I can be comfortable laughing at jokes that other people find offensive. I will not be comfortable laughing at jokes that I myself am offended by. Trying to draw lines is time consuming, and because of the changing nature of language, unproductive. A better idea is to be sincere, and willing to change based on the environment.

2. I should give myself the same advice that I give college freshmen: Yes, it is true that there is nothing incorrect about the way you wrote that sentence, but as an effort to communicate effectively with a particular audience, it has failed. And so, just because there's nothing wrong with "Derp", it now perhaps has the power to instill within me feelings of injustice. If that is the case, I should happily abandon it as offensive; otherwise, it is perfectly fine if it is used.

3.I'm still not sure if I'm comfortable with phrases like "Oh, duh, I forgot my lunch because I'm an idiot." Knowing myself, I imagine that they will become an annoyance on par with ascribing value to things (I don't believe things have value), making excuses for myself (I think results are more important than supposed intentions) and reacting to people in a grouping mentality (I don't believe the world should be us vs. them, even if that's how we are programmed socially or genetically). Which is to say, I will probably continue engaging in such language, but occasionally be mad at myself for it.
posted by rebent at 10:01 AM on November 1, 2011

Response by poster: but gosh dang it the problem with prescriptive/descriptive linguistics is that even if I myself am fine with using certain words because it does not harm myself or those around me, if I employ or encourage that language on a wider level (the internet), it can facilitate the inclusion of biased language into every-day vocabulary, thereby increasing "isms" across the planet for the next few generations.

But on the other hand, it is so much easier to destroy than it is to create. Any words, no matter how polite, once applied in a pejorative way, loses all previous context and becomes a tool of inequality. Therefore, trying to stem this tide is not done by challenging the words used by the oppressors but challenging the oppressors ourselves. To help stop inequality, I shouldn't worry about the prescribed definitions of insults so much as who I am insulting and how I am doing so.

But, on the first hand again, the correct, mindful process only affects those whom I engage with, and not the broad community of language-using people. The mere use of language alone is what contributes to the cultural dictionary, and not the actions, feelings, and sympathies that may lie behind it.

Or does it?
posted by rebent at 10:09 AM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

But don't give these words too much power. They're not magical. They mean something because people ascribe meaning to them. And what something means to one person isn't the same as another person's meaning.
posted by inturnaround at 10:26 AM on November 1, 2011

This is interesting. You and the blogger at monkeyknifefight appear to be reading in a meaning for 'derp' that didn't previously exist because of illustrations (eg derpyhooves) and other, similar words used in similar contexts (e.g. spaz, moron, etc...) have the connotations you wish to avoid. There's an implicit, unconcious assumption of meaning by association, rather than a verifiable root cause.

Is it a useful thing to exclude a word because it seems to be implicitly (rather than actually) bad? Is it wrong to use by association?
posted by bonehead at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2011

But, on the first hand again, the correct, mindful process only affects those whom I engage with, and not the broad community of language-using people. The mere use of language alone is what contributes to the cultural dictionary, and not the actions, feelings, and sympathies that may lie behind it.

Or does it?

Language does not happen in a vacuum. It is used and understood by humans in human contexts; our very direct experience and engagement with language all the freaking time gives lie to "the mere use of language alone is what contributes to the cultural dictionary": language does not happen without actions, feelings, and sympathies, both intentional and un-.
posted by rtha at 10:52 AM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can only offer you my own personal view here, and that is that you are seriously over-thinking it.

I think, as a very broad and general statement, that "our" culture has - initially for very sound reasons - moved too far towards "Let's not offend/hurt" and too far away from "Oh for Pete's sake lighten up, grow a hide and learn to recognise a non-serious or ironic remark."

This appears not to be the prevailing view on Mefi, and by some measure, so I'll just leave it at that.
posted by Decani at 11:59 AM on November 1, 2011

I'm going to argue for more bean-plating and not less.

I thoroughly enjoy Louis C.K., who is well-known for saying some incredibly outrageous and offensive things. I can't stand Jeff Dunham, who is well-known for casual racism and puppets and not being very funny. But Jeff Dunham never says "nigger" or "faggot", while Louis C.K. says those things all the time. So why do I like one of them and not the other one?

