Does "reclaiming" taboo words lead to a linguistic caste system? Anthony Weiner's "dyke" problem

The New York mayor's race exploded in controversy yesterday when candidate Anthony Weiner insufficiently chastised a Democratic voter for using the word "dyke," a scene described in a Washington Post article thusly:

“You a registered Democrat?” he asked an elderly woman wheeling a shopping cart by him.

“I am,” she said. “And I’m not voting for uh, what’s her name? The dyke.”

“Okay. I just need you to sign the petition to get me on the ballot,” said Weiner, who then noticed the incredulous reaction of a reporter and added, “and you really shouldn’t talk that way about people.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said.

“It’s okay,” Weiner responded. “It’s not your fault.”

For the unpardonable crime of hesitating slightly before publicly humiliating an old lady for using a somewhat antiquated and faintly crude word, Weiner earned the white-hot wrath of the LGBTQ Outrage Machine:

The response left Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and State Senator Brad Hoylman–who have both endorsed Ms. Quinn’s campaign–seething.

“We are appalled by the account in the Washington Post of Anthony Weiner’s unacceptable response to a prospective voter’s homophobic, misogynistic slur in reference to Christine Quinn,” they wrote in a statement Thursday. “Weiner’s response to this blatant display of homophobia is completely inappropriate and extremely alarming. There is nothing ‘okay’ about homophobia and it’s never ‘okay’ to condone bias-based slurs or hate speech of any kind.”

They argued that such language was indicative of the larger challenges faced by female and openly gay political candidates.

“The voter’s use of the term demonstrates the challenges women candidates and lesbians in particular face, and Weiner’s failure to swiftly and firmly condemn her language demonstrates his lack of moral courage,” they added. “We demand an immediate apology from Mr. Weiner on behalf of LGBT and women New Yorkers.”

The Empire State Pride Agenda also added its admonition in a release that also criticized Mr. Weiner for not responding to an anti-gay comment at a recent mayoral forum.

“It’s unfortunate that we need to issue a public statement on this at all, but this is becoming a disturbing pattern,” said the group’s Executive Director Nathan Schaefer in a statement. “Anthony Weiner should know better: actually, Congressman, it’s NOT ‘okay’ to condone a homophobic slur, and it’s also not okay to sit by in silence as they are used in your presence.

Needless to say, within a few hours Weiner was falling all over himself to grovel in abject apology for his Crime Against Humanity.

Now, let's pause and back up for a moment. Weiner's mayoral opponent — the one whom the elderly Democrat wasn't voting for — is Christine Quinn, the openly gay Speaker of the New York City Council. That's why when the old lady couldn't remember Quinn's name she chose to describe her by Quinn's most well-known personal detail — albeit using a word that's now (unbeknownst to old ladies pushing shopping carts) verboten.

But here's where things get confusing.

According to Quinn's own bio, she was for years the director of the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, which every June with Quinn's approval co-sponsors the "Dyke March" as part of Pride Month. Just a few days ago Quinn marched in the Brooklyn Pride Parade alongside "Dykes on Bicycles" and other dyke-named groups. She's also scheduled to appear next week in the NYC Pride Parade alongside the same "dyke"-named groups.

All of this would strongly suggest that Christine Quinn is perfectly comfortable with people using the word "dyke."

To top it all off, in past years Quinn has herself marched in the Dyke March, apparently thereby self-identifying as a "dyke."

So: Since Quinn is OK with people using the word "dyke," and since she considers herself a "dyke," then why can't a Democratic voter refer to her as a "dyke"?

Interestingly, still online at Quinn's former group the Anti-Violence Project is this intriguing document which addresses the matter directly, a quiz which asks reader to match up the words "Fag/Dyke/etc." with the following definition:

Fag/Dyke/etc. — Terms which may be oppressive when used by people outside the community but which some people have chosen to reclaim despite their history of being used in hurtful ways.

Now, the whole purpose of "reclaiming" a once-nasty word is to defuse its power. The most well-known example of this process is the word "gay" itself, which long ago used to be a crude sexual innuendo but has been so thoroughly reclaimed that most people now have no idea that "gay" was once considered an insult. The same process is currently happening with "queer" — and presumably "dyke" as well. So many people and groups now enthusiastically self-identify as "queer" that eventually the word will have no sting, as it formerly did. At least that's the plan.

But if you blow a gasket and act Deeply Offended every time someone "outside the community" uses your reclaimed word, then you are sabotaging the entire reclaiming process. You are announcing that the word not only retains its power to hurt, but that the pain of hearing it spoken has become nearly intolerable. So naturally, if some bozo out there wanted to piss you off, he (or she, in this case) now knows the exact word to use. Reclaim FAIL.

What disturbs me most of all about this whole imbroglio is the phrase "outside the community," which establishes a caste system for who is or is not allowed to use certain words in the English language. Essentially it comes down to this:

We are allowed to say dyke. You are not allowed to say dyke.

"We" in this case are people with politically correct thoughts. "You" is everyone else — the cultural untouchables whose corrupting heteronormativity makes them cruel oppressors simply by not being dykes themselves.

This attitude is summed up by the final definition on the gay quiz linked above:

Heterosexual Privilege — Unearned privileges that go to straight people simply because they are straight: e.g., the ability to legally marry a partner and talk publicly about crushes and intimate relationships.
Clear? A teenage girl talking about her crush on the quarterback is an unearned privilege; marrying someone of the opposite gender is an unearned privilege. And to that list we can add: Old ladies using words that we have reserved for our own exclusive use was an unearned privilege but now they no longer even have that privilege because it was rightfully taken away.

There are academics and intellectuals who already deem any public manifestation of heterosexual presumptiveness as an act of oppression and hate, and would cheer if society skated down that slippery slope to the banishment of all heteronormativity. Until that happy day, they're content to enforce the new caste system in which "haters" are forbidden to say or do the exact things which are allowed to the morally sophisticated elites.

You, old lady pushing a shopping cart down the streets of the city, you may not speak as we speak. You are so toxic that anyone who fails to promptly punish you for speaking will themselves become contaminated by you.

You are the new leper, the new untouchable.