That's the problem with a word like the one I used - it offends a certain group of persons. The problem that I had with what my acquaintance said was not that it was not true; I understand that some words are offensive to some groups of persons. I do not deny that. The problem that I had was that in her insistence that this word was offensive to some, she could not understand that it is not offensive to all. Because while some have a loaded cultural history with this word in the negative sense, some have a deep cultural history with this word in the positive sense, as I do. And it's so hard to be held accountable to a culture you're not part of.
Just as we know that some persons are part of a culture that makes eye contact when they speak and some persons are part of a culture that finds eye contact to be rude or aggressive. We cannot possibly treat everyone exactly the same - by either making eye contact or not - because we will end up offending at least half of them. At the same time, if we were living in a culture that values eye contact as relational, we would never advocate that we do not make eye contact with one another because it is offensive to another group of persons who might one day cross our paths.
Do you see the problem? We want to set up all of these hard and fast rules about what is offensive and what is not, but we're not taking into consideration the actual fellowships in which we live. So we just end up in crazy muddied waters, all of us trying to figure out what we're supposed to do. And we're tiptoeing around our lives because of it, afraid of 'offending' someone or worse, being called something that implies that we offend others on purpose or callously - a bigot, a racist, whatever.
Here's what I think is a good rule around all of this, and this is just me reflecting on a complicated truth and a difficult reality. This rule is two-fold, and we have to practice both parts to make it effective.
First, we have to stop telling others when they're supposed to be offended. We have to stop telling them what is offensive, in general, and what isn't. We have to stop trying to dictate the lives of others from the outside looking in. When we do this, we end up neglecting the very real story that they are living just because it doesn't line up in some way with the story that we find ourselves in. Some persons are very in-tune with the grand culture at large and think on big scales and about large groups of diverse persons at the same time. The trouble with this is that it often neglects the individual person, who gets sucked up into this vortex where everything is demographic and nothing is personal...and then everything is supposed to become personal because of the demographic that you're in. It's complicated. It's messy. And it does not honor the individual created in the image of God with whom we are speaking/relating. So we have to stop telling everyone what's offensive.
But second, we cannot become a people who tell others what is not offensive. That is, if someone with whom you are in relationship struggles with something you say or do and says that it is offensive, then you cannot simply dismiss that because it is not offensive to you. Just as the first rule is that others do not get to define your reality for you, you do not get to define their reality for them. And for the same reason - they have a story that is worth your honor and we do right by one another to recognize and respect the ways that their stories have brought them to certain understandings and experiences, even when those understandings and experiences are different than ours.
The key to both of these is, as I've been saying, relationship. The conversation that I had with the acquaintance who told me that my language was offensive would have been entirely different if she and I knew more of each other than our names and if she had been personally offended by the word that I used. It would have been an entirely different story if she had said, "That word hurts me, and here's why." At that point, I am obligated by my Christian faith to pay attention, to humble myself, to listen, and to engage more deeply in order to honor the relationship that we have.
What she said, however, was "I have a friend who told me about some friends they have who think that word is offensive..." And now, we're back where we started - outside of relationship, at a boundary of cultures, trying to dictate the individual by the demographic without any real connection or value. And that's what ends up destroying a beautiful story that I have, and that's what we can't let happen.
So I think that's the rule: we have to stop telling others when they're supposed to be offended, and we have to stop telling them when they aren't supposed to be offended. We have to be a people who let everyone have their story and who honor the God-given, knit-together-in-the-womb life that has brought them here. We have to do the hard, dirty work of real relationship. We have to see one another.
That's the first step to redeeming our language...and so much more.