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Why Is It So Important for Eminem to Keep Using the Word “Faggot”?

You already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Marshall Mathers, 41 this year, gave an interview to Rolling Stone this week, wherein he spoke about the controversy surrounding his repeated use of homophobic language in his recent single “Rap God.” To the surprise of precisely no one, Eminem was unrepentant about the whole thing, arguing that hey, he’s not homophobic, and he doesn’t mean the word “faggot” badly, and if people are offended, well, that’s their problem.

The thing is, no one’s suggesting Eminem is actively homophobic. This isn’t a particularly subtle point, but it does seem to be one that the great majority of people involved in discussions on this topic miss. So let’s make it clear: if people get upset at you for using the word “faggot,” they’re not necessarily implying that they think you’re a gay-bashing neanderthal. What they’re saying is this: you are using a word that has historically been an anti-gay slur (and, on that point, it’s worth reading about the word’s etymology to see just how unpleasant it is). And you’re doing so in a pejorative way, thus reinforcing the word’s negative connotations, and by implication ascribing negative connotations to homosexuality.

I’ve addressed the argument that “Hey, ‘faggot’ doesn’t mean ‘gay’ anymore” on this site before, and I don’t really want to go over that ground again. Suffice it to say that the fact that the meaning of words does indeed change over time isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Context is everything, and the fact that you don’t mean badly by using this word doesn’t really make a difference, because “faggot” is most definitely anti-gay hate speech in America.

This isn’t exactly high-level, far-left-wing cultural theory: it’s common sense, for heaven’s sake. But still, it’s a point that seems to elude Eminem, whose argument in his defense goes like this:

When I came up battle-rappin’ or whatever, I never really equated those words [with homosexuality.] It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then… [I'm] not saying it’s wrong or it’s right, but at this point in my career – man, I say so much shit that’s tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all.

Well, whoop-de-do. But dude, the point is that it doesn’t matter what you think it means. This argument is no more correct than suggesting that, as a white person, I can start using the N-word because, hey, I don’t mean badly by it, and anyway, black people use it, right?! No. That’s not how language works in our culture.

Beyond that, it’s worth considering just why the likes of Eminem and Tyler, the Creator consider it so important that they retain the inalienable right to use this word, no matter how it might affect others. There’s a clue to this in Eminem’s interview: “It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people.”

Wait just a second. Why is your right to say what you want to say more important than the reality of how what you choose to say might affect people? Where’s your compassion? Where’s your common human decency? You’re not a stupid man. Is it so hard to entertain the possibility that the people who’ve taken issue with this aspect of your work for over a decade might just have a fucking point?

There’s something of the perpetual adolescent about Eminem, and anyone else who stamps their foot and says, “Hey, this is AMERICA. I can say whatever I WANT.” This is indeed true. You’re fortunate enough to have been born in a country where the First Amendment protects your right to say whatever you please. But this is how you want to use it? Throwing around homophobic slurs for the amusement of your companions under the bridge?

Because here’s the other thing: the artistic choices you make don’t exist in a void. For proof, you need look no further than… hey, look, Eminem fans, it’s our comment section! I wrote about Eminem a couple of weeks back, suggesting that “Rap God” wasn’t quite the epoch-defining masterpiece that his fans seemed to think it was, and also noting, apropos of its liberal use of “faggot,” that “there’s really no excuse for a man who’s just turned 40 to be carrying on like Beavis and/or Butt-Head, ‘ironically’ or otherwise.”

Among the slew of angry (and largely white) people who replied suggesting that I shoot myself in the head/go play in traffic/”go back to my shitty pop music” (oh, the irony), there were plenty of comments like these:

Eminem

(Yes, the best bit is the guy who claimed these comments restored his faith in humanity.)

I don’t really care what random Internet bottom feeders think of me — if I did, I would never have taken this job in the first place. What these comments demonstrate is that if you normalize the use of homophobic language, well, it becomes normalized. If Eminem and his ilk didn’t keep using this word in their lyrics, I wouldn’t keep writing about it, and these clowns wouldn’t still be calling me (and, quite likely, others who might be far more wounded by the term and its implications) a faggot. And the world would be a marginally more pleasant place for all concerned.

I’ll leave the final word to Mathers himself, whose terminal cluelessness on this point seems to be permanently ingrained on him and his personae: “I think people know my personal stance on things and the personas that I create in my music. And if someone doesn’t understand that by now, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to change their mind about it.”

But there is, y’know. Just. Stop. Saying. “Faggot.” Easy!

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