I am as tired of “gotcha!” as you are. Every time someone opens their mouth to speak in public, gangs of armchair critics, amateur linguists and habitual pedants take up their cudgels.
Even the most well-meaning and considered people get torn apart (on social media in particular) because, if this baying mob can misconstrue the message, they will.
There is very little room for giving people the benefit of the doubt. Voicing an opinion, or speaking up, has become a blood sport.
It is as if every word we say has to be fully considered and graded for risk before we utter it. If that was the case, I would have been struck dumb at birth, that’s for sure.
Such prescience is an impossibility, especially if you are in the uncomfortable situation of having a camera or microphone in your face.
However . . . some people say the most awful things and mean them.
As we have seen this past week, a string of highly offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic emails from University of Sydney Professor Barry Spurr to colleagues and friends (revealed in news website newmatilda.com) was explained by the professor as a “whimsical linguistic game”.
I fail to see in them any whimsy (playfully quaint or fanciful behaviour or humour) or any fun. Deriding people – even in private correspondence – because of their race, appearance, religion or gender is not funny. It is harmful.
Spreading these hateful insults (even as “just a joke”) gives comfort and support to those who are inclined to them. An intelligent person would be challenging those views.
At the other end of the spectrum is Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s use of “economic girly man” to insult Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Cormann was aping Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had used the description numerous times, despite uproar from women and gay rights groups.
Cormann has since defended his use of the term, in a version of “can’t you take a joke love?”. It seems he has no problem with using girls as a source of insult.
Depressingly, this comes at the same time as TV game show Family Feudoffended a nation of women with its question about “jobs for women”. These jobs were hairdressing, reception work and domestic duties like washing clothes and doing the dishes.
New Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella topped off this month’s collection when he advised women to collect good karma instead of payrises. He, at least, apologised for misspeaking and launched a new diversity initiative.
What Cormann, the writers of Family Feud and Nadella have shown us is that, by and large, some men are still oblivious to the way they discriminate against women.
The words they use can reveal more about the biases of the speakers than they intend. When they are in positions of responsibility, they need to understand they are leaders of men and women.
When they tell their sons they “throw like a girl”, when they use the slang for a woman’s body part as their worst expletive, when their main assessment of a woman’s worth is her appearance, they are belittling their female workmates and leaders, their mothers, their sisters and their daughters.
Their words can be weapons or they can help make the world a better place.