When is a Slur a Slur? Reflections on the AP-MTV Poll

A recent AP-MTV poll found that young people are generally not offended by racial slurs and other derogatory words that are posted on social media sites or used in text messages. Young people consider this language acceptable if used among friends and within the context of a joke. The presence of such language is quite common; more than one-half of respondents see disparaging words or images on social media sites.

Such a finding highlights the casualness of today’s language, but not necessarily an inherent cruelty of young people. There is probably a Twitter hashtag for every derogatory word or phrase you can think of. Often these words are not directed toward someone in a hateful way, but thrown around loosely.  Yet, such words don’t have to be directed at someone to have an impact. When certain words are used casually, we become desensitized to the effect they can have on people. Consider what has happened with words and phrases like “that’s so gay,” “crazy,” or “retarded.”

This research also demonstrates that young people lack awareness of the extent of their online privacy. Many will underestimate the ability of people to find information that the user tried to keep private. Those surveyed in this study felt that derogatory language was acceptable within a circle of friends but recognized that it is not acceptable within a wider context. Young people should assume that anything they write could become public information or passed along. What would a prospective employer think about your language? What about a college you have applied to or the mother of someone you are dating? Young people could jeopardize certain opportunities by using language that could be offensive to others.

Derogatory language is used by many young people in everyday conversation and probably has been for decades. So what’s the big deal? Social media have changed the communication landscape in the following ways:

1. Social media sites make it convenient for users to have more interactions during a typical day. Not only can users have face-to-face conversations, but they can also communicate online to a vast network of friends. A message can therefore be spread to more friends using these tools.

2. Furthermore, messages are not limited to a user’s friends, but can also be spread among friends of friends. This is particularly true of Twitter where retweets are common.

3. Online language is typically looser and more casual than spoken language. Speaking requires a  structure and certain conventions that are not always found online. This study found that the young people surveyed were more likely to use derogatory language online or in a text message than in person.

4. Many people, particularly young adults and teens, are using social media to construct and control an identity for themselves. As a part of this process, some will define themselves through their attitudes toward a certain group. They may also be trying to define themselves as “funny” or “cool” and believe such language is the way to be accepted by others.

In summary, as part of an identity construction process,  young people can easily broadcast a derogatory message in the casual structure of online communication  to a network of friends and friends of friends.

The study did find that young people are more offended when the words are used against them because of their race, ethnic group, gender, religion, sexual orientation or even weight.

Facebook, by the way, does have policies against using the site to bully, intimidate or harass members or to spread hateful content. They do police the site and remove anything that violates their terms of us. So much content is uploaded every day that this is not always an easy thing to do.

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