Monday, 17 October 2011

The Power Of Words

"You can't say anything anymore for fear of the politically correct brigade"

What amuses me about that statement is it is usually uttered by those who say the nastiest things. As someone who performs comedy I believe it should take no prisoners. I think pretty much any subject is fine for comedic treatment. What is important isn't so much the language or subject matter but how the language is used and what perspective is given to the subject.

Language is often just dismissed as being relatively unimportant. "It's just words. They can't hurt you." That simply isn't true. Language is how we make sense of the world and certain words connect with different emotions. The word "gay" gets misused repeatedly at the moment and that bothers me.

Many people use the word "gay" to mean "rubbish" or "not very good" and justify it by saying "I don't mean homosexual, I mean it in the other sense." The brain doesn't work like that. If you're not familiar with the experiment Russian scientist Pavlov did with his dogs then it's worth looking up. In short, every time the dogs ate, Pavlov rang a bell. Eventually, the dogs associated the bell so much with food that they would salivate every time Pavlov rang the bell - even if there wasn't any food present.

When a word is associated with a particular thing, our brains make an emotional connection. If all kids hear on TV, radio and through the internet is that the word "gay" means pathetic / rubbish / of no value then what associations will their brain make when someone says to them "I'm gay"? What will their automatic emotional response to that person be? If they're used to associating negative things with the word "gay" then the chances of them accepting that person as an equal are diminished.

A few years ago a national radio presenter caused controversy by using the word "gay" in a negative context. He was defended by the corporation for which he worked and escaped criticism from the broadcasting regulator. Both seemed woefully ignorant to the power a word can have.

This is not about being politically correct - it's about context and about how our brains work. The freedom to choose whatever words we desire doesn't free us from the responsibility for their impact on others.