That title caught your attention, didn’t it? Let me explain…
I was talking to a teenager the other day – if you’ve read this blog before, you know I spend a lot of time with teenagers, both at home and at school – and he said something that shocked me to the core.
He was complaining about someone else, and I was waiting for him to finish his rant before making a comment, and he called her a “f**king Jew.”
He clearly realized the mistake he’d made as soon as it exited his mouth; he turned to me, eyes wide, sheepish, and stopped talking.
“What did you just say?” I asked. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.
“Nothing … I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry.” Shaken, and clearly worried about my reaction.
“You called her a ‘f**king Jew’.”
“I didn’t mean it! It just came out! I wasn’t thinking!”
I was astonished, speechless. I had no idea what to say to him. Trying to keep calm, I told him I didn’t want to talk to him right now and that he should go away. He left, without argument.
I read an article just last week about anti-Semitism in Europe. It reported on an Anti-Defamation League study [link updated to a 2015 version of the study] which measured anti-Semitic attitudes all over the world and, for each country, came up with a percentage of the population that held anti-Semitic attitudes. I was pleased, and not particularly surprised, that in the Netherlands, where I live, only 5% measured as anti-Semitic, far below the world average of 26% and the Western European average of 24%.
I’ve never personally experienced any anti-Semitism here. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m Jewish, and I have a mezuzah on my front door. At worst, I get ignorant but well-meaning questions when people learn that I’m Jewish: “So does that mean you don’t celebrate Christmas?” (I don’t.) “So you don’t eat pork?” (I do.)
Later, when I talked to this kid again, after I’d calmed down, he immediately insisted that he has nothing against Jews, that he has Jewish friends (How’s that for cliché?).
“So where did that come from?”
“I heard it on South Park. And it just came out.”
We talked for a while, and I gave him what I hope was a clear explanation of how that had felt for me, why words matter, and so on, and of course he apologized profusely.
It’s occurred to me since then, though, that the way he used the word “Jew” as an epithet is exactly like how many kids use the word “gay” as an epithet: “That’s so gay,” which is as likely to be directed at a thing or action as at a person.
When they use this phrase, it often isn’t even connected to homosexuality; it’s “gay” as the equivalent of “stupid.” Often the kids the words are directed at aren’t gay. Here’s a public service announcement about “That’s so gay,” produced by ThinkB4YouSpeak.com:
I don’t know if the person this teenager was insulting actually is Jewish. Nevertheless, the comment’s truth value doesn’t matter. It’s used as a put-down, so it’s inexcusable. In the kids’ view, however, it’s harmless, a rather low-level insult: there are far worse ones, in their world.
We adults know that it’s certainly not harmless. It creates an atmosphere that feels unsafe, and where people feel the need to hide who they are. And it’s incredibly insulting to give descriptive terms like “gay” or “Jew” a negative connotation, even a negative connotation that’s completely unrelated to the actual meaning of the word, as in this case, where the intended meaning is just “stupid.” It feeds into the already-existing homophobia and anti-Semitism, making them publicly acceptable.
Whenever I hear a kid call someone or something “gay,” I call them on it. What I get in return is usually “But I didn’t mean it that way!” and “Everyone says it!” and “But he knows I’m kidding!”
I explain calmly why it is still completely unacceptable, and then the matter is dropped. Generally they’re more careful from then on about what they say around me.
Nevertheless, they’re still using these terms; I hear them in the hallways at school. All they seem to have learned from me is “Don’t say it around her.”
Since in this case, the epithet applies to me, I was far more upset about the word “Jew” than I have been in the past about the word “gay.” Part of me wanted to come down far harder on this kid, punish him or something.
On the other hand, if a show like South Park is using it that way, it’s not surprising that kids pick it up and think it’s acceptable. South Park is meant to be ridiculing such usages, I think, but kids can’t necessarily discern what is satire and what is serious. It’s up to us adults to let them know.
But how do we do that? If a particular epithet is banned, doesn’t that just make it more desirable to use it whenever authority figures aren’t around to impose a punishment? There must be some other way to discourage the use of these words.
It’s tricky, isn’t it? The words “Jew” and “gay” are not swear words. They are perfectly acceptable words. Yet they are very powerfully hurtful when used as insults. How do we teach kids the difference?