Pop QuizSecondary Education

Pop Quiz: That’s gay, he’s retarded, she’s a slut. Wait, what did I say?!

Spend enough time any average high school and you’re likely to hear more than your fair share of colourful language. If I stand at the door of my class room to keep an eye on corridor behaviour during change of period, I’m almost certain to hear the odd casual swear word as certain pupils pass by. Of course it’s part of my job to model positive behaviour and to challenge negative actions, so I’ll always try to step in when I hear something inappropriate being said. Often it’s enough to simply let a pupil see that you’ve seen them; a disapproving look or swift “language!” usually leads to a blush, a look of shame and a mumbled apology. Of course, there’s swearing and there’s swearing. Many teenagers use off-colour language quite casually in their interactions with each other and in my view, a teacher’s reaction to an overhead piece of swearing between two friends and a directed vicious verbal assault should be very different.

However, there’s a very different kind of language that I’ve notice pupils using a great deal since I started my career. I’m referring to the kind of words that, although not really “swear words”, would likely be seen as completely unacceptable by many readers of this site. Words that many pupils genuinely do not seem to see as being problematic. These words tend to appear when someone is expressing their displeasure at someone or something – which, given how much some teenagers enjoy expressing displeasure, means that they appear a LOT.

Welcome to the wonderful world of things being “gay”, “retarded”, or “slutty”.

These three words get thrown around so often by so many different pupils that they almost seem to be automatic. Failed a test? That was gay. A friend said something you don’t like? They’re so retarded. A girl bumped into you in the corridor? What a slut. Didn’t like the soup at lunch? You better believe it’s gay too.

It shames me to say it, but it sometimes seems (in my experience at least) that some teachers can turn a blind eye to words like these. I’ve never seen a colleague not react when a pupil tells them that their instruction is “total shit”; a comment like that would buy someone a one-way ticket up the discipline system. I have, however, seen pupils describe something as “totally gay” or “retarded” to a teacher’s face and have the comment brushed aside.

Or, when challenged about using such words, I’ve seen pupils react with genuine confusion. What did I say? What’s the big deal? I didn’t swear! It seems that these words have become so ingrained in the vocabularies of some young people that they slip off the tongue without a moment’s thought. Of all of these words, “gay” is absolutely used the most in my school. It seems that for some Scottish pupils, EVERYTHING is gay. Sometimes, of course, the word is being used with real venom as a specific homophobic insult. All it takes is for a young man to be small, softly spoken, non-violent, and suddenly he’s “gay”. It really does seem, however, that a sizeable group of pupils use the word simply as a general negative descriptor. The same goes for “retarded” to refer to stupidity and “slut” to refer to “a girl I don’t like”.

Some staff who I’ve spoken to have expressed the view that it’s not worth our time to actively correct these words. I’ve heard people argue that words like this are a central part of pupils’ language, that their meanings have changed, that language has evolved and that no actual harm is meant. We have other things to worry about, lessons to prepare and work to mark and “real” bad behaviour to tackle – why should we spend our time getting annoyed about some little words that get used all the time by even the “nicest” of kids?

But then, of course, you have the pupil who describes the detention he has later that day as “gay”, and the pupil next to him who is beginning to realise things about their own sexuality learns once again that in this place, “gay” is synonymous with “bad”. You have the pupil who casually calls her friend a “retard” for dropping a pen, and the person two rows over who is again reminded about the casual cruelty her Down’s Syndrome brother is going to face as he grows up. You have the young girl who’s been called a “slut” in passing so often that now she kinda thinks that she probably is.

This kind of language isn’t ok. It’s not an evolution and it’s not “no big deal”. We’re educators, and since I’m writing this and you’re reading it we can assume that we’re educators who are interested in critical thinking. Young people should be pointedly confronted with the effects of the words they use. They should be helped to think through the real meanings of what they say. I’ve tried, and it isn’t always easy. The closest I’ve come to having a breakthrough with one of these words involved teaching Flowers for Algernon and Of Mice and Men back to back, along with detailed whole-class discussion. After using those texts, I didn’t hear “retard” being thrown around as much – at least for a little while.

It’s Pop Quiz time, so I’d really like to know what you think about the casual use of this kind of language by young people. As in my previous Pop Quiz, I’m focusing primarily on high school age individuals simply because that’s my area of expertise.

What are your views on how young people use language like this?
Is it really something that’s too ingrained to be challenged effectively?
If not, how can we as educators help young people to view this type of language differently?
Have you ever helped a young person to truly realise how their choice of language might affect the people around them? If so, how did it happen?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Alasdair

Alasdair

Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

3 Comments

  1. March 9, 2013 at 2:41 am —

    I work in a middle school, and I try to correct that behavior every single time. Thankfully, I haven’t run into any uses of the word slut yet, but I do hear retarded and gay used pretty regularly. When I ask the kid to stop, I explain that they are disparaging an entire group of people implicitly just to deride some other thing. I tell them that that bugs me, because I count it as hate speech just like racial slurs. If it’s the first time, I explain that I understand how they picked it up, but I ask them to change their behavior in consideration of these ideas. I tell them I’m not mad right now, because I get it, but of they continue to use those words in that way, I will get mad.

    Most kids will either accept it or pretend to accept it. They usually self-correct around me afterword. One time I got real pushback in a class. There was discipline for one student’s behavior in response to my attempts to have a conversation, and I spoke to the whole class about it. That class has a lot of pushback to everything, so some others chimed in, but between my part of the conversation and the discipline, I think they got the point.

    I can only imagine the resistance in high school, but I think the problem is that they haven’t examined the language they’re using critically, because they haven’t had to do so. Explaining why that terminology used that way is not only personally offensive but even socially reprehensible can get the ball rolling. It certainly doesn’t stop right away, but if it stops eventually, I am happy to have that conversation every single time.

    • March 10, 2013 at 9:39 pm —

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with how you deal with “first time offenders”; I do pretty much the same thing. It’s definitely true that students seem to learn which classes they can get away with using this style of language in and which ones they can’t, and it does sometimes feel like constantly picking them up on their language only really has an effect when those students are around you personally. However, I don’t really see any other way of dealing with it. If as many staff as possible do it, if the message that language like this isn’t ok comes at them from multiple angles all the time, then it might just sink in.

      • March 12, 2013 at 2:02 am —

        For the longest time, I felt like I was the only one doing it, but after some discipline that went to the front office which got the conversation started with some other staff, I know that many don’t like it, and I hope that many also correct. I have to hope. At the very least, I hope that I can get the students thinking about it so that they can take the proper corrective behaviors themselves.

        Some days I really wonder if it’s at all effective. Gotta try, though.

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