george carlin and the gay pejorative

I observed an interesting conversation the other day in an IRC channel for photography I hang out in. Well, okay, it wasn't very interesting, but it spurred an interesting line of thought in me. Someone in the room dropped the word "gay" in typical pejorative adjective context: "criticism is gay", I think it was. Someone else chimed in with the obligatory scolding that you ought not use the word "gay" as a pejorative. The person in question defended his usage with the (rather tired) evolution of language defense, and then went the extra step of citing George Carlin as an authority that he was right. Now, I'm a big fan of Carlin, so I was a little irritated at this.

Obviously, he's referring to George Carlin's expansive career-long fight against the tyranny of euphemism and political correctness. Carlin was outspoken on this topic, frequently condemning society's constant redefinition and creation of new labels to replace old ones that were deemed offensive. His routine on the word "nigger" is fairly notorious, as was his stance on the term "crippled" and other such labels, new and old. I'm a big fan of Carlin in many ways, including his take on the fallacy of obscenity, but I think he may have been a little myopic or generous in his "they're just words" stance regarding euphemism (and, possibly, epithets). The line between them isn't always so easily drawn. Curious, I did a bit of research to find out if Carlin ever explicitly spoke about the use of "gay" as an adjective/pejorative. I couldn't find anything, so to my knowledge he never addressed it directly (though he was an early and vocal supporter of gay rights long before it was even a particularly hot topic). What I did find, though, was a startling number of arguments similar to the above conversation, where Carlin's "it's just words" stances on obscenity and/or euphemism were used to justify or dismiss criticisms of using "gay" in this way. "Don't be so uptight", the line goes, "it's just a word.. allow me to quote George Carlin on obscenity, blah blah". This troubled me, because I don't think that's what Carlin really intended at all.

In his bit on the reviled N-word, he contends that it's okay when Richard Pryor uses it, because he's black -- it's all the racist assholes out there that are the problem. "It's the context that counts," he said. Carlin's choice of Pryor as an example proved slightly ironic, as Pryor notoriously stopped using the word in a very public and orchestrated bid to get people to stop using it. Probably because Pryor realized something that Carlin may have missed (or that he's simply misunderstood about, I'm not sure): that words have power.

Carlin is right that context matters, but context is a tricky and subtle thing. There are labels that are slightly benign, but carry an unfavorably negative connotation (e.g. "crippled", or "disabled"). Then there are labels that perhaps simply harken to a less tolerant time, and thus are viewed negatively ("colored", "negro", or even "black"). There are also labels that serve no other purpose than to dehumanize and demean ("nigger"). There are also, though, cases of labels like "gay" being used as an adjective to explicitly imply a negative connotation. "That's gay" == "That's bad." This isn't as simple as a case of "just words", because in this case, "gay" isn't being used merely to refer to a gay person. It's literally being used to correlate homosexuality with badness. So while it might be a little silly to get your feathers ruffled over someone using "disabled" or "black" to refer to a person, it's slightly different when the use of the word literally implies negativity. When a "racist asshole", as Carlin put it, uses the word "nigger", that's a bad thing. When someone uses the word "gay" to imply negativity, that's a bad thing.

Sure, I know: the evolution of language will invariably result in situations like these. A word may evolve over time and become entrenched to the point that the person using it may not even be consciously associating the word with its negative origin. And so it doesn't make someone a bad person if they use the word in this way, but it doesn't make it innocuous, either. Whether it was intended or not, subtlely, and subconsciously, the association between "gay" and "bad" is being maintained in our cultural lexicon nonetheless.

This isn't a call for authoritarian censorship of the words, of course. I'm simply advocating a little awareness. Obviously, I can't speak for George Carlin, and regrettably, he's no longer around to let us know what he thinks. But euphemism and pejorative are not the same thing, and I think it's a misappropriation of Carlin's legacy to use his stance against the former to defend the egregious use of the latter.

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  • Dont

    I have the feeling that the ancient concept of ‘politeness’ might be able to handle this problem, if the knowledge hadn’t been lost during the Interregnum.

  • Glenn Peters

    I kind of want to point Fasteddie from 15 years ago at this article.  

    I think Carlin knew the power of words, but he had a different strategy: taking away the badness of a word by using it.  Sadly, that doesn’t always work.

  • Kyle

    The word ‘gypped’ comes to mind. I used it growing up without ever realizing the connotation. Now I see its in the dictionary.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, few people would think twice about that one, and yet it has the exact same history and connotation as “jewed”.

  • Mark Mays

    whenever you manage a post it’s spot on

  • fancycwabs

    The idiot might have said Carlin when he meant Louis CK.

  • Colin

    You’re complaining that someone might misappropriate the word ‘gay’ … did you consider the process by which it came to have its modern meaning?

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  • Colin

    I’m not sure the pejorative ‘gay’ ever meant ‘bad.’  I think its meaning, insofar as I understand it, was more nuanced than simply ‘bad.’

    I understand that your point is to suggest using ‘gay’ as a pejorative has a corrosive effect on people who self-identify as gay in a non-pejorative sense.  I wonder what is being gained, and what lost, by replacing any meaning the word might have been intended to express with a simple stamp ‘expletive.’
    I always thought there was a connotation of ‘camp’ in the colloquial pejorative ‘gay.’  I find myself wondering why kids (and it was kids) found it useful.  I mean, if they just wanted ‘bad’ there were lots of existing ways to say it – I suspect it meant bad in a new way.

    Musing on this further, the term ‘drama queen’ gets a bit of use, and it’s a very useful term.  It’s also (I guess) homophobic in that it relies upon a homosexual stereotype.  If we’re not going to use it any more, can we find something equally expressive and useful to replace it?

  • BreakingDeadMen

    IDK about Carlin using gay, but he used fag/faggot a couple times. One is the great routine about sports that includes the line “Lacrosse isn’t a sport, it’s a faggot college activity.” He also did an early routine, being a kid growing up and one of the kids describing another kid as ‘a fag’ because he had to go home early. He said that they didn’t mean it to imply that the kid was actually gay, just that he was a sissy–apparently not realizing at that point that sissy has that same connotation. He goes on to say that he has no problem with homosexuality. I don’t recall hearing those terms in his later comedy, so it’s possible he moved away from them entirely. He was such a student of language and meaning that it wouldn’t surprise me at all.