Twitch streamers and YouTubers have a habit of using certain terms in lieu of “stupid” while talking to their friends. “Gay” and “fag” are two of the most popular.
Twitch took action against a couple of streamers in recent weeks for their use of the term “fag” during a stream, which prompted a conversation over how people use the word. Two streamers, m0E and Destiny, received lengthy bans, and defended their actions in followup statements. Destiny pointed to a couple of other reasons for the ban, while M0E argued that using the word “fag” is passable because he didn’t use it with any homophobic intention.
“My intent was never hate filled,” m0E said on Twitter. “If you know me at all you would know that homophobia is one word that has never been associated with me before.”
M0E’s apology was called out by a number of people and outlets, including Kotaku, but others argued that terms like “gay” and “fag” evolved online. People claim that because the terms are used so often online, and supposedly without any malice, then our own understanding of how these words should be able to change. This argues kids who grow up on the internet, and see words like “gay” and “fag” slung around as casual supplements for words like stupid, frustrating, or annoying, wouldn’t think twice about using a slur because it’s not how the word was introduced into their vocabulary.
This introduces a new conversation that linguists and etymologists have dedicated their careers to researching to better understand: how does the internet’s rapidly, ever-shifting cultural landscape affect how we internalize and use certain words?
Kim Knight, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Dallas who focuses on network cultures, race, gender and virality, told Polygon it all comes down to power dynamics and historical significance.
“The challenge here is that we aren’t talking about language in a vacuum,” Knight told Polygon. “Language is situated culturally, historically, etc. The language is deeply imbricated in power relations. The words are harmful because they refer to wider systems of power imbalances, violence, and so forth. So one can’t make a compelling argument for an evolution of the words until we have an evolution of the power arrangements that the words invoke.”
A term like “dope,” informal slang for a stupid person or drug, is now an acceptable term to use when referring to something cool or good — there’s no direct power infrastructure taken into consideration, and the word can transform. “Basic,” a default adjective for plain and boring, can get thrown around as an insult for tastes without much worry because that word isn’t connected to any perceived power imbalances.
Time affects language, Knight said, and a generation that grows up on the internet will see their language change so quickly all the time. New words are created, old terms are ushered out, and the vernacular warps as young people grow up using new meanings. The definitions can become unrecognizable. Keeping in mind words that are connected to power imbalances is imperative to understanding what can be used, and what shouldn’t.
“Language usage is certainly affected by generation, the discursive communities in which one participates, and so forth,” Knight said. “I am still struggling to understand whether calling something ‘extra’ is a compliment! However, here is where that power issue comes into play again. I may not understand the idiom of a group, or whether it be younger people, people in a certain profession, but whether I understand the word ‘extra’ as slang has no real power implications.
“But for some words, the power implications cannot be ignored, even when we are talking about usage across different discourse communities.”
That’s why even though streamers like m0E, and YouTubers like Mr. Beast, who kickstarted another conversation over using the word “gay” online after an Atlantic report was published, claim using the word doesn’t come with any harm. Critics say otherwise. The stream that led to M0E’s ban found the streamer saying, “I’m going to try and stop using the word ‘faggot,’ but it’s one of my favorite words.”
“It’s not offensive. It has a lot of different meanings.”
Mr. Beast, who spoke to The Atlantic, said something similarly when he was asked about his use of terms like “gay” in response to people on Twitter.
“I’m not offensive toward anyone,” he told The Atlantic. “I’m not offensive in the slightest bit in anything I do. I’m just going to ignore it. I don’t think anyone cares about this stuff.”
Terms like “gay” and “fag” often go uncontested online. Circles on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, Reddit and numerous other sites are quick to use “gay” in place of silly, stupid or dumb, and Knight believes the perception of how the word is being used doesn’t matter. A term like “gay” or “fag” as a way to describe something someone doesn’t like reintroduces very historical and hurtful power imbalance struggles.
“Online and offline language cannot be so easily separated,” Knight said. “As I mentioned above, an actual evolution in the power of the words would require a much broader social change. What we likely see online is less that people ignore the context because they are convinced that the context no longer applies, and more that people engage in harmful behaviors emboldened by the relative anonymity and perception of a lack of consequences of online platforms.”
There are cases to be made, Knight said, for people taking back the word, but that’s a different situation and conversation. But people relying on a term like “fag” because it’s part of their vernacular, and then excusing it through an excuse that the word isn’t insulting because of the context it’s used in, isn’t a case against Twitch’s harassment rules, which prevent people from using certain words. Twitch’s policy states:
Hateful conduct is any content or activity that promotes, encourages, or facilitates discrimination, denigration, objectification, harassment, or violence based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, medical condition, physical characteristics, or veteran status, and is prohibited. Any hateful conduct is considered a zero-tolerance violation and all accounts associated with such conduct will be indefinitely suspended.
Knight acknowledges that trying to navigate what words are acceptable what isn’t online can be difficult, but reiterates there is no real difference between a word being offensive offline and online. Keeping that in mind is integral to understanding what’s right and wrong, and what remains offensive.
“The internet absolutely enables this, but it is not that the language or words themselves mean something different or operate differently online.”