A few days ago a link was posted to /r/dota2 in which N0tail describes Iceiceice’s Tidehunter using the word ‘faggot’. The thread was very popular, and most comments continued the theme of casual homophobia, with a few joking about the ‘sjw backlash’ they anticipated. Some comments condemned the use of homophobic slurs, but sadly they were in the minority.
The thread is roughly representative of the normal sentiments expressed in the more vocal parts of our community (i.e. the parts frequenting reddit the most). And it highlights a pretty fundamental problem. As a community we’re simply not doing well enough when it comes to homophobia (and other kinds of bigotry). This is not to say that the community is populated by evil hateful people. Rather, in many cases, people appear to simply not understand the issues at play or what’s at stake. Consequently, I thought it might be valuable to write an article putting forward some clear arguments advocating against the use of these kinds of slurs, and against the casual attitude the community typically takes towards issues of bigotry.
For the purpose of discussion, I’ll assume a common starting point. It is certainly my hope that anyone reading this article agrees that equality is and should be a foundational value within our community. Normally where people’s views diverge is in what they understand equality to mean.
There are, I think, a lot of people who think equality in the context of this discussion is the fact that everyone has the equal right to say or do whatever the fuck they want. This is certainly one kind of equality, but to reduce equality to this makes two key mistakes.
First, it treats equality as merely a means to the end of liberty, rather than its own value. We don’t only think people should be equal so that they can be free, we think both that people should be equal and that they should be free. In any case, freedoms are typically constrained by some kind of harm principle. You’re allowed to do whatever you want, provided you don’t harm anyone. So even treating equality as a libertarian principle, we run into some hurdles in justifying the use of homophobic slurs.
Second, it’s disingenuous to talk about people enjoying equal freedoms without an analysis of the status quo. For example, we might imagine two people applying for a job being told that they are to run a race in order to determine who gets the job. They both have equal opportunity to get the job, and the job is being decided on merit. So far everything seems good. However, what if one of the people only has one leg? Suddenly the situation doesn’t look so equal or fair. Why are people with one leg being asked to run a race against people with two legs?
Another way to look at this is to imagine that life is just a game which some people are able to play in easy mode while others are forced to play in hard mode. Lets imagine that across both easy and hard mode the basic rules and physics of the game are the same, but in hard mode there’s simply extra challenges that don’t exist in easy mode. We’d fool ourselves if we thought the game was fair just because similar rules apply across both easy and hard mode. For the game to really be fair everyone should be able to play at the same difficulty.
A similar statement can be made about the social status quo inside our community, and within broader society at large. To ensure equality between those belonging to privileged groups and those belonging to marginalised or oppressed groups, it is not enough to merely say ‘let there be equality’. For a system that is procedurally equal, but substantively unequal, is still unequal.
So, in such a system, where there are groups of people who are worse off than others, in order to arrive at a position of equality we need to do more than simply give everyone equal freedoms or opportunities. We need to actively combat those factors which underpin the existing inequality. We need to ask what is it in our society and that is oppressive to a certain group of people and how can we get rid of that thing?
In what follows, I will argue that taking a casual attitude towards homophobia and homophobic slurs is one such thing — a thing that creates the conditions for inequality and oppression within our community. I will provide first a subjective argument and then an objective argument followed by a few responses to common objections.
The Subjective Argument
This argument is fairly simple. Here we acknowledge the fact that there are many people who are hurt by homophobic slurs. The argument follows almost immediately from that. If there is something that hurts a lot of people, we should ask ourselves why we continue to do that thing?
Well, what’s the value in being OK with homophobic slurs? Is there anyone whose well-being would be greatly reduced if they were no longer able to use such slurs? Is there anyone who needs to use them or depends on using them? It certainly doesn’t seem like it.
So we have a situation where the people doing a certain thing can easily, at essentially no cost to themselves, stop doing it. And if they do stop doing it, it will greatly improve the experiences of those who feel hurt by those slurs.
Imagine there was a button you could press and it would immediately make everyone around you happier. Wouldn’t that be a thing you’d wanna do? Even just once in a while, press this button and make people happy. Costs you nothing and means the world to them.
In this case, it’s even easier than merely pressing a button. You don’t have to do anything. All that is required is to not do something. And just like that, you’ll improve the well-being of people around you.
There are two common responses to this argument. One claims that the effect slurs have is being exaggerated by the argument. To this I simply request that anyone reading this make the effort to consult queer people directly. Despite the fact that our community is pretty hostile to them, there are those who exist and speak about these issues on a fairly regular basis. But you don’t even need to ask a public figure. Just find any queer person in your life and ask them if they enjoy hearing people casually throw homophobic slurs around.
The second common response relates to free speech. We can not, it is alleged, limit free speech subjectively. If we start avoiding saying things that offend people, pretty soon there will be nothing we can say. After all, anything can be offensive to somebody. I think this argument has some sense to it although again you’ve gotta wonder why someone would make the use of a slur into a free speech issue — why is that particular speech act so worthy of protection? In any event, the next argument will deal directly with this concern.
The Objective Argument
The objection above usually arises out of a misunderstanding of free speech. Legally, different countries treat free speech differently. However, typically most countries understand that all rights are limited by other rights and that free speech in particular has certain objective constraints on it.
What are those constraints? The first and most obvious one is hate speech. Hate speech is defined as speech which incites violence. It’s easy to understand why we’d want to limit that kind of speech, because a person’s right to expression shouldn’t trump another person’s right to safety or bodily integrity.
