When MacDowell dropped “Colony” from its name, I felt trepidation. Certainly any person or organization can choose to change their name, and I myself have changed my name twice already in my 45 years. But it felt to me, as an outside observer, part of a troubling trend towards the disappearing of words.
This is not a new trepidation for me. I felt a similar feeling a decade ago doing trans advocacy work in queer Asian communities when I saw people becoming the same kind of intolerance they had suﬀered from. Well-meaning allies who made missteps were turned into “oppressors” — were turned into the other — and stripped of their complicated human- ness. And so I left organizing to devote myself fulltime to my art.
And then a decade later, this trend that causes me so much trepidation showed up in the arts.
We live in a time when words and language are increasingly fraught. Particularly the words around identity. There are rules about what can and cannot be said. These rules are constantly and rapidly evolving and can be confusing to people who are not in the know. (They are sometimes confusing to people who are in the know.) There will always be those who feel powerful when they flout the rules, and there will always be those who derive satisfaction (and feel powerful) when they enforce the rules.
It can feel like a minefield. At the very least, this is complicated terrain.
I’m a writer, a wordsmith. Using words is my vocation and my area of expertise. From that vantage point, I’m going to make two arguments that bear on the restriction (sometimes termed the “policing”) of language: One, that words have power. And two, that words do not have power.
I ask you to bear with me.
As a writer, I know that words are:
1) inherently flawed
2) sometimes more powerful than a fist or a gun
3) meaningless out of context
In reverse order, words are meaningless out of context. They do not have power until they are strung together with other words in a sentence or paragraph, directed with intention in a particular context. They are not animate by themselves. Like puppets, they come alive when they are manipulated.
(If I repeat any word over and over again, it will eventually fall over, meaningless, just a collection of sounds. For instance, the word “faerie” could be a sprite, a pejorative for a gay man, or a mistaken “ferry,” but after a hundred repetitions, it’s not much more than some ﬀf’s and rrr’s and air and spit.)
However, once animated, words can sometimes be more powerful than a fist. Hate speech is a gross example of this, and can be an indicator of violence to come. I have experienced hate speech. But less dramatically, clever words spoken cruelly or carelessly have crawled inside my head, have played on repeat until it was my own voice saying them, have continued their work long after the speaker had gone. As a brown-skinned, transgender, queer man born to Muslim Indian immigrants, I have heard my share of hurtful words. That hurt has come from both within and without my communities.
(For instance, I have been called a “faggot” as a pejorative. If I write the word “faggot” on a piece of paper and put it on my desk, I may think those six letters hurt me, but it’s actually my memory of being screamed at in a Massachusetts parking lot when I was twenty-two that hurts.) (The words my family used were innocuous by comparison, but those memories hurt much more.)
Some people say it’s all impact. I disagree. Intention counts. A blade wielded in anger can cause pain or death, but the same blade in the hand of a surgeon can alleviate pain, even save a life. A word is like this. It depends on the context, on how it’s used. And those who mean well when they try to rid us of certain words overlook the healing that can come from being able to hold the word that has hurt us, to look at it, look behind it, see its lifeless form away from its animating force, to use it to heal, or perhaps to be done with it and toss it into the heap.
And sometimes we do the unthinkable: We reclaim it, diminish it, transform it!
(I have also been called “faggot” and “faerie” in the context of a beautiful gathering with queer men with the most open hearts you’ve ever seen. The six letters in “faerie” and “faggot” written down on a piece of paper can now evoke in me a great deal of pride.)
So, yes, words have power. But preventing people from saying certain words at all, in any context — which is something that’s happening more and more now — is to make words too powerful; is to say that we as people are weak in comparison. To banish a word does not diminish its power; it increases it, it adds the seductive quality of something that must be done in secret, a rule that wants to be broken. The words that are banished do not go away because the ideas they represent have not gone away, and will never go away if we give them so much power. They will stay there, beneath the surface, fermenting.
And reclamation is not the only context for speaking the words.
Art. We must tell the stories of our lives, through our particular lenses. Faggot. Dyke. Faerie. These words are part of my story. When you read my words, I don’t want you to step over the hard ones, I want you to feel them all, as I did. I want you to say them out loud when you read this essay to your lover, to your mother, to your friend. Art is not meant to be a comfortable, or even a safe space if safety means that we will not be disturbed or troubled by what we experience. Disturbance and discomfort are part of a necessary alchemy. Art is provocative; it provokes something in the cultural subconscious. It challenges us. And it should. It exacerbates a wound, one we pretend not to have, and it is good that it does this. Because the wound is not the problem, it’s the way we’ve declined to deal with it that’s causing so much pain.
The classroom. Teachers must be allowed to say all the words in the context of turning them this way and that, looking at them, talking about their eﬀects on our collective psyche. It is a mistake to make the words unspeakable, even by certain groups of people — this gives words too much power. They are words and only words. Out of context they have no power. By silencing them in the classroom, we rob ourselves of knowing that we are more powerful than a string of letters. We rob ourselves of understanding that the very real danger of these ideas and intentions is something not easily contained in a word. We should read plays and poems out loud, and we should say the words. All of us. And we should talk about the wounds and the intentions and the possibility of reclamation. In that lies the possibility of cutting a word open and draining its power.
(My queer upbringing says, if something has been used against you, take it back, paint it with glitter, and stand on top of it.)
It should go without saying — but I will say it anyway — that we should never use these words to attack people. Intention matters. But that does not mean we should not use them at all. We should use them — to attack the ideas themselves. To look at them directly.
You are still waiting for the part where I say words are inherently flawed. They are indeed very crude tools, and I am coming to that.
Underpinning this desire to banish words, I believe, are two very dangerous assumptions that we must question: First, that we are not very resilient beings, and we need to be protected from discomfort. Well-intentioned banishers seek empowerment, but their actions will prove disempowering in the long run. Second, that by knowing what someone says, you might know what they mean, or worse, who they are. I’ll return to #1: Words are very, very flawed. Anyone who has fought with a spouse or a child or a parent knows this. “I hate you” can just as often mean “I hurt” or “I’m scared” or “I hate myself.”
And finally, what is most important and always lost is that we need to be kinder with ourselves. Deeply embedded in our judgment of others, in our inability to forgive others for their flaws, is our own inability to forgive ourselves. Every act of forgiveness requires an act of self-forgiveness ... for allowing ourselves to get hurt, for needing a love that did not come, for not being strong enough to not get hurt in the first place. Even if we forget everyone else, these criticisms of ourselves are too harsh. Like words, we humans are deeply flawed, of limited capacities, unable to meet the expectations of others or ourselves. But unlike words, we humans have hearts — gentle, fierce, vulnerable, indomitable hearts. We think we are protecting our hearts, as if they are fragile things, but we are suffocating them.
Playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen was in residence at MacDowell in 2015. He is a New Dramatists company member, winner of the Lambda Literary Award, and first runner-up for India's Sulthan Padamsee Playwriting Prize. In addition to MacDowell, he has been supported with residencies at Bogliasco, Wurlitzer, Blue Mountain Center, New Harmony and others. He is represented by the Gurman Agency.