Our most recent Brown Bag, entitled “Reclaiming Words”, consisted of two panel leaders and three students who had previously taken some sort of writing and rhetoric class. The panelists and leaders (who happen to be the two co-directors of this year’s production of The Vagina Monologues) spoke in the beginning about reclaiming words and how difficult it is to actually come up with a word to label something so deep, such as sexuality. This led to the discussion of the recent “Slut Walk” that happened in Toronto, where women tried to reclaim and change the power structure behind the word slut. Although this is an interesting idea, one of the panelists brought up the fact that reclaiming a word marginalizes certain communities that still feel the disrespect that a certain word, such as slut, brings when said. Questions were brought up here, such as who holds the power behind a word? Who is marginalized? Are actual institutions changed after a word has been reclaimed, or is this change on an individual level?
All of these questions opened up the panelists’ discussion to the entire group, about 90 people, and we all thought about how reclaiming a word works. As one of the assigned panelists, who could not be there had said, reclaiming a word means someone is saying “you cannot shame me with this word anymore”. Reclaiming a word lets people choose the words they want to describe them and some of the meaning/power behind these words. This idea of choosing what some words meant led to another question from one of the panelists: words are for communication. If we start changing the words’ meanings, how will we continue to communicate? Who can use the reclaimed word and how will people know what it means?
Even if we take a word to be reclaimed and therefore, no longer offensive, we do not have the magic to alter our words’ meanings. If we say something that offends someone, no matter how we try to explain ourselves, the offense has still occurred. Why not just eliminate a hurtful word or choose a new one? Either way you look at it, the changing of words that mean certain things take time. The entire English-speaking community cannot hear of a word’s new meaning overnight. Like everything, reclaiming takes time. But this does not mean that reclaiming words, or at least discussing the reclamation of a word is a waste of time. We may not have answered all our questions, but the Brown Bag led to a great discussion, and I have continued to think about what this all means since yesterday afternoon. Maybe, with enough discourse, we can find a solution.
-Breanna Pendleton '12