"I can't hate you. I'd rather die than hate you." - Dr. Martin Luther King, as quoted in Here If You Need Me.
I remember sitting in the backseat of our family car as a small child, waiting in the parking lot of a supermarket with my sister and her best friend while my mother shopped for groceries inside. When an elderly black man left the story and began walking into the parking lot, one of the two girls -- both of whom were seven years older than me -- used a word in reference to him. I asked what it meant, and they replied that it was just used in reference to black people. With childish excitement at knowing a new word (and innocence at its meaning), I stuck my head outside the open window and yelled "Hey, ni-"
That was as far as I got before being muffled and hauled in by my now embarrassed sisters. At that point I learned that the word was taboo, not to be uttered in public -- especially not in the presence of black people. In the United States, and particularly in the American south where slavery held sway for centuries and segregation lingered for decades thereafter, the word is odious. No other word in the American language, not even that versatile word that George Carlin so championed, is as offensive in the south. Despite this, it sees heavy usage among both blacks and whites, used in different contexts. The word may no longer be fit for public utterance, but the meaning -- the emotions -- behind it still lurk in the minds of people.
As I've grown older I've learned to ignore words themselves and focus on their meanings, hence why "cuss" words no longer make me flinch as they did in my Pentecostal youth, and why I regard the excitement about them as being...silly, almost juvenile. I am more concerned with the malicious meanings behind socially acceptable words than I am the "offensiveness" of words deemed profane. The "n-word" is not the only word in history that has been used to belittle and marginalize people: there are a host of such words, and we use them every day when we use labels to write someone off.
A couple of years ago, I endured a falling-out with a friend over this issue. He made heavy use of such words, as he enjoyed being the center of attention in a given conversation and typically held such attention by attacking other people in jokes. His preferred targets were "libs" and "Dems", although in truth anyone who disagreed with him or who bothered him in any little way would attract his attention. I found this behavior boorish and increasingly unpleasant, and so parted ways with him. His behavior bothered me not simply because of the stock I put in simple decency, but because I knew I shared his behavior in some ways. I would never use labels to assault someone in public, of course, but I used them in private when writing or thinking. Just as he had his 'libs and dems', I had choice targets like "fundies".
Shortly after our falling out, I swore off using labels to demean people. I do not want to keep company with the hostility, contempt, anger, and loathing that those words gave voice to, and denying them a voice was the first step. Instead of voicing these emotions, I decided to examine them -- to turn them over and upside down, and sort out why I felt that way toward one person or another. (I became more interested in Stoicism after my departure from this friend, as it turned into a bitter row with emotional fallout that lingered for months.) I decided that attacking people with labels did no good: it only dehumanized them in my eyes, and that took me down a road I was not willing to travel. As a humanist, I wish to remain charitable toward all, even those who wish me ill will. It is my way of defending myself, of not wounding what I am capable of. I stand for Humanity: not just my fellow Homo sapiens but for what we are capable of -- for what we may achieve not just in knowledge and in prosperity, but in how we act. I want a better society than this, and I do not think that can be achieved if we continually attack one another as people.
A year or so ago I realized something else: labels are foolish, not just because they dehumanize others but because they are so frequently unreliable. People are not nearly as consistent as we would like to believe in stereotypical behavior: the man we denounce as a bastard one day may render a kindness the next. Instead of writing someone off, I choose to evaluate their actions. I do myself the same kindness. I can never know enough about a person's personality and character to judge them, but I can think about their actions and judge them for worth or harm. By focusing on what they do, I can avoid demeaning them for who they are and possibly even provoke a change in them by remarking on the destructive tendency of their actions in a more objective manner -- something not possible if I were to attack them. Concentrating on verbs is more useful than employing "n-words" -- nouns in this manner.
In the past year, I have grown in my ability to put aside labels and deal with people as people, and I am happy to report that my desire to understand others quickly overcomes hostility toward behavior I find objectionable (believing in dogma, for instance). Progress along these lines is thus possible, if we are willing to strive toward it.