The language we use

Fox News has issued a two-week suspension to retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters for referring to President Obama as a “pussy.”  This was in response to the president’s plans for dealing with the Islamic State’s terrorism.  Stacey Dash, another Fox commentator, also received a suspension for saying that Obama doesn’t “give a shit” about terrorism.

I mention Dash for sake of completeness, but the word she used isn’t something I can get all that worked up about.  The Federal Communications Commission has decided for us to impose a policy of squeamishness with regard to a number of words—George Carlin listed seven—that deal with natural functions of the human body.  Some among us use the phrase, pardon my French, after saying such words, which only deepens the offense against propriety, since most of our saltiest expressions derive from Germanic Old English and were looked down upon by the Norman invaders as vulgar speech.

But what Dash said isn’t demeaning to a group of people.  Was it coarse?  Yes.  Did she use a word that I’ve used now and then, especially when trying to get my computer to cooperate with me?  Also yes.  But since the word refers to something we all do, it’s not on the same level as the one that Peters employed.

The retired colonel’s word is one that I see all too often—sadly by many who are on the side of gun rights.  It’s used to say that a person is weak or incompetent.  Or effeminate, as if that by itself is an insult.

What we who support gun rights have to understand, though, is that rights stand or fall together.  So do people.  Singling out groups for mockery is a human trait, but it’s one that we have to fight.  The schoolyard bully may not be picking on you today, but if you don’t stand up to him when he torments others, your turn will come.  The same is true in politics—an area that feels a lot like middle school on most days.  If we expect to maintain the protections of gun rights that we’ve had and gained over the years, we have to include women in our ranks.  They’re half the population, and using words that imply inferiority, even if such usage is unconscious, will only strengthen the impression that guns are the interest of old, white, bigoted males.

As someone who has spent decades teaching better use of language and as a writer, I care a lot about the words that we use.  They are the vehicles for conveying our meaning to others, the material of our thoughts.  I can’t say for a certainty what was in the mind of Col. Peters when he referred to the president in the manner that he did.  No matter what his opinion is, he does have the right to say it.  At the same time, we all have the right to respond.  As Justice Brandeis famously said in his concurrent opinion in Whitney v. California (1927), the way to confront bad speech is more speech.  And our success in preserving our rights—gun rights and all rights—will be determined in large part by the quality of our voices as we contribute to the national discussion.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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