Whenever I'm around young people, I often hear words misused in a way that's potentially offensive. I've never personally been offended, but have been guilty of using words inappropriately. I've used "gay" to describe Ugg boots and the epilogue of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," I've used "retarded" to describe most of the Buffalo Bills coaches over the last decade and drunk bus riders, and I've used "rape" to describe what I've done to a test, or what a test has done to me.
Most times these statements might get a small chuckle and then fade from the world with no harm done. On a few occasions, I've been called out for my insensitivity, and for years I refused to apologize for using the words incorrectly. I thought that "gay" didn't mean "gay" when used outside of a sexual context, and that when I said "rape," I meant something entirely different than the truly heinous crime. In both cases, I was at a loss in trying to explain what I felt those words meant to me, despite an elusive certainty that they meant something that wasn't offensive.
I've thought over the issue a long time, seeking a justification for my language. A sense of rebelling against political correctness was enough for a while. As I've thought about it more though, I've come to the realization that it was wrong of me to misuse those words.
There are times when being offensive is acceptable or even beneficial. Centuries ago, Martin Luther's petitions against the Catholic church offended many people, as did abolitionist rhetoric in America and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. An entirely politically correct culture sacrifices truth and honesty to ease social cohesion, which isn't beneficial to anyone in the long run, since problems are likely to be ignored and the separation between what we think and what we say grows wider by regularly engaging in that dishonest speech.
My inappropriate use of "gay" and "retarded," as well as exaggerations such as, "I'm starving," that are indifferent to real human suffering elsewhere in the world, have no redeeming value to make up for their potential to offend. My usage wasn't to better the world and it didn't have the artistic value of controversial movies and shows like "RENT" or "South Park." If these words were the most accurate and useful description available to me, I think I would be right to use them regardless of their explosiveness, but they simply aren't, and never are outside of their standard definition.
Language is an imperfect method of conveying our thoughts and feelings, so when we have the chance to really say what we mean, we should not pass up that opportunity. If mathematics teaches us anything besides its array of functions, I think it's that precision is beautiful, rare and immensely useful. It's not something we should ever casually toss aside or take for granted.
Speaking in inaccurate terms is unproductive. Conversation can be frivolous, serving a purpose only to distract, pass time and amuse ourselves, but if we're really trying to convey an important idea, there is no place for imprecise descriptors. If we're not trying to convey an important idea, then we should attempt as best we can to not offend anybody.
Importance requires precision, and being offensive is only excusable when doing something important. There's no place for imprecise and hurtful expression.
Having finally recognized this, I pledge to try earnestly to prevent those phrases from slipping off my tongue, even though they so easily have in the past. I hope others will try this as well, and that we'll be forgiven for our past errors and future slip-ups that will inevitably occur.
I'd like to end with a more correct, more precise version of an inappropriate usage I mentioned earlier. The epilogue to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" caps off a decade long journey to adulthood through painful maturation and irreparable loss by reverting back to the style of Disney fairy tales. This wholly inadequate substitute for a postscript reverses the characters' and readers' gains just to satiate the desire for a "happily ever after" moment that isn't necessary after the triumph in the conclusion of the story.