Words to be judged by

By Leonard Hitchcock

Last Sunday, in the ISJ’s op-ed pages, there were two columns from the right-wing fringe that, in effect, asserted the free speech rights of racists at the University of Missouri and inveighed against liberalism’s attempt to impose “politically correct” (PC) restrictions on public speech and writing. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the ISJ’s editorial in that same section attacked Obama’s middle eastern strategy, and made use of the phrase “…our limp-wristed policy of periodic airstrikes…” That figure of speech, “limp-wristed,” is, of course, a traditional reference to homosexual men, or rather to a stereotype of homosexuality, implying effeminacy and weakness as opposed to masculinity, strength and toughness. It is, most people would agree, a non-PC expression.
So what do I, a professed liberal, have to say about that bit of editorial text? Do I dispute the ISJ’s right to print it, or ask for the newspaper to issue a retraction or an apology? No. But I do choose to exercise my own free speech right to comment upon it.
Our language is a mirror of our culture, and both are always changing. Words and phrases come and go within the culture’s working vocabulary for a wide variety of reasons, among them, changes in the way the society feels about political and social issues.
We begin early in life to censor ourselves, to recognize that there are words that are available for use that shouldn’t be used. Our parents are usually our first source of guidance on that subject. I remember my father, who was a speech professor, telling me as a child that I should never use a particular verbal locution that described the behavior of someone dickering with a seller in an attempt to pay less than the asking price.

The locution was: “to Jew (someone) down.” It was, in those days, an expression that, at least among the uneducated, was in pretty common use, and it reflected, as my father explained, a widespread pattern of discrimination against Jews in American culture. My father was very sensitive to the prejudice built into this expression — its dependency upon the stereotype of the Jew as avaricious — and, somewhat oddly, as I thought later, he rarely referred to someone as “a Jew”; instead, he would say that someone was “Jewish,” as though the adjective was somehow less likely to be taken wrongly than the noun.
As we grow up, we learn that it’s not just our parents who have rules about appropriate language. We learn, as well, that those rules vary according to social context, and can change radically over time. I think of words and phrases common in my youth — the 1950s — that occur only rarely today: derogatory nicknames for ethnic and racial minorities, for example, such as “spic,” “wop,” “dago, “jap,” “kike,” “mick.”

I think of the ways in which people used to refer to the physically and mentally disabled twenty years ago: “retard,” “spaz,” “cripple,” “freak,” “gimp.” And then there is the panoply of disparaging terms for gay persons: “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” “dyke,” “fairy,” “fruit,” “pansy,” “pervert,” all of which are in the process of vanishing from common use as our society alters its opinion of what it means for someone to be gay.
Right-wingers claim that PC strictures inhibit their freedom of speech. No doubt that’s true, because, unfortunately for conservatives, many of the expressions that would succinctly and accurately communicate their opinions are no longer regarded by the public as acceptable. American society is in the process of moving beyond the old anti-gay, racist and sexist attitudes to which right-wingers still cling, and it is utilizing the oldest, and perhaps the most effective tactic available to do so: peer pressure. That’s why, when you use the language of prejudice and bigotry, you risk being thought boorish, uneducated, and insensitive.
So what are we to make of that editorial’s use of “limp-wristed”? Its occurrence is unlikely to have been the result of ignorance or carelessness. A familiarity with language is, presumably, a prerequisite for a journalist. Moreover, the editorial was certainly read by someone other than the author before publication, yet the expression remained in the text.
Neither can it be argued that “limp-wristed” has become a simple synonym for “weak,” with no other connotations. Our vocabulary with regard to homosexuality may be in transition, but “limp-wristed” still carries the meaning it had when it was coined as a semi-euphemistic (and no doubt thought-to-be-clever) way of designating someone as a gay man. It implies not just a physical gesture supposed to be characteristic of women, but a passive, effeminate, and ineffectual person. It evokes, as well, all the old, outdated stereotypes of masculinity. So, to assert that American policy in the middle east is weak is one thing; to do so by using a phrase that gratuitously insults gay men, is quite another.
What was the intention of the editorial writer? Was it simply to use a colorful phrase in attacking Obama’s policies, or was it to take an opportunity to slip in an off-hand slur against gays? Maybe the real aim was to bait liberals like myself. Whatever the aim, the phrase tells us much more about the author than about the subject of the editorial.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.