Queer Language

Not to beat up on NPR or anything, but…queer tattoo

This morning, fellow freelancer, Erik Sherman drew my attention to an interview that NPR Supreme Court expert, Nina Totenberg did last weekend on Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.  Totenberg had this to say:

There were people who said that because, in a speech about eight years ago, [Sotomayor] said that she would hope that a Latina judge would, relying on her experiences, reach a wiser conclusion than a white male judge relying on his. I just don’t think that that’s enough to really queer this nomination.

Sherman blogged about this interesting use of the word queer on BNET’s media blog, where he analyzes industry news and opinion.  He introduces some interesting points that Totenberg and Simon should consider, writing:

I suspect that the irony of describing the impact of charges of bias with what is an undoubtedly loaded word in society was unintentional. Nevertheless, it was there.

Indeed.  And Sherman’s post adds to the discussion about language that is so important in journalism today.

Meanwhile, the verb queer has been reclaimed in similar ways as the noun or adjective queer, as noted in a book review of Queer Studies: an Interdisciplinary Reader, edited by Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi (Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003).

“To queer” is to disrupt the dominant cultural understanding of the naturalness of heterosexuality and conventional gender relations. Queer studies is an epistemology, an approach to knowledge, as much as it is a topical field.

No doubt this is not what Totenberg had in mind when she interjected this uncommon use of the word.  Meanwhile, I’m torn between personal admiration for her vocabulary and professional frustration at her lack of sensitivity in using the word queer so cavalierly.


3 Responses

  1. This is a really helpful discussion to initiate here. We’ve written a fair amount about language on the Out Front Blog and it’s great to see professional journalists tackling this topic with such a deft touch. Keep up the good work. And congratulations on the launch of what is sure to be a great resource for many of us.

  2. I hadn’t heard the use that Corber and Valocchi describe. It makes me think of how we all will often try to define language to either create an advantage or to attempt and lessen a disadvantage. I have taught negotiation before, and tend to emphasize how important definitions of terms become. If one side makes its definitions stick, it controls how an agreement is interpreted.

    There have been classic examples over the last decade or two: family values, patriotism, liberal, conservative, and marriage all come to mind. Why is it patriotic to blindly follow an order and unpatriotic to reflect and question whether the order is in keeping with founding principles of the country? Well, in fact, I’d argue that real patriotism comes in honoring the latter while being ready to sacrifice and do work that you know is necessary.

    Similarly, the definition of marriage has shifted. Originally, many societies developed it as a form of economic contract to ensure mutual welfare. But there is also the religious meaning, and people will switch meanings – for example, creating an emotional religious response of “marriage is defined as…” when, indeed, they are really referring to a civil convention that at one time treated entire groups as chattel. Are they defending that social concept? (Actually, some likely are.)

    Until people explicitly and critically examine the meaning and use of language, they cannot freely think, because they are hemmed as an island by a lake of associations and assumptions.

  3. Great post, Laura. I have to say that Totenberg’s use of the phrase doesn’t bother me personally. But as a writer and lover of words, I find this such a rich subject. It’s hard for me to take “queering her nomination” seriously as a BAD thing. That speaks to, as Erik says, a shifting of the culture.

    Thanks for blogging about this!


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