"Goddamnit, it's political correctness gone mad! Why can't we call bints, cripples, blacks and buggers by their proper names anymore? Bah bah green sheep! YOU ARE INFRINGING MY RIGHT TO FREE EXPRESSION!"
Oh, you think I'm creating an evil straw-man to rant about, don't you? But no! This is, in essence, the argument I've just spent an hour combatting. It started with tales from an equal opportunities seminar where the facilitator suggested that the phrase "Paki shop" was, perhaps, to be avoided.
"But I'm using it just as a descriptive term! I'm not a racist, so I'm not implying anything racist by using that word - it's just shorthand for 'a shop run by a Pakistani family'!"
Which I'm sure is totally true, if you are a white lady who doesn't believe in racism! Or believes that it is big and obvious and you can always see it coming, easily identified by the fact that it is being done by a drooling neanderthal with a shaved head and knuckle tattoos saying "I believe in the superiority of an artbitrarily-defined 'Aryan race'".
Yes, words change their meanings. Yes, words mean different things in different context. But I sincerely doubt that we are so fucking post-racial that racial slurs have somehow magically shed all of their harmful history and can now be used to mean whatever you want them to mean. I can decide I'm so post-footwear that I'm going to refer to my shoes as wardrobes: that doesn't make strapping an IKEA flatpack to my feet any more of a workable plan.
More importantly, why the shit would you want to reclaim that word? Is fighting for your right to use every single slur in the world really a good use of your time? (Interestingly, she's highly opposed to use of the N-word*, and considers its reclamation by African-Americans as "problematic". [You tell 'em, White Lady!] I'm not really sure what to conclude from this - whether it's to do with ranking some forms of racism as badder and racistier than others, just the random effect of the ways she personally has heard the two words used, or the fact that it's easier to accept the existence of racism abroad than in your own backyard?)
She then tried to say that "Paki" is exactly the same in terms of history, offensiveness and emotional impact as "rosbif". "Yes but France wasn't part of the British Empire, and - " "OH BUT WHAT ABOUT CALAIS? Did we not invade?" Yes, yes we did. And the relationship between two warring Medieval European states is precisely the same as the historical legacy of an invading, colonising European state, intent on annexing the entire Indian subcontinent, decimating its economy and stripping it of all natural resources, maintaining dominance for a century through brutal repression, torture and massacre! PRECISELY THE SAME. It's times like these when I want to be a total history-geek arsehole and say, "Go read Edward Said and then we'll continue this argument." But I never actually made it through more than a chapter of Orientalism, so, there's that.
We ended at an impasse, with my main sticking point being "Why would you use a word that you know might offend people, why would you fight for the right to use such a word, and why do you insist on seeing this as an abstract philosophical point as opposed to the very simple idea that 'making people feel bad is bad'?" With her sticking to her "BUT WE SHOULDN'T BE AFRAID OF WORDS AND YOU CAN'T TAKE MY WORDY RIGHTS AWAY FROM ME" funs. Because, you know. We're running out of words, after all.
Actually, I'm not sure why I bothered, given that once you've repeated the "Bah blah green sheep" crap as truth, you've officially lost the right to debate. With anyone. Ever.
* Refusing to type That Word while typing "Paki" in full might not be logical or consistent, and might in fact undermine my argument; I'm open to suggestion.