Stoners and Stunners: Renaming and Reclaiming

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We’ve got our share of derogatory slang in the cannabis reform movement. Some terms have worse connotations than others. Pothead. Stoner. Burn out. These can make the inevitable, confused slip to “druggie” and “addict”. Folks in our predicament sometimes have a couple of options: reclaim or rename.

Suffragettes taught us bout reclaiming pejorative expressions. Journalist Charles Hands allegedly coined the term to deride the women who fought for the right to vote. He referred to them as if they were shadowy, flirtations puppets — silhouettes of coquettish marionettes, these suffragettes. At the time the word probably reeked of stigma. But the movement embraced the term, publishing a newspaper using the word as its title. Many purportedly substituted the hard “g” sound, pronouncing it “SuffraGet,” to emphasize that they were destined to vote.

Queer RiotSome took longer than others. Women of Lichtenstein have only been voting since 1984. Some people still don’t vote after all that. It took about a century, but nearly everybody uses the term now, and it doesn’t seem to mean anything bad.

Reclaiming is one hell of a process. Apparently “geek” was once derogatory, but like any other Ph.D. who has taught research methods for decades, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

I did live in West Hollywood in the early 1990s. Neighbors and I walked in support of friends from Queer Nation. We marched around a local mall chanting, “We’re here. We’re queer. And we’re out. Shopping.” My pal Tom, who’d heard “Queer” shouted with disdain while growing up in Indiana, was apprehensive about reclaiming the term.

“You’ve never had somebody scream it while he punched you in the face,” he said. “Sometimes it just can’t work. Trust me. There’s never going to be an N-Word Nation.”

I certainly couldn’t argue, though I might draw fire for discussing it. But the term caught on and appeared to lose associated shame.

Plenty of people still bristle at the reclaiming. Nevertheless, when the U.S. version of “Queer as Folk” premiered in 2000, the word clearly lacked some of its controversy and sting.

The problem with these terms is obvious. They carry the kind of stigma that can lead to tremendous burden. They communicate stereotypes, activate prejudices, and threaten humanity. Who wants to be judged by their gender, their sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or the metabolites in their urine?

I don’t want to pretend that our battle against prohibition is exactly the same as the ones that every other community fights. Most of us can vote. Nobody ever assaulted me for praising the plant. But some of our siblings-in-arms can’t get jobs or end up behind bars. This issue is serious. And the words we use have impact.

Reclaiming “queer” seemed to work in interesting ways. The word always implied “distinctive,” in addition to all its other connotations. No one doing the reclaiming was denying the fact that they were distinctive. Yes, gays and lesbians are less numerous than others. But the reclaiming implied, “So what?” There’s nothing bad about distinctiveness. In fact, it’s exceptional and valued. Reclaiming only challenges the negative connotations of distinctiveness, which isn’t easy, but it’s easier than some other options.

We’re in a different predicament with “stoner.” Although I could jump through some hoops about members of the reform movement being hard as stone, the word usually connotes a neutralized, comatose zombie locked on the couch.

Are we stuck with “stoner”? I proposed the substitute word “scholar” in one of my High Times columns, but it never caught on. There’s a stunner.

Carl Sagan: Stoner or Stunner?

Carl Sagan: Stoner or Stunner?

Hey! Wait a minute. What if we decided to morph the word to “stunner,” as in, “I’m going to stun you with how challenging I am to your stereotypes about cannabis aficionados?”

Instead of reclaiming, we’d be renaming. We could start a newspaper like “The Suffragette” and call it “The Stunner.” That is, if we don’t just call it “Ladybud.”

Unfortunately, renaming doesn’t always work. Connotations spread to the new name. My grad school professor who taught me about IQ testing emphasized that the words “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” were once technical terms related to a person’s mental age. But when he and his friends were children, they teased each other with these same words. When “mental retardation” became the accepted term, my professor’s kids derided their peers as “retarded.”

I can’t help but wonder when grade school students will pester each other with chants like “you’re intellectually disabled,” or “aren’t you special?”

This euphemistic treadmill is tough to battle. Even if “stunner” never got tainted this way, we might have a hard time getting outsiders to use it. I can’t imagine anyone I’ve ever debated turning to the term with the respect it deserves.

So what are our other options? If we can’t rename ourselves “stunners” and the modest success of “queer” stems from its positive connotations, we’re in a tough spot with “stoner.”

Another model comes from a term I’m not allowed to say because I’m not in the in-group: N-Word. (Please cut me some slack. I can spell it with asterisks or say “the N-word” if that’ll help, but this is the word I need to reference. I won’t be calling anyone the N-word here or anywhere else under any circumstances, but I need to discuss the word.)

I’m happy to say that concerted work has created environments where this word is completely unacceptable when uttered by anyone outside the group. In addition, appropriate members of the group can use it with each other as a term of affection — a sort of acknowledgement of shared community.

How did this happen? Two components seemed to contribute: punishment and rewards.

Swift and severe reprimand when out-group members used the word became almost universal. Nobody other than a select crew of people of African and Caribbean descent could use the word without prompt punishment. (I can’t even discuss it without drawing fire, but I’m delighted to take the heat. I’m not in the in-group and deserve the derision. I am wrong to use the word and will desist.)

In addition, at least some in-group members used it with each other as warmly and amiably as “friend” or “beloved.” It’s hard to describe as an out-group member, but it’s enviably delightful to see it happen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe might decide to do the same. Anyone outside the movement who uses the word “stoner” would get an instantaneous correction. “I’m not a stoner; I’m a person,” could qualify as one of the nicest ways to do it. Headlines that read “Stoners do x” or “New Legal Rights for Stoners” would generate angry letters from all of us.

But within the movement, the word would mean “comrade” or something better. Those who take offense might hear, “Stoner, please!” or something more effusive and creative. It won’t change the world on its own, just as other renaming and reclaiming has been limited. But it might make for a pleasant experiment, my stunner friends. Perhaps we should see what happens.