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Simon Tam

Founder and Bassist, The Slants LLC

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Is Reappropriation an Effective Method of Social Change?

A.M Croon defines reappropriation as "is the cultural process by which a group reclaims—re-appropriates—terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group" In other words, groups who have suffered under cultural stereotypes or racial/sexist/facist slurs attempt to reclaim the meaning of an offensive term to shake the negative associations with it and instead use it as a banner of pride.

One of the most common examples is in the LGBT community. Previously, it was inappropriate to call someone who is gay "queer." However, over time it became the proper moniker to address the community.

Numerous groups have tried to do the same with labels in regards to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and politics.

What do you think about activists proactively changing the meaning or association with a word/term? Is the reclanation of offensive epitaphs only symbolic or does it provide meaningful change for individuals? How does this reverse discourse shape future generations in the way that they of minorities? Can we change the meaning of words/phrases?

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    Jan 13 2012: The way we perceive labels is a special symbolic relationship we have with language, which is an expression of our human nature. I believe, that by embracing formerly negative labels and turning them into positive ones, we are able to accept what was and create what is.

    Great question!
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      Jan 13 2012: I agree! I think it is an underapprciated form of activism.
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    Jan 18 2012: The English language has always been capable of rude, sarcastic, insulting, obscene, sexual, innuendo, humorous, silly, threatening, beautiful, glamorous, clamorous, subtle, etc etc. usage.
    I think it is this flexibility and cleverness that has enabled it to be the leading language in the world. More Chinese speak English than any other language besides Mandarin.
    Trying to take the 'pop' out of English is waste of time. American teenagers create hundreds of new words and word meanings every year, and there is no shortage of insulting creativity where ever English is spoken. Trying to brainwash people into believing that an insult is not an insult is crazy.
    I am all in favor of positive change. But trying to manipulate a living, dynamic language to lessen the sting its use provides its users sounds a lot like 'new-speak' to me. I laughed at the efforts that authorities have made in this direction in the past. I do hope that we can learn from those mistakes.
    I also realize that we are entering a very authoritarian era with tentacles deep into the culture. Still, I believe in the people. They are often a rough and tumble group of people with no respect for authority.
    But of course the same words were spoken in Rome about 2,000 years ago.
    The eyes of the beholder are both the roots of beauty, and the roots of insult. So I get mad at you. Are you going to take as your own, any insulting words that I say to you so that the insult is ineffective? I can use nice words like naive, or silly. Perhaps if I feel you did not pay attention, I can find words that will sting you into action or response. Go ahead. Try to take the insult out of my words.
    Maybe you are one of those "Yankees" that think they are so great! Hmph! Nothing but little doodle dandies!
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      Jan 18 2012: I agree with you in that I believe any word can be used as an insult, it all depends on intention and context. By those same measures though, I believe that "those certain "insults" can be used in a non-insulting way (just as you used "Yankee" with humor and affection. Because of the dynamic abilities of the English language to adapt, I believe that people are able to take on new dynamics with words/phrases.

      For example, the term "Hip Hip Hooray" was based on a cry for killing Jews yet over time, it shed that meaning. Another example was the one I shared about the LGBT community. In the former example, it the definition evolved naturally. In the latter, a community group deliberately decided that they would not be offended by the term but instead, embrace it with pride.

      I've been working with an edito at the New American Oxford Dictonary on some research around this. It's fascinating to see how slurs, insults, and language change over time.
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    Jan 17 2012: As long as we are trapped by thinking in words, we'll be slaves to the meanings of words as defined culturally. Changing a culture is the hardest thing there is. Culture is a survival mechanism and as such has huge trunk lines going straight to the fight or flight response. We need to learn to think in diagrams.
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    Jan 13 2012: I think the only people that truly claim a word or turn of phrase for their own are the next generation coming through.

    Most groups like to do as some sort of flag waving but it's probably only the members of that group that 'reclaim' these words.
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      Jan 13 2012: I'd add that it is up to this generation to teach the next one valuable lessons: history is not doomed to repeat itself, it is possible to make meaningful change, and that it is their responsibility to embrace positive change.

      I also agree, it is up to members of the disparaged group to make the decision. People outside of that community should not have the right to dictate what is appropriate for them.