Coles, Gregory. “The Exorcism of Language: Reclaimed Derogatory Terms and Their Limits.” College English 78.5 (2016): 424-46. Print.
Gregory Coles explores the process by which derogatory labels and terms are “reclaimed” by the groups to which they refer in an effort to undercut the power of the terms.
He explores four specific examples, “black,” “queer,” “nigger,” and “faggot.” The first two, he suggests, have been largely reclaimed such that their derogatory force has been weakened if not completely eliminated. He resists calling the varied uses of the second two terms a “failure” of reclamation; rather, he argues that they have been reclaimed differently, delivering in the process a different message than words that have been more thoroughly rehabilitated (436).
He grounds his examination theoretically in Kenneth Burke’s concept of the “terministic screen,” in which the way we describe the world through our language choices frames it in particular perspectives that close off or obscure other ways of seeing and thinking. Reclamation, Coles contends, takes advantage of the possibilities of “terministic rescreening” (426).
Reviewing previous work on Burke’s theory, he argues that much of the scholarship on terministic screens considers this feature of language use “static,” with the impact of the screening effect fixed; this research also portrays terministic screening as something to be deplored and overcome (427). Coles, however, argues that Burke saw terministic screens as a ubiquitous component of language use. Moreover, Coles maintains, in proposing the possibility of “secular conversion” and “exorcism by misnomer,” Burke theorized a view of terms used in screening as open to reinterpretation and novel uses (427, 428-29). In fact, Coles suggests, citing Ann George and Jack Selzer, Burke encourages us to see this kind of rescreening as an active engagement with the possibility of changing social attitudes through redirecting people’s “attention” and thereby creating new perspectives (428).
In developing his application of terministic screening, Coles addresses Burke’s dramatism, which casts language as action rather than as description. Coles uses this view of language as performance to argue that “[r]escreening is an adjustment not of what a word means but of what a word does” (430; emphasis original):
Insults become compliments. Far-reaching prejudices become inconsequential jokes. Linguistic demons become innocent old coats. (431).
This process, Coles says, can take place through replacing the oppressive language. However, he finds this option unavailable for many victims of such language, who lack the power to control the dominant discourse. Rescreening becomes the other option, as users attempt to “reclaim [a] word by causing it to select and deflect different portions of reality” (430).
The term “black,” Coles writes, carries a history of derogatory meanings. Its connotations of inferiority and undesirability framed the screen through which people of color were denigrated. However, Coles reports that the Ebony Fashion Fair that shifted attention from models’ clothing to their “performed ethnic beauty” and the “Black is Beautiful” movement allowed black people in the 1960s to redirect attention to new ways of understanding the word (432): “Although the definition of ‘black’ had not changed, its terministic screen had shifted, causing the discourse about blackness to change and black society to change accordingly” (433).
He also traces the path to reclamation of “queer.” For Coles, the derogatory force of this word lay in its insistence on the degree to which LGBT people diverged from the standards of the heteronormal culture they inhabited. Coles contends that members of the LGBT community were able to undercut the term by celebrating their difference and using it in contexts that emphasized the superiority of features of the queer lifestyle, for example through popular culture phenomena like the TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (433). Such efforts changed “[q]ueer . . . from a derogatory term to a category term” (433-34).
Coles discusses limits on such reclamation, noting that some gay activists still find “queer” tainted with what Judith Butler calls “traumatic residue” (qtd. in Coles 434). Generational division over the use of such terms is one manifestation of the degree to which the acceptability of the term depends on context, so that, depending on who is using it and for what purpose and to whom, “the term may hold any of several meanings, or ambivalently occupy multiple meanings” (435).
In Coles’s view, whether derogatory terms have transitioned to category terms that non-group members can use in appropriate settings distinguishes terms like “queer” and “black” from terms like “nigger” and “faggot,” which are limited to in-group use (435). Coles finds it “too simple” to explain the difference by noting that the connotations of the latter terms were seen as much more negative than those of the more successfully reclaimed terms (436). He also contends that the role of such in-group use of such derogatory terms to signal solidarity does not fully explain the problem posed by the degree to which they have retained their unpleasant connotations even when used within the group (437-38).
To explore this question, Coles distinguishes between “redemptive reclamation,” in which users of “queer” and “black” retain the “semantic meanings” of the terms but convert those meanings to markers of positive traits, and “restricted redemption,” which may appear unsuccessful but in fact makes in-group use of the terms reminders of the history they carry, “challenging historical and ongoing prejudice by mockingly calling attention to it” (438). Moreover, according to Coles, the in-groups in question have successfully claimed the terms for such subversive use while denying them to out-group members, even those who would invoke their derogatory meanings (438). This restriction “may also serve as a testament to the unexpected power of the minority” (438).
Coles explores possible student reactions to discussions of various levels of reclamation. He argues that examination of these processes and the different results they produce can alert students to the power of language as an act and to the importance of context. For example, students understand how using an apparently derogatory term for a group within a group they belong to differs from the use of that same term by people who do not belong to the group (440). For Coles, Burke’s theories of dramatism and terministic screens can be used pedagogically to introduce students to these powerful performative aspects of language (440).