Further, free speech can be constrained where it entrenches historical persecution or reinforces structural oppression. OK, that’s quite a mouthful, what does it mean? Well, remember our discussion from the beginning about conditions of substantive inequality meaning that equal opportunity wasn’t enough? This point merely says that speech should not be protected where it perpetuates such conditions.
Lets try to make it a bit more concrete. There are many ways in which certain groups of people are not equal in our society. Some examples: foreigners are treated as automatically suspicious, women tend to be paid less for the same work as men, black people are treated much more violently by law enforcement than white people, violent hate crimes are committed against LGBTQ people. The restriction on speech argued for here says that insofar as certain speech acts will further entrench these kinds of unequal and unfair treatments, those speech acts shouldn’t be allowed.
So, to return to the case at hand. You might argue that the use of a homophobic slur in this context is hardly dangerous, and has no intention to harm. You might even say the word is not even being used to mean anything homophobic. The problem is that regardless of what the speaker intends, the casual use of the word normalises the use of the word, while carrying the existing negative connotation attached to it.
If this isn’t bad enough on its own (hint: it is, check out these links on the associated psychological harms) this normalisation is precisely what enables and lays the groundwork for the kinds of violent hate crimes discussed above. Serious homophobic violations occur much more readily within a context where the less serious ones are treated as benign.
So here’s the bottom line. You can ask queer people how they feel about your use of slurs and the chances are you’re gonna find they aren’t thrilled about them. You could recognise that you don’t need those slurs, and if they’re harming others you might as well stop.
And if you really insist on an objective standard, you can look at the empirically measurable harms that homophobic slurs have done and continue to do, and accept that entrenching society’s casual attitude towards this problem will only make things worse.
Stop being so sensitive!
Who exactly is being sensitive? On the one hand you have people whose sexual identity is being ridiculed, who are hurting because of the slurs people use, and who merely want people to stop talking that way. Wanting to not be harmed or ridiculed is hardly sensitive. It seems pretty normal.
On the other hand you have people up in arms about being told they can’t use certain words. They don’t need to use those words. The words are not particularly important in any way. But they’re furious that they are being told not to use them. That seems pretty damn sensitive to me!
I understand that many people are used to speaking that way and that training themselves out of it might be hard. But that doesn’t change the right or wrong of it.
Stop demonising N0tail for an innocent mistake
I’m not. In fact, nobody is. Part of the problem is an oversimplified understanding of morality. Firstly, good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things. Secondly, calling someone out when they fuck up doesn’t mean you’re saying they’re evil. In fact, in this case, the primary point is pointing out the social problem that exists structurally in our community. That casual homophobia is normal.
And that’s why when a public figure uses this kind of slur, we should absolutely point out that it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean he’s evil. He should accept he made a mistake and apologise and try do better. We all should. We all fuck up at some point in time and we all need to accept it when we do.
I want to live in a world where people can say whatever they want without fear of repercussion
Me too! But we don’t live in that world yet. And we aren’t going to start living in that world just by pretending we already do live in that world. If I can agree with you about where we aim to get to some day, can’t you agree with me about where we are right now?
We don’t have the ability to teleport. We need to get to our destination from where we currently are and that means acknowledging where we currently are. Right now accepting the casual use of slurs entrenches the problems that makes them bad in the first place. Maybe if we can eradicate those problems we’ll free up the use of those words. But lets not put the cart before the horse. Lets understand the problem in front of us and address it rather than dreaming about an ideal world that’s far far away.
Isn’t context important?
Yes, yes, 100 times yes! And the context for the case at hand was an influential public figure speaking in a public space with 50 000+ people watching. The broader social context is that the comment exists within a space that has a problem with homophobia. The context is a big part of what makes it irresponsible. If you have an understanding with your own friends about using certain words in very specific ways in a private context that’s something entirely different.
But Jim Jefferies / Louis CK says it’s OK!
And other comedians disagree. But hey, comedians are not experts on bigotry. Everyone makes mistakes — even comedians believe it or not. And even if they were experts on the subject matter, an appeal to authority is simply a logical fallacy. If you think some other person has made a good argument about this topic, why not reproduce their reasons and engage in a dialogue. It’s intellectually lazy to dismiss an argument on the basis that someone you like also dismisses it.
I mean come the fuck on, Donald Trump is going to the be president of the United States. How is it not obvious that appealing to what an authority says is not the same thing as making an argument.
If the person you’re appealing to is actually right, they’ll have given good reasons for their position. If you understand and can reproduce those reasons, do so!
The only tool that exists for building online communities is language. We need to be responsible with how we use it. It is a powerful tool that can facilitate both progress and regress, entirely dependent on how we use it.
The Dota 2 community has a lot to be proud of. It is a hub of creativity (and memes) and it’s one of the only places a lot of people feel at home. It’s a powerful force of solidarity when players are being abused.
But, we’re also failing really hard when it comes to various social issues. There are so many ways to have fun and make each other laugh without using slurs, without treating bigotry like a problem the world has already solved. We can and must do better to make our space a more inclusive space.
Those of us who have found a home in this community will know just how precious that feels. All that I’m asking is that we make it possible for anyone to enjoy that same feeling, no matter their identity.
Thanks to @kipspul, @CaitMcGeePT and @likhain for providing insight and feedback for this article.