The difference, for me, is in what's happening through the performance. Who or what is the target of the humor? Where is the power dynamic and the status shift? Is the stereotype being invoked or deconstructed; is it being recalled mindfully or mindlessly?

I don't believe that anything is off-limits. I also don't believe that people therefore have no responsibility to handle difficult subjects with care. Freedom of expression does not confer freedom from responsibility. So, it's not so much what you're saying or enjoying as why you're saying and enjoying it.

I also think you're spending a lot of time thinking about what "isms" you are (descriptivist, activist) and what isms you're not (ableist, racist), which is ok but doesn't really seem to talk about who you are so much as what movements you belong to. So, more bean-plating, not less, but focused on your particular plate of beans and your comfort level and ideas, not adherence to the prevailing trend of the moment.
posted by Errant at 12:19 PM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

See also Ricky Gervais and the word mong.
posted by penguin pie at 1:20 PM on November 1, 2011

I like that you don't want to participate in unkind humor. There are a lot of funny things; if you avoid -ist humor (racist, sexist, ageist, etc.), there will still be many things that make you laugh. If someone asserts that herp or derp is anti-disabled people, ask them for documentation. Urban Dictionary. If someone subverts a word to make it unkind, do your best to not propagate the word in that meaning. I wish people weren't so mean, but many are, either consciously or carelessly. Try hard to be kind, but don't let the tiny details derail you.
posted by theora55 at 3:30 PM on November 1, 2011

I too have wrestled with the linguistic descriptivism vs offensive language issue, and here are two conclusions I have come to:

1. It's okay to be a linguistic descriptivist for work, and to silently seethe about misplaced apostrophes, clunky constructions, and Americanisms in my head in my free time :)

2. There's a big difference between objecting to "language misuse by those kids these days" and offensive language. Sure, split infinitives "offend" some people. But there is no oppressed minority group that is further oppressed by split infinitives. So I can deal with the fact that my continued use of them upsets some people. This is not true for people offended by ableist, racist language. In the latter cases, I do not believe that I personally (not being a member of the affected groups) have a right to determine what is offensive and what is not, so I leave it to them to decide what they object to, and then as a courtesy I avoid using that language. Therefore _I_ am not being prescriptivist, but I do avoid contributing to oppression.
posted by lollusc at 3:46 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

According to the origin and meaning of "derp" over at Know Your Meme, it seems like a pretty big stretch to call it ableist. Unless referring to anyone at all as comically stupid is ableist, in which case 95% of western comedy is ableist.
posted by cmoj at 3:48 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ha, I was going to ask (but it's been brought up already) - you don't happen to be reading any of the social justice stuff on Tumblr, are you? Because I've noticed that they can be particularly picky on specific words...but their actions don't match up their politics.
posted by divabat at 6:50 PM on November 3, 2011

I had a lecturer at university who came up with what actually seemed like a pretty workable theory on what humor is: he said it was (paraphrasing from five years ago, now) "the relief you feel when a potentially chaotic or dangerous situation fails to become so." So, for example, if a friend of yours slips and flies head over heels, but then gets up unharmed, that's funny. If they fly head over heels and hurt themselves, that's NOT funny (because the situation is now one of actual danger to their health), but if they then go to the doctor and it turns out that they're going to be perfectly fine with a day's bed rest, then after they're recovered it can be funny again.

The reason offensive jokes are funny, then (according to my lecturer, anyways), is because they are an extremely 'dangerous' thing to say - if anyone who could be offended by one of these jokes hears you say it, you will hurt them terribly - so when you succeed in telling or hearing an offensive joke and there is no-one who can be hurt by it, you find it hilarious. Essentially, the reason you find an offensive joke funny is because you HAVEN'T offended anybody with it - it is a hurtful thing that didn't manage to hurt anyone.

So, for example, Chris Rock's 'Niggers' act is funny because it could potentially be extremely offensive, but since Chris is black himself, there cannot be any racial hatred behind it; so the offensiveness fails to manifest and the act becomes humorous instead.

According to my lecturer, anyway. Whether or not his theory's at all accurate is up in the air, of course, but it does suggest that the humour of offensive things actually comes from the gladness that no-one WAS hurt, not from any hidden desire that they could be. So yeah.
posted by Fen at 4:02 PM on November 29, 2011

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