Recently Jonah Hill said a bad word. A paparazzi was chasing him down, and made some comments on his outfit, and Jonah said "Suck my dick, faggot." Some people have said that's because of the clothing remark, some have speculated it's because Jonah's homophobic, others out there are surely taking this opportunity to say he's one'a them secret hollywood gays.
Frankly I don't claim to know what was in Jonah Hill's heart when he called a paparazzi the word Faggot. I also don't care. The lesson from today's media event isn't about Jonah Hill, it's about words and people. Specifically, it's not a great idea to use a word pegged to a historically marginalized group as shorthand for "bad," regardless of how you actually may or may not feel about gays, it's going to remind a lot of people of all the gay-bashing they experienced growing up, and that's not a great thing. Of course paparazzi being assholes (or cunts or dicks or whichever you prefer), is still very much the case, but that doesn't absolve Mr. Hill, regardless of his true intentions.
But Mike, people don't understand! Jonah doesn't really think that about gay people, he was just using the word faggot to mean 'bad.'"
I think most people do get what he meant, they just disagree that the speaker is the only one who has a say in deciding whether a word is hurtful. My guess is that Jonah Hill's use of that word wasn't based on homophobia (except for the most general, internalized variety), but more likely based on a deep-seated recognition that that's a word he could use to hurt someone's feelings when he needed one. If you want to dismiss a woman, call her crazy. If you want to dismiss a guy, call him a woman, or gay. Them's the rules.
But Mike, it's just a word!
Every word is just a word. With a history of use and a meaning based on that history. You didn't make these words up yourself, you learned them in certain contexts, not only is your use of the word informed by more factors than you may be aware of, and even if you are aware, you as the speaker are only half of the communicative act. The other half is the receiver, or the listener. The word "Gyp" was based on an insult for gypsies. Maybe it's been made common enough that it isn't now, but I still might not throw it around if I were hanging out with a bunch of Romani. I don't know what it might mean to them, and my intentions are only half the equation.
But Mike, censorship!
Oh shut up. How is he being censored? If anything, we are now giving his words an even larger microphone than ever. No one said he "can't" say faggot. They only said he shouldn't say faggot. And telling someone that they can't tell someone what they shouldn't say would be censorship. But it's not, because you don't have any authority to stop anyone from saying anything, ya dummy. The logic in this argument is worse than inception.
But Mike, Louie CK said it was ok!!
Louis CK is hilarious. And part of what makes him so great is how thoughtful he is in listening to his critics and responding to them, usually with a clever way of saying "Yeah, maybe I was a jerk." His initial take on the word Faggot in his amazing special Chewed up is hilarious, but what's truly satisfying is his response to his own words in his show Louie:
"But Mike, that's not actually the true history of the word faggot!"
Right you are word historian! (in this case the word historian was the very thoughtful and hilarious Raj Sivaraman, a comic originally from the Boston area). The story in the episode is a mix of truth and fiction -- in truth the word was used for the bundles of sticks to burn heretics, the 'phrase fire and faggot' was used to indicate "punishment of a heretics." Shockingly (or perhaps flamingly) that's not why it came to be used to refer to gays. (for more: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=faggot).
But I don't think the historical veracity of that is the real point of the monologue. The point is when he says this:
"You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them while they’re being beaten up. Sometimes many times. Sometimes by a lot of people, all at once. So when you say [faggot], it kind of brings that all back up.”
It's about understanding that the people who hear a word are affected not just by how you meant it, but by their experience with it over the course of their own lives and a cultural/historical context, and if you want to use it ok, but to deny that the listener's experience matters in the act of communication is just kind of a dick thing to do, and given how much Comedians have to understand the psychology and expectations of a listener to craft a joke, you'd think it would be something they'd more aware or accepting of.
I think it's great that Jonah Hill apologized for using the word like that not because I think he was one way and this experience has taught him anything about life, but because I think public displays of "we don't use groups of people as a shorthand for "bad" or "evil" is a good thing for us, as a culture, to reinforce in the public sphere. I don't care for the false shaming aspects of it -- people in the media wagging their fingers as though they're somehow better than that, but really that's just me saying that I hate the media's tendency to report nothing as news. And I still do feel that way. But fuck it, if the media is going to be mostly about wildly screaming a fluffy fucking nothing, I'd still rather be on the right side of the fluff.
But Mike, when can I say faggot? It's like my favorite word!
Obviously there are a lot of things you can do with proper framing, but as a general guide I think it's worth noting that the language you use in conversation when you know how your listener is likely to interpret to you is totally different from the language you use in public, when your words go out into the world and anyone can hear them and be affected by them. Not that my opinion is necessarily the one that matters, but I think there's a strong argument to be made that using the word faggot in conversation with a friend who knows what's "in your heart" when you say it is fine.
And look, sometimes we get angry and say things we don't mean, even in public. And sometimes we have to say sorry for that. That's ok. But to anyone complaining about censorship or freedom of speech: grow the fuck up and go like... one level deeper.