What the language police miss about offensive words
What ever happened to the "I" in "offensive?"
I ask the question because it feels sometimes like that quality — being "offensive" — is increasingly talked about as if it were inherent to language itself. But of course that isn't true. As beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, "offensiveness" is a function of the hearer's or reader's reaction. If I am offended by language you used, then the language is offensive — to me. The word makes no sense without that "I."
Take, as an example, the latest tempest in a teapot: Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett's use of the phrase, "sexual preference" in the following sentence: "I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference." Critics, most notably Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), pounced on this wording, saying that it was coded language intended to reveal that Barrett did not, in fact, believe that one's sexuality is innate, but that it is changeable, which, in turn, implied that she did not believe it deserved the protection of law.
It's quite a chain of inference that could be resolved quite simply by asking the nominee: Did you mean to imply that one's sexuality is under conscious control and not innate? Alas, that would run afoul of the convention shared by both liberals and conservatives that Supreme Court nominees are to be evaluated based on their deep beliefs, but that it would be improper for a nominee to discuss those beliefs in a Senate hearing.
But I'm interested in a different question: Who, precisely, was offended here?
Was it Hirono herself? She didn't say so, nor did she say her constituents told her that the term was offensive (perhaps after innocently using it herself in another context). She wasn't trying to teach Barrett that her language might mislead people about her beliefs and cause them pain. Rather, she treated that language as an objective matter: The term's true meaning was readily discernible, and that meaning was inherently offensive.
But there are literally no words that have that quality, because language has no inherent meaning. Its meaning is entirely social, created by a community for the purpose of communication. Indeed, that's precisely why a term can cause offense in one context but not another, and why the meaning can change over time, as Hirono herself admitted by calling the term "outdated."
This is true even for words that overwhelming majorities agree are highly offensive, like the "n-word." Is it offensive to play a rap song in the park that makes copious use of a version of the word? Is it offensive to teach Mark Twain's novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that makes copious use of the word in a very different way? There's no one answer to those questions because the answers depend on the relationship between the people involved, and not on inherent characteristics of the word itself.
The contrary understanding, which treats language as having an inherent meaning that can be innately offensive, elides three matters that must be kept distinct if we are interested in understanding each other: The intent of the speaker (who may or may not have been trying to offend), the feelings of the hearer (whose subjective reaction needs to be reported if the social breach of offense is to be repaired), and the common understanding of meaning in the community (which is an objective matter requiring empirical evidence). If we actually care about our relationship with another person, then it matters very much whether someone intended to offend us if we are to be reconciled. And if our own feelings aren't at stake, but others', then we need to understand what their feelings actually are, and not presume to know them.
So, to take the Huck Finn example, it's not hard to anticipate that students might be shocked by the book, and it would behoove a professor who planned to teach it to prepare for that reaction. There are also very good arguments that the book's fundamental project is something that, if we examine it honestly, we ought not to valorize, and the professor should be prepared to engage those arguments and not dismiss them out of hand. If she engages with them, those arguments might ultimately convince her to stop teaching the book — or they might not. Regardless, that process constitutes a relationship, between the professor, the students, and the book, where the "I" is fully in the mix.
When we elide those questions, though, the social purpose of language is largely erased, as is the goal of facilitating constructive relationships. If meaning is objective rather than subjective and social, then once something is classified as "offensive," intent is irrelevant and malice can be assumed. Moreover, whether anyone actually experiences being offended is also irrelevant; if some people can't see offensiveness that is inherent, that points to something wrong with them, not with the designation of the language as offensive. Language is thus reduced to a mere shibboleth, a way of distinguishing who is inside from who is outside a given circle of concern, with the person declaring offense playing the self-appointed part of the Gileadites at the Jordan.
And what about the specific instance in question? The argument for using a term like "sexual orientation" is that it highlights the essential nature of sexuality, while using a term like "sexual preference" does not. But is that true? Most of our "preferences" aren't under conscious control. Someone who "prefers" to date tall men, for example, can't just choose to be attracted to short ones; the heart wants what it wants. But it would be funny to describe that preference as an "orientation." What the word "preference" suggests to me is not that sexuality is voluntary, but that it is a spectrum, with the potential for fluidity, rather than something fixed and oriented in only one direction. Which, in fact, is the lived experience of a great many people, whose sexual identities vary over time as they come to understand themselves better, and as they are changed by the process of living.
Meanwhile, it's especially ironic to man these particular ramparts in response to a discussion about Obergefell v. Hodges, since the right of couples to marry regardless of the sex of either party is built on the foundation of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws against miscegenation and proclaimed the right of mixed-race couples to marry freely. While one's ancestry is inherent, the choice of a spouse of another race is a preference: a preference for one person with whom one yearns to share a life. It was the state of Virginia that went to court to defend the proposition that our inherent identities are determinative of our choices, and should override our preferences, while the heart of both Loving and Obergefell is the freedom to find our preferences and express them.
The foregoing doesn't mean I don't understand the opposite view. I use "sexual orientation" all the time, and haven't used the phrase "sexual preference" for years. I can't cite polling on the question, but my assumption would be that the phrase would sound “off” to many if not most LGBTQ+ people, though I don't know how many would actively take offense. Nor do I assume that Barrett intended to express a more liberationist view with her choice of language. It seems very unlikely, but I don't know what she intended, or if she intended anything in particular. Nonetheless, I wouldn't be shocked if, some time in the future, "orientation" came to be seen as unduly rigid and confining, and another term came to be preferred. The question is whether that process of change is allowed to happen organically and socially, through conversation and argument, or is stopped before it can even get going. And stopping arguments before they get going is precisely the point of laying down a marker like Sen. Hirono did.
Which is the most important reason to keep the "I" in "offensive." When people speak out of their own actual experiences — of sexuality or of anything else — and speak in their own voices, the natural multiplicity of that experience is revealed. There will inevitably be patterns, some experiences that are more common than others — and there will inevitably be exceptions to those patterns, people who simply aren't "oriented" the way most people assume they would be. We won't know how they feel about the way others speak, about them or about anything, unless we ask them, and listen to their answers — which will, inevitably, be expressed in language as individual and multiplicitous as they are.
If, instead, we try to make everyone speak correctly, we'll never know what they actually have to say. And I, personally, find that prospect deeply, painfully offensive.