On reclaiming a pejorative word

Via an ancient Andrew Sullivan post, here is Margaret Talbot on an embracing insults and social change:

Banning is really only for words that solely degrade or demean, and even then you want to proceed with caution because you’re depleting the expressive richness of the language. You could, instead, reappropriate the word…

There are precedents for such reclaiming—pejorative words like “queer” and even “slut,” for instance, which their targets have taken over and brandished with pride. But maybe a more apt comparison would be the word “nerd.” “Nerd” used to be a put-down—and it used to cover boys more often than girls…

But now “nerd,” and its close cousin “geek,” are words that lots of people are happy to identify with, humble-bragging about their obsessive expertise. Brainiac techies can get rich these days, and that has helped spiff up the image of nerdery.

It’s also true, of course, that neither banning nor rebranding a single word can accomplish all that much social change. It’s not the usage of the word but the acceptance of the behavior that counts.

I wonder if this type of campaign could work with creationists. Given how much their faith is a part of their identity, why shouldn’t they be proud of who they are? Methinks it could help change perceptions. But then again, I’ve urged creationists to come out of the closet and for Scott Walker to wear his faith on his sleeve.

I also wonder to what extent reappropriation is an organic process versus one of explicit strategy to change social norms. My impression of the gay rights movement (and I am admittedly very ignorant here) is that many decisions–reappropriation among them–were deliberate choices. The outcomes we see today is the culmination of decades of hard work and conscious strategy.

Finally I wonder if folks like John Inazu should consider tactics like these as they reflect on how to foster pluralism and religious freedom in an increasingly secular America.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *