When someone says “you are such a fag” we view this as a very offensive type of insult. What exactly makes it worse than say, “you are such a loser.” And is this insult always worse than a more generic insult like “you are such a loser.”

An answer will depend on how we insult people. I see three ways.

The first way involves comparing them to something objectively bad or undesirable. Something like “you are such a nazi” functions by equating the person to something that really is bad.

Another way to insult someone is to claim that they have betrayed their fundamental principles or have become something that they, by their own lights, would like not to be. We might say to the starving bohemian artist “you are so bourgeois.” The sting of this insult comes from claiming that this artist has betrayed his principles and has become something he does not want to be.

A third way of insulting someone is to claim that they are something that society frowns upon, though it may not be bad in itself. I think “you’re such a fag” falls into this category. We think that this insult is wrong because it relies on a misstaken public judgment to the effect that there is something being wrong with being gay. Unlike the nazi case, there seems to be no reason other than prejudice to claim a fault with being gay. So, the insult then is a mischaracterization of an acceptable and in some cases desirable way of life.

There is much more to be said on this topic, but my point is that calling some gay in an accusatory way may sometimes function in mode 3 above. In other words, you could be claiming that the person is something that they do not want to be. We could imagine a gay person saying to another gay person “you are so straight” and mean this as an insult in the context, as implying that the person is somehow not being true to who they are. In some cases, I do think that such identity based insults are meant in this way, to attract attention to a betrayal of principles, and this seems much less offensive. The claim is merely that the person is something that they do not wish to be, and even though, as I believe, there is nothing wrong with being gay, someone may be insulted by being labeled as something do not wish to be.

I’m not certain that this is right, and as I said before, there may be more that needs to be said. For example, the insulted person may have no reason not to want to be gay, and so again, the insult may take its force merely from prejudice.


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