Ruminations

Karen

I hate that “Karen” has crept into the vernacular as an insult.

Growing up as a teen in the 1980s, I used to endure a barrage of “lesbian” and “lezzo” as a play on my name.

During one Year 8 English class, the teacher (who was often the victim of innuendo because he might’ve been gay) stopped the class to go through the room, person by person, and ask them if they’d ever been made fun of and how they’d been made fun of. Then he’d ask the class if they’d ever made fun of that person in that way. When it got to me, the bulk of the class had used “lesbian” at some point.

I was a struggling thirteen-year-old dealing with the advent of anxiety (that I didn’t understand – and back in 1983, there sure as hell wasn’t any public awareness of it) and the departure of my best friend, John, who’d transferred to another school. Constantly hearing this nick thrown at me was traumatizing.

It’s not that difficult to hurt people – and particularly kids.

Language is not only used to communicate, but can also engender various emotional responses.

We see it everyday in life: politicians try to find the perfect phrasing; coaches (from life coaches to sports coaches) find ways to motivate their charges; we try to find the right words to win jobs, to win partners, to expedite life.

Words have power.

But they also exist in a world where they’re constantly evolving.

For example, the term “gay” was first used in the 1200s and meant “happy” and “carefree”. It came from the French term, gei, which meant “full of joy”.

In the 1600s, it began to be recognized as somebody of loose sexual morals. In the late 1800s, it was identified with vagrants and travellers who offered their sexual services. In the 1900s, it gained the definition it has now.

Now that wasn’t the purpose of “gay” when it was first used. But it changed throughout time.

Lots of words do.

I recall editing business reports years ago when a directive came out from the employer that “Global Financial Crisis” had to be changed to “Global Financial Downturn” because “Crisis” had negative connotations.

Words gain stigma. They’re outlawed. More recently, we’ve seen brand names change because they’re now considered culturally insensitive. And there are always insults we’re trying to eliminate.

I’m all for a better society. I’m all for striving to be better people and for growing up. For maturing. For becoming enlightened.

Yet we reach for these ideals while introducing a term like “Karen”.

So we’re outlawing the use of some words, but introducing new insults and everybody’s fine with that? It’s okay to promulgate this as a derogatory term? We can just blissfully accept it because it carries no history?

Or is it okay because it’s disparaging a type of person who – according to the collective wisdom – should be disparaged? That’s not a generalization, is it? And a form of bullying? And hypocritical?

Also, going back to my original point: can you imagine all the kids named “Karen” out there who are being mocked and derided?

Kids are impressionable. I certainly didn’t need all the shit as a thirteen-year-old (and I did endure it sporadically through primary school). And kids using it as an insult can be relentlessly and mercilessly cruel.

Growing up, you’re fragile. You see this everyday with kids.

High school – with its peer-group pressures – can be overwhelming. You have kids who are standing on the cusp of either blossoming or imploding.

Think about the kids being continually insulted, i.e. bullied, and how this will shape and scar their budding personalities and self-identity.

On the flip side, why are people openly promoting derision, mocking, and bullying?

It seems about as far away from enlightened as you can get.

 

One Comment

  • Marion

    Like Les, I abhore the use of words to hurt and bully.
    This is not the fault of the words themselves, nor of the way their meaning shifts and changes over time.
    Insecure people use words to bully and scapegoat in situations where they fear that treatment might be directed at them in other circumstances. A girl who fears to be the object of mockery for her large nose will encourage others to bully another student for her name. This consolidates the group behind the large-nosed girl as allies, as they scapegoat the name-girl. It is all about power and self protection. It is particularly prevalent in large schools, institutions and workplaces where anonymity can be relied upon. Bullying is less likely in small settings where people work intimately with each other and know each other well. Small is beautiful. Bring back the personal element!

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