Retiring Words (2014)
Project for San Francisco Arts Quarterly Magazine
(November-January2014 Issue, HTML)
I was invited to participate in a show entitled, "N/Q/C: An Exhibition About Difficult Words." I find the words featured as the subject of the show to be such an affront to my sense of well–being and existence that my first inclination was to decline participation. Ultimately, I determined a way to contribute to the show in a manner I found satisfying and which allowed me to add my personal viewpoint to the subject. In sum, I would like the three slurs featured in the show to meet obsolescence like other slurs have, through the 20th and early 21st centuries.
I challenged myself to visualize the cultural relevance of these slurs. How could I describe the manner in which some derogatory terms have persisted, while others have faded into the recesses of collective memory? Like many, I conducted Internet research to find a way to embody my inquiries, and I found it in the popular encyclopedia site, Wikipedia. The site features an entry entitled, "List of Ethnic Slurs." Along with the terms I found there, I added slurs around gender, sexuality and sexual identity.
On September 14, 2014, I counted the words per entry for each slur that warranted its own page, surmising that a word that held more cultural currency would warrant more discussion -- more words devoted to its history, use and current relevance. I note the date, because Wikipedia's content is user generated, and the qualities of any particular article might change over time.
In general, my theory regarding the attention paid to particular slurs was supported by what I admit to be an informal and unscientific test. The slurs that I hear most -- those that are most controversial in culture, received much more discussion (measured in words) than those that had more currency in the past, but had since become more or less obsolete. My hope is that all of the words in the list, and other slurs and derogations, will fall into obscurity as we move into the future.
"Retiring Words," the title of the artwork of which this writing is a part, has a twofold meaning: Many of the words in the artwork are retiring from use due to the silence around them, while society would be greatly improved if those still present in the cultural imagination were gradually retired from circulation. Perhaps we will see a day when words referring to groups of human beings will transform from degrading to life-affirming. Until then, we should be in the business of retiring these derogatory terms.