The website bears an aptly unwieldy name: “Think before you speak. Don’t say ‘That’s so gay.’” A project of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, the campaign employs posters, print ads, and videos with the aim of curbing an element of teen slang that gay ideologues find particularly vexing.
For the uninitiated, it may be well to explain that saying “That’s so gay” does not condemn the object of disparagement as characteristic or suggestive of homosexuality. The fascinating point, on the contrary, is that the word “gay” in this slang has become a general term of disapproval, semantically indistinguishable from “wrong.” As Prof. Wittgenstein said, usage is meaning.
This is illustrated with admirable if unintentional clarity by the instructional videos provided at the site. One of them shows a pair of young cashiers named Emma and Julia discussing their plans for the night. The following dialogue takes place:
Julia: “So, are you going out tonight?”
Emma: “I can’t. My parents say I have to be home right after work.”
Julia: “That’s so gay.”
At this point an indignant customer interrupts to rebuke them: “That is so Emma and Julia!” and the voiceover draws the moral: “Imagine if who YOU are were used as an insult.”
They’ve bull’s-eyed the wrong target. English provides plenty of words that are meant to demean homosexuals, but gay is not one of them. On the contrary, gay is the term homosexual pedants insist the rest of us use in referring to homosexuals. “An insult,” as analytic philosopher Michael Levin writes, “is a word or a gesture used with the intention of causing affront through the mutual recognition of that intention.” Yet there is no mutual recognition here, as is obvious from the fact that the whole thrust of the Think Before You Speak campaign is to instruct the speaker about an intention he didn’t have. Nota bene: Julia didn’t intend to disparage gays, she intended to disparage the decision of Emma’s parents. And Julia’s use of the adjective gay did not condemn that decision as fey or twee or camp but simply as wrong, as contemptible in itself. That’s the linguistically interesting point.
Consider the etymology of the word “bad,” which has become the most general term of disapproval in the language. The Oxford English Dictionary gives it thus:
bad-de (two syllables) the Middle English reflex of Old English baeddel, “man of both genders, hermaphrodite,” doubtless like Greek androgynos, and the derivative baedling, “effeminate fellow, womanish man, malakos,” applied contemptuously, assuming a later adjectival use.
Notice what took place: the word bad was not a tag or label that disapproving Saxons pinned on bisexuals. It worked the other way around: bisexuality was a notion that Saxons contemptuously pinned on things—any kind of things— of which they disapproved. Nor do we need any deep psychological investigation into the roots of Saxon homophobia to find the cause; the reason is nearer to hand. There’s nothing wrong with a woman’s being womanish. There is something wrong with a man’s being womanish. To say it’s bad for a man to be womanish is to state a tautology: x = x. As Beowulf said to Hrothgar, “That’s so gay.”
It’s important to understand that a womanish man is bad in a sense prior to and wholly apart from any moral judgment whatsoever about sodomy. A womanish man or mannish woman is bad in the “pre-moral” way that a closed aperture is bad or a permeable bulwark is bad. A nut with a left-handed thread is bad for a bolt with a righthanded thread. Try to put them together and, as the Aussies say, you bugger it up—and even Aussies with no moral qualms about buggery will say it. As Levin explains, while our judgments may be conscious and personally formed, our tools for expressing them are acquired from without:
When we become entangled in decisions about how to talk, we lose contact with the reality our thought is supposed to be about. Like playing the piano, language is largely a system of acquired habits, and fluent speech accompanied by constant conscious decisions about which words to utter is as difficult as fluent pianism accompanied by constant conscious decisions about which keys to hit.
Hence the self-defeating futility of the Think Before You Speak campaign. They’re asking the young to replace an unwitting 21st-century reference to warped sexuality with an unwitting 8th-century reference to warped sexuality. Even if the Emmas and Julias of the coming generation are inhibited from using a particular locution because of a political taboo attached to it, the structure of the human mind will not change. Gay activists are trying to square the circle, and the thing can’t be done. Gays may well succeed in extorting social tolerance of homosexual activity—in the short run, at least—but until Homo sapiens retro-mutates into a sub-rational species we will continue to distinguish right from left, even from odd, good from gay.
“So are you saying my same-sex attracted son is bad?” Let me try to forestall the objection. No. I am saying (with the Church) that your son’s same-sex attraction is bad. It is a disorder, and any loving parent wants his child freed from every disorder. The attraction is bad the way one man’s autism is bad (innocently acquired, with harmful consequences). It is bad the way another man’s alcoholism is bad (acquired innocently or not, with harmful consequences). It is bad the way a third man’s kleptomania is bad (innocently acquired, yet intrinsically ordered to sin). Moral reprobation attaches not to possession of the affliction but to embracing and indulging it so as to pretend it’s not an affliction at all.
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