Opinion: Not all insults are created equally

Imagine this: it’s a beautiful sunny day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you are relaxing by the pool. You look up from your book and see that there are two people in the pool treading water. One of them has been in the water for about an hour in all of their clothes and is struggling with all they have to stay afloat, the other just jumped in a minute ago. They both yell and ask you to throw them the life preserver. Who do you give it to?

Hopefully, you would give it to the person on the verge of drowning because you realized that although they were in the same situation on the surface, a closer look into the situation could allow you to recognize the difference in their needs. When people change #blacklivesmatter to #alllivesmatter or insist that insults directed towards boys, white people, or straight people are equally as offensive as the reverse, they would essentially be saying that both of the pool patrons are in equal need of the life preserver.

The problem seems to be that not everyone recognizes power imbalances and how they affect the power of insults. Insults and racist remarks directed towards a white person are not backed with a history of systematic violence and a current system that is set up to benefit them. A slur directed towards a gay person is backed up with a history of violence and a widespread rejection from the general public and media representation. The same goes for every oppressed group or minority. While the insults might hurt both ways, remarks directed towards a privileged group are usually just backlash of years of unfairness or rejection.

Words always hurt, and in a perfect world of equality, everyone would treat each other with respect and kindness, but we do not live in a perfect world. In the United States we have a long history of violence, unfairness, and marginalization of minorities which still exist even now. Insults really are just words and can appear the same on the surface, but when they are put in real world context, it is obvious that they can hold much different weight.

If you find yourself angry over an insult directed towards you as a part of a privileged group, then reflect on whether a few interactions and harsh words are really worse than the other side’s struggles.

If you find jokes made at your expense a small annoyance in your day, then try to consider how it might feel to hear it from parents, teachers, teammates, aunts and uncles, classmates, siblings, television shows, or friends. Consider how it might feel to hear it several times a day from the people you are supposed to trust. An insult directed towards a straight person is one person insulting them, an insult towards a gay person is the collective voice of society insulting them. A joke based on a stereotype about black people isn’t an isolated incident, it is common in almost every piece of popular media, and negative perceptions based on stereotypes can even be seen on popular national news.

In an ideal world, no one would ever feel like they are worthless because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion. We do not live in this utopia where everyone is born with equal rights, safety, and respect, and until we get there, it is important to recognize that words aren’t just words. History, power imbalances, and context drastically affect the weight of what you say.

Next time you hear something offensive consider whether that person is a bigoted racist or if they are someone speaking out in frustration against the people who have created their struggle. The words might seem the same, but try to exercise understanding and forgiveness instead of anger.