Despite reading a fair number of atheist blogs, I entirely failed to miss this controversy (and some responses to it) from a little over a week ago. Which is too bad, because it covers a couple of topics that have been a flies in my personal ointment for a while now.
If you don't want to read all of those links, here's the long and short of it. At an atheist conference in Alabama, a panel discussion was held on the problem of attracting more women to the movement. The panel consisted of five men and one woman, and one of the men repeatedly used the word "female" in a way that at least one audience member found troubling. When she commented, she was cut off by the panelist with a rude joke, and angrily left the room. Cue explosive bickering on several blogs.
Not to sound completely milquetoast, but I can identify with both sides here. During my brief time as the music director at my university's radio station, one of our DJs was an outspoken feminist who was so offended by the word "female" that she would spend her shifts going through our back-catalog and crossing out any use of the word (usually in a context like "this band has a female vocalist") and writing "woman" above it.
This struck me as a case of doing surgery with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel. She had complained to management before about comments from some male co-workers making her uncomfortable, and her concerns had been taken seriously, so I was never sure why she didn't talk to anyone about the "female" issue. As at least one of her "corrections" was on an entry I wrote, I would have liked to have had the chance to explain my word choice, which had more to do with thinking "female" reads better than "woman" in some contexts than any desire (conscious or otherwise) to dehumanize women.
On the other hand, though, there are words that are similarly grating on me. For example, even though I know plenty of women who refer to other women as "chicks," I find that particular term cringe-inducing. I can't explain it; it has always bothered me, and likely always will. I personally think that my annoyance with the word "chick" is more justifiable than others' annoyance with the word "female," but really the whole issue is so subjective that finding common ground is likely to be no small task.
And that's the real problem here: determining whether particular offenses are worth speaking out against, or if they're minor annoyances that we just need to swallow. For example, I've decided that "chick" isn't worth fighting against, but "fag" is; but again, I know LGBT people who laugh off "fag" in cases that send me into a rage.
Am I irrational for being disgusted enough with the word "fag" to criticize those who use it? Was the woman at the conference who was offended by "female" irrational? That's a difficult question. I think that, to some extent, I am irrational. "Fag" offends me regardless of its context, but "retard" doesn't. That's at least inconsistent. But what are the options? Are we left with a dichotomy which says that either everyone should be offended by everything, or no one should be offended by anything? Neither option seems particularly appealing.
The closest thing that I can propose to an answer is that we all need more of that consciousness raising that Richard Dawkins likes to talk about, on a wide range of issues. That doesn't mean that we all become hypersensitive and humorless. But it does mean that we start paying more attention to how we use potentially loaded words. Words aren't inherently offensive; they become offensive because of the history of their usage. But just as understanding that history is essential to understanding whatever offense they may or may not cause, it's also essential in moving beyond mere offense.
I think there's a reason that very few people get up in arms about the prolific use of racial slurs in Quentin Tarantino's scripts, but an entire campaign was launched to try to stop kids from using "gay" as a pejorative. We assume that Tarantino knows the history of the words he uses, and uses them to the end of crafting a suitably sleazy world for his characters. To the extent that they elicit laughter, it's because audience and director are both aware of just how inappropriate they are. That is, we've had our consciousness raised.
Compare that to the kid on Xbox Live who uses "fag" like most people use commas. He doesn't know the history of that word, and isn't using it to any end other than being abrasive (or worse, he uses it simply because he hasn't thought about it). That kid is in desperate need of consciousness raising.
So what we need isn't more offense, more righteous anger, or more calls for those who disagree with us to have a sense of humor. It's more understanding, not just of those who have been offended, but those who do the offending. Nobody needs to be singled out and scorned--we all need a chance to explain ourselves.