I’m not really one to get offended when people use certain words. I mostly think of words as strings of letters that have evolved over the years to incorporate changes in culture and accompanying shifts in meaning. The words themselves don’t have any power to be offensive or innocuous. At the same time, I don’t often use words that I know others might find offensive. Many people don’t view words the way I do, and I don’t want to upset someone who does not separate the letters from the weight of culturally agreed-upon meaning, and I don’t want to flout the rules of polite society.
But if we do think objectively about these words, it turns out that the offense one might take isn’t rooted in the word itself, and it often isn’t even rooted in the meaning we have assigned to it. It’s in the intention and purpose of the person uttering it. As an example, we have probably all heard girlfriends jokingly refer to one another as “bitch.” They don’t get offended by it because they aren’t literally calling each other bitches. It’s more like “girlfriend.” The intention is friendly, silly, and joking.
But if these same friends get in a fight and start calling each other bitches, that’s a different story, right? Suddenly their intention is to hurt, and they probably will get upset and offended.
If I’m teasing my husband about being lazy for not going to the gym, and he tells me I’m a “hard woman,” it’s funny. Because his intention is to joke right back at me. But if we’re in an argument and he tells me I have no compassion or empathy, that’s upsetting. The words themselves aren’t all that offensive, but the intention, to communicate that I’m cold and unfeeling, is hurtful.
I guess I’m not saying anything extremely profound here. I just think it’s interesting how worked up people can get over some letters in a row without regard to context or purpose. Sometimes I have a knee-jerk reaction as well, so I get it, but it can be useful to consider whether the person intended to upset me.
This doesn’t mean that people should be able to go around and say whatever they want with the excuse that they didn’t intend to offend. I’m just thinking about what’s really at the heart of that offense. But then it gets jumbled up in the question of whether the person is just being ignorant, and whether I should be offended at the ignorance. Because, honestly, who isn’t offended by an ignorant bitch?*