In case anybody needs reminding, it’s Christmas time. The songs all over the radio and in the shops make it abundantly clear. The one everyone’s avoiding is, of course, Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ (I’m still in, as of typing this!) The one everyone seems to be talking about this year, however, is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl.
It seems as though, this year more than any other, the debate is raging over this song. One particular lyric is the cause of all the hubbub.
“You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot!”
Some appear to be divided over whether the word “faggot” should be censored. Shane MacGowen himself has now come forward and said he ultimately doesn’t mind if the word is bleeped out, even though there was never any offence intended by the use of the word.
That is why I’m stepping up to say that it absolutely should not be censored. By and large I have never fundamentally agreed with the principle of censorship when it comes to difficult issues. “Least said, soonest mended”, the age old proverb for pushing problems away in the hope they won’t bother us much longer. You don’t deal with the problem of genuine homophobia by censoring it, you tackle it head on and show it up for what it is.
That being said, anyone who believes that ‘Fairytale of New York’ is designed to encourage homophobia needs to take a good hard look at their priorities. There is no denying that ‘faggot’ is a term used for a homosexual man when offence is intended. However, the word itself was not coined for this purpose. It was never created to inflict offense, rather it was hijacked.
The word was originally used as unit for a bundle of sticks as early as the 1400s. Women who went about gathering firewood eventually became known as ‘faggot-gatherers’, leading eventually to ‘faggot’ being used as a derogatory term for old women. The perceived femininity of gay men is most likely how the term came to be the slur we immediately think of today. It also happens to be the name of a kind of meatball I’m rather fond of. My point is, language is a tricky thing and the moment you start censoring words you don’t like, you’re in dangerous territory.
I am not for one moment disparaging the feelings of those who feel strongly offended, even targeted when ‘faggot’ or ‘fag’ is hollered in their faces. I understand the hurt and the fear that causes. It is, however, because of that fear that we must not try to censor the word but rather rise up and truly take ownership of it.
The simple fact is, there are people out there who would very much like to harm those of us in the LGBT community. Physically, emotionally or politically, they’re determined to get us. The moment you try to tell society that they can’t sing along to a song because a word causes you offence, they’ve got you. You’ve just handed them a weapon. They know that word can hurt you. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Words have power, but that power shifts. To some, words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are codes to live by, while to some they are dangerous buzzwords of no true value. ‘Pride’ means a lot of things to a lot of people. Some words have power because we allow them to. It is taken for granted that the word ‘hello’ is a greeting. If we were suddenly encouraged to take offence at the use of this word, we’d laugh. Why can’t we apply the same to ‘faggot’?
When someone does use ‘faggot’ offensively, their intent is pretty clear. Censorship does not tackle that intent. Education and a willingness to breach divisions can certainly help, though the sad truth is some people are just too mired in their prejudices to ever really change. A close friend might hypothetically call me a ‘fag’ during a rare hypothetical argument and then feel terrible about it later, but believe me I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
I am not offended by words. Actions offend me. I am offended when a governing body seeks to strip an entire group of people of their rights based purely on their orientation. I am offended when people are attacked and killed. Those are the real issues that need tackling, not whether someone uses a word we might not like.
So in conclusion, the next time you hear ‘Fairytale of New York’, sing out “cheap lousy faggot”, loud and proud, along with the rest of the song. Straight, gay, bisexual, it does not matter. Words don’t belong to anyone in particular. Words are their own entity, yet ultimately have no choice over the meanings we assign them.