War of Slurs In our politically charged times, an SLP walks into a battle of insults—and turns it into a thought-provoking discussion for some high-schoolers. Features
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Features  |   September 01, 2017
War of Slurs
Author Notes
  • Ken Anderson, MS, CCC-SLP, is a clinician at Walt Whitman High School in the South Huntington Union Free School District in Long Island, New York. He is working toward his doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders with an emphasis on autism spectrum disorder at Adelphi University. slpken.sp@gmail.com
    Ken Anderson, MS, CCC-SLP, is a clinician at Walt Whitman High School in the South Huntington Union Free School District in Long Island, New York. He is working toward his doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders with an emphasis on autism spectrum disorder at Adelphi University. slpken.sp@gmail.com×
Article Information
Development / School-Based Settings / Telepractice & Computer-Based Approaches / Normal Language Processing / Language Disorders / Social Communication & Pragmatics Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Features
Features   |   September 01, 2017
War of Slurs
The ASHA Leader, September 2017, Vol. 22, 60-63. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.22092017.60
The ASHA Leader, September 2017, Vol. 22, 60-63. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.22092017.60
The weeks following the January presidential inauguration proved among the most intense I’ve ever experienced as a school-based speech-language pathologist. As I walked into my fourth-period class one Friday in the diverse public high school I serve, I could feel the tension crackling. On most days, I enjoy the cultural richness of my workplace, but on this day, a storm of emotions broke to the surface.
This class was all freshman boys of various ethnicities. They were a joy to work with, but their lack of executive functioning was always a challenge. This particular day, their impulsivity was high, their focus low and their self-regulation nonexistent. I immediately went into clinician mode—assessing the situation.
The boys had grouped together based on race, and slurs involving the “N,” “F” and “B” words flew through the air. Within seconds, all of the most offensive words had been said, intermingled with political statements and insults. It was the pinnacle of a tumultuous campaign season, which on many occasions demonstrated equally bad behavior and name-calling.
However, I felt empathy for the boys. The vocabulary, while inappropriate, matched the level of frustration, fear and anxiety they were trying to express. I diagnosed the situation: emotional distress secondary to political craziness, with a severity rating of profound.
But what was my role? Did I even have one? Absolutely. I decided that this was a perfect learning moment and asked the classroom teacher if we could spend some time having an open discussion. This was my treatment plan. These boys needed to understand the evolution of language and the implications of using certain words. Many of the chosen words had deep historical significance, with a past many of the boys did not fully understand.

I diagnosed the situation: emotional distress secondary to political craziness, with a severity rating of profound.

A frank conversation
Our discussion brought together vocabulary, semantic relationships, figurative language and pragmatics. We talked about re-appropriation, and how their generation may feel empowered to use certain words that hold great pain for older generations—based on past use of those words. They needed to be more aware of different perspectives and realize that context (who you’re talking to, where you are) matters.
The boys then made a rather good argument. They stated that singers use those words in their songs, comedians joke about social issues on the stage, and friends greet each other with derogatory statements. I agreed that this was all true. The current generation had most definitely made some communication changes. Our great country allows for freedom of speech, but with that comes great responsibility.
Knowing the past and present meanings of words is necessary when speaking with different generations. Jokes are only funny when said to the right audience at the appropriate time and place. Informal and even off-color greetings between friends may be the norm, but when said in a professional setting the result could mean unemployment. The boys, myself included, needed a reminder of the terrible injustices that have occurred, and that we, as a society, have a responsibility to move the way we communicate in a positive direction.
We talked about the belief among some that we should be allowed to use certain vocabulary based on our background and community. However, when used, profound consequences can follow. The classroom teacher, who was female, gave us guys a good lesson on men using derogatory and dehumanizing words toward women. Again, there was the specification that, while women use certain words with each other, this was neither our group nor our right to use such language.
We also discussed homophobic slurs and how they are meant to stigmatize and hurt. Opening up the conversation and allowing the boys to recall situations where words had hurt them helped us all to find a commonality. I saw the gears working in their minds and the information being processed in a positive way. But there was still carryover and maintenance that needed to be done.

These boys needed to understand the evolution of language and the implications of using certain words.

Symbols matter
A few weeks later I walked into the same classroom and everyone was getting along. Awesome! However, I noticed markings on many of the boys’ arms. I was shocked to see swastikas. “Why on earth do you have these on your arms?” I exclaimed. They stared back at me quizzically. “What’s a swastika?” they asked. “You have it on your arms and you don’t know what it means?” I asked.
I inquired about where they saw the symbol, and one of the boys pulled out his cell phone and showed me the Instagram profile of a young, popular social media personality. Next to the profile name was a swastika. The boys mistakenly thought it was the Instagrammer’s symbol and didn’t correlate it with the Nazi party.
Again we had an open and honest discussion about history and the devastating results of a previous epoch. In seriousness and irony, I shared with the boys that many of them had a skin color not favored in the Nazi ideology of race. With this new understanding, they all quickly washed the symbol off their arms and I never saw it again.
Luckily the rest of the school year went by smoothly, and the group of boys became better friends after our many learning moments. I, too, gained insights that have had significant clinical implications for my approach to treatment.
  • We live in a new world of unfettered, frenetic information and communication. During the most recent presidential campaign, and to this day, the amount of information available to my students is growing and often unchecked. It is my responsibility not only to provide them with the necessary skills to identify main ideas and supporting details in information, but also to help them become analytical thinkers who can discern what is credible.

  • It is important to go beyond the traditional figurative-language approach of teaching idioms and riddles, and to also focus on slang and jargon that students use. The way teenagers communicate today is different and always changing, and we need to meet them at their communicative level.

  • I have tried to become a more open, honest and trusted SLP who students are willing to open up to and talk about hard-hitting topics—so that they actually listen. Yes, sometimes these conversations are uncomfortable, but we must provide students with the necessary information for the world they face.

My approach to pragmatic language skills has become much more real. I use fewer therapy book scenarios and instead use what’s happening in the world. Turning on the news, reality television, blogs, podcasts or pretty much any other source of information can often demonstrate a lack of good communication and social skills. However, we SLPs can have a huge impact on the next generation of adults and how they communicate if we take a little extra time and talk it through.
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September 2017
Volume 22, Issue 9