This week, esports host Frankie Ward won “Presenter of the Year” at the UK Esports Awards, and she used her acceptance speech to make a pledge: “There is no room for homophobic or racist or misogynist language in the esports industry.” Her pledge follows on the heels of a week-long debate among esports stars and commentators about the word “faggot,” sparked by former CS:GO pro Mohamad “m0E” Assad getting a temporary Twitch ban for using the slur.
Normally, the types of debates that consume the world of esports involve League of Legends team trades or tournament structures for battle royale games. But somehow we’re now one week into an ongoing discussion in the esports scene about when it is or is not okay to use slurs in the heat of anger. I wouldn’t think this would be that complicated.
The inciting incident happened on June 30. After typing the word “faggot” in team chat during a CS:GO match on his stream, m0E sat back to opine about how, these days, “you’re not allowed to say faggot, apparently.” Within 24 hours, m0E’s channel—which has 686,540 subscribers—got slapped down with a 30-day ban for “hateful conduct.”
On July 1, m0E posted about his ban, theorizing that it was due to a “reddit witchhunt”. A few minutes later, esports commentator and Dot Esports contributor Duncan “Thorin” Shields posted in m0E’s defense, writing, “the historical etymology of the word m0e used is not and has never been explicitly or solely homophobic in meaning,” adding that the word once meant “bundle of sticks” and “flighty woman.”
“It’s clearly a word you should avoid solely for the health of your own career,” he continued, “but the tyrants who try to tell you a word only has the meaning they decided, even if they’re making it up on the spot or ignoring cultural context and history, can still fuck off.”
Responses to the Twitch ban inspired YouTube and Twitch juggernaut Sky Williams to weigh in that evening with a thread of his own: “If a word evolves into a slur it’s unconditionally hurtful to most, no matter the history.” The debate surged on into the next day when esports veteran Sean “Day9” Plott urged Thorin to “listen to more perspectives.”
Overwatch League commentator MonteCristo wrote, “there are many people attempting to enforce a tyranny of language based on their own definitions of words without looking into context/etymology.” Esports consultant Rod Breslau wrote back, “‘Enforcing tyranny of language’? Wtf? It’s homophobic,” and MonteCristo responded to note that use of this slur was “tiresome and childish.” Later, MonteCristo deleted his original “tyranny of language” tweet.
Back in 2012, when comedian Louis CK invited a “debate” about the word “faggot,” Slate talked to Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky about the slur’s history. The story cited the origin that most people know: “faggot” once referred to a bundle of sticks to be burned, which calls to mind heretics getting burned at the stake. Zwicky has a less grim theory about the word’s development, though. He theorizes that it went from meaning “bundle of sticks,” which could mean “broom,” and eventually meant “woman” (sweeping is “women’s work”). Associating a man with femininity by calling him a “broom” was an insult back then, just as it could be now. So, even when the word meant “bundle of sticks,” it was still an insult rooted in denigrating femininity. That’s the context and history.
As for the spectre of language “tyrants,” they do exist, at least in the form of Overwatch League punishing pro players for using the word “faggot,” or Twitch slapping down its users with a temporary ban. How unfair that they can’t say whatever they want without consequence!
Linguist Arnold Zwicky is a gay man and self-identified “faggot.” He calls his own use of the term “defiant use,” which he believes could lead to “reclamation” of the term, with the eventual hope that “the word continues to be used without insult connotations anymore.” Back in 2012, he said, “we’re not there yet.” In 2018, we aren’t there either; the word is still an insult, and the process of reclaiming it (along with other slurs, like “queer” and “dyke”) has been an ongoing conversation in the LGBT community for far longer than that.
But that’s just it, right? It’s a conversation the LGBT community gets to have, and we “tyrants” are banning other people from partaking in it. I get to use words like “queer” and “dyke” because people have used them to insult me, and I get the dubious honor of wrestling over whether it’s even possible to reclaim them, much as Zwicky does about “faggot.” Any straight person can use those words as insults, if they want to, but that doesn’t help the process of “reclamation,” nor does it achieve the end goal for Zwicky (and me): for these words to become neutral, even positive, and so thoroughly lacking in insult power that no one would even think to scream them at someone who beat them in a video game.
It says a lot that “you shouldn’t use this word as an insult or in anger” has gotten interpreted as “you can’t use this word at all.” I would love to see a world where we just don’t use these terms as insults anymore. But we can’t even achieve that one simple step.
In his original stream, m0E explained that “I use the word ‘faggot’ to call people ‘retards,’” but in his apology, he justified, “My intent was never hate filled. If you know me at all you would know that homophobia is one word that has never been associated with me before.” Using the word “faggot” as an insult in the first place didn’t seem like a contradiction to him, but it should.
Even when “faggot” referred to a bundle of sticks, it could only become an insult because of femmephobia and homophobia.