Monday, 25 November 2013

Will Young: Are We Talking Crap?

I like to think I'm down with youth culture and its slang. Well, a bit anyway. I understand that the word "sick" can mean "cool", and "bare" can mean "a lot". This is pretty much the limit of my knowledge. But I do like to think I can tell the difference between words that have changed their meaning in a quirky but harmless way, and those that have a damaging knock-on effect.

The evolution of the word "gay" is a case in point. Once it meant carefree or merry. Over time it came to be used to describe a sexual orientation. Now – for many at least – it has been appropriated to mean "rubbish" or "crap". So a word that started out meaning "happy" has ended up being used to denigrate. Well, language changes, doesn't it? Many would see no problem with a shift driven by everyday speech...

Will Young in The Guardian.

I'm sure he means well, but Will Young's interventions on this subject seem like a rather embarrassing turn at the St Cake's School Debating Society.
This is but one example of a problem that's general in our culture, where somebody's somewhat banal and quarter-baked thoughts are given weight and taken seriously just because they're a celebrity.
Why ask Will? He's hardly the only gay man in the country who went to a school.
Presumably this is a slightly garbled response to Brendan O'Neill's piece on the Telegraph blog last week; Gay now means rubbish - get over it. 
"The rising use of the word “gay” to mean rubbish has coincided with increased levels of tolerance towards homosexuals among young people," O'Neill wrote. "When I was at school, we never used the word gay to mean rubbish, and yet there was a lot of anti-gay sentiment, reflecting broader anti-gay outlooks in politics and society. Today, the opposite is the case – kids are forever using the word gay to mean rubbish, yet real, genuinely prejudiced anti-gay sentiment is on the wane, both in schools and in society."*
Gay academic Mark McCormack has reached similar conclusions through his research at three British schools, presented in his book, The Declining Significance Of Homophobia: How teenage boys are redefining masculinity and heterosexuality.**
Mark writes here on the need to contextualise how such language is used; Don’t call me homophobic: the complexity of ‘that’s so gay’

Will "Nice But Dim" Young was also in The Sun yesterday.
[Edit: This is clearly now his specialist subject, he's also on Newsnight this evening. I still haven't got over his squirm-inducing appearance on Question Time...].
He suggests calling in the thought police; "It is now time to come down on homophobic language like a ton of bricks."
His Sun article is titled; 23% of young gay people will try suicide.. it's a crisis - Singer's call to end bullying language
This story was filed under Showbiz, natch.
These statistics are highly dubious*** - and, as before, we need to be extremely cautious whenever discussing gay teen suicides; there is much research suggesting ill-thought-out media coverage may actually encourage it. 
But as ever, emotionally potent Cry Homophobia! gay hysteria seems to have trumped a much-needed rational debate.

Will Young, wearing a tea-cosy, and fellow posh gay twat Milo Yiannopoulos.
Clearly BBC  Newsnight's idea of a balanced debate.
* Ironically The Daily Telegraph is the only British newspaper that still tells writers not to use the word "gay", but "homosexual".

** O'Neill acknowledges Stonewall also say this; "Even Stonewall’s own report on the widespread use of the word gay in schools admits that “most of the time it is used unconsciously and without hurtful intent”
See Stonewall's 2012 The School Report - with comments on what school pupils make of all this.
Here Mark McCormack critiques their research and their use of stats for Psychology Today; "The School Report 2012 is a missed opportunity to inform the debate on homophobia in British schools, but the greater concern is that its overwhelmingly negative tone may encourage kids to stay in the closet."

*** By coincidence Fagburn is reading a fascinating, entertaining and thoroughly depressing book on the media's love of dodgy data and statistics; The Numbers Game: The commonsense guide to understanding numbers in the news, in politics and in life. What are the chances of that happening, eh? etc etc.


  1. I just don't agree with McCormack's analysis. Kids know that when they say 'gay' that the only way an actual adult would use it is to mean 'homosexual'.

    I think this whole idea that there can be different nuances to language and words meaning different things to people in different contexts but the youngest people I've seen defending casual use of gay as a slur are people currently in their 30s, and they're doing it from an academic perspective.

    I'm only 22 and I remember being closeted at school and all my friends using gay as a pejorative. There was one gay kid at school who also used gay in this way. There was general support among my peer group for the idea of 'gay rights' but at the same time nobody actually wanted to be gay.

    And it was coupled with policing ideas of hetero masculinity. So you could say 'this homework is so gay' but someone could also tell you that wearing a tight t-shirt made you look gay. And there were plenty of instances where there was a massive overlap between 'homosexual' and 'generally bad'.

    1. Thanks, that's very interesting.

      There's a (mild) critique of Mark's approach here, with comments from MM and his co-researcher Eric Anderson.

    2. Yeah this is also interesting. Basically if a 14 yr old says "this is gay" they often don't mean it in a homophobic context and to immediately jumo down their throat and accuse them of homophobic bullying is generally going to be wrong .. they probably wouldn't think of themself as homophobic. But I would argue that challenging use of the word gay as a pejorative must in general be a good thing. When my mum was at school her peer group used 'jewish' to mean selfish or stingy. "Don't be such a jew" was a normal; thing to say if someone didn't share. She was at a catholic boarding school, there were no jewish girls there to offend... it still isn't an ok thing.

      also: kinda annoying i am now on mr will young st cake's side of an argument.