A brief rant on the use of languageApparently totalbiscuit, a fairly popular online caster of starcraft games and reviewer of video games, recently used a homophobic slur when referring to someone online. A sc player, somewhat disturbed by this, made a thread on a popular sc2 forum (team liquid). Now TB has apologised for his remarks, and while I'm not sure he's entirely clear on why using such language is bad, he's not my main target here.
In that thread, I discovered this comment "You've gotta be joking OP, this is beyond ridiculous. Faggot doesn't even mean homosexual any more, it's just a generic insult. Grow up."
The notion that the term "faggot" and "gay" have become disassociated from homosexuality, and are merely words without the impact that they used to have, is an argument I have been confronted with more than once. Distressingly, even the BBC attempted such an argument when their golden boy, Chris Moyles, used such words.
Let me explain why such an argument doesn't really work. If a word is currently used to refer to a particular subgroup of people, and also to indicate that something is bad, then it is rather difficult to disassociate the two. If I and my friends were to use the word "Jewish" to indicate that something were bad, and were to insist that the word had been used so much that it didn't have any racial connotations for us, I suspect you would believe that I was an idiot.
Worse yet, at least when I sit with my friends, calling things "Jewish", I am relatively confident none of them are. One of the many issues with using homophobic slurs in mixed company is that we do not live in a society where all homosexual people feel free to say that they are. We are not in a post-prejudice society. There are many places in the world where being openly homosexual can prove a threat to one's health and welfare. Even in the more liberal UK, intolerance does indeed exist, and admitting that one is homosexual can be damaging to one's career and relationships. And, indeed, in some extreme cases, potentially be damaging to one's health.
Every time you use a homophobic slur, you contribute to a culture where such language, such framing of homosexuality is frequent, and unfriendly, where homosexuals feel less comfortable. In short, you make the world a little worse.
Now language being what it is, of course, some insults do get stuck in the vocabulary. Idiot was a technical term for mental retardation and has now become a word which applies to anyone who shows a particular mental failure. It is possible that "gay" may become stuck as an insult for something that is bad. If that becomes the case then it is likely that the homosexual community will have "lost" the word, because it will be difficult to self describe as gay when the word has such a pejorative meaning. This has not yet happened yet, however, we are currently in a battle of usage. I know which side I am on.