Who Can Reclaim Derogratory Words?

The PCC have upheld the complaint made by TV presenter Clare Balding against the Sunday Times.  In July, the critic AA Gill called her a “dyke on a bike”, which the PCC agreed was a form of discrimination.

In addition, the newspaper drew attention to two organisations called Dykes on Bikes (an American lesbian motorcycling movement; and a UK-based cycling movement) whose members had reclaimed the word “dyke” as an empowering, not offensive, term. It argued that an individual’s sexuality should not give them an “all-encompassing protected status”. …
In this case, the Commission considered that the use of the word “dyke” in the article – whether or not it was intended to be humorous – was a pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality. The context was not that the reviewer was seeking positively to “reclaim” the term, but rather to use it to refer to the complainant’s sexuality in a demeaning and gratuitous way.

This reminds me of an interesting video blog I watched recently by Jay Smooth of the Ill Doctrine. In it, he makes the pithy point that, in general, “if you are not the original subject of an insult, you can’t be the one to reclaim it.”  This seems a sensible rule of thumb to me.

This reclaiming of offensive words relates to david Foster Wallace’s discussions around dialect.  He pointed out that words in opne dialect – for example, ‘Nigga’ in Black Urban English – is very different from using the ‘N-word’ in other contexts.  This should be the put-down to idiots like AA Gill who are deliberately offensive and then try and cover their tracks by wailing “but other people use it!”

2 Replies to “Who Can Reclaim Derogratory Words?”

  1. I wonder if it really is about re-claiming, rather than pre-empting. If you veiw it this way, it’s much easier to see how and why it’s ok for the original-subject group to use the word, but not the original user-group.
    Also, in the case of Clare Balding, I see the complaint was upheld in part because he referred to her sexuality in a gratuitous way. I feel as though this is may be a first for the PCC – they never usually uphold complaints about the gratuitous sexualisation of women.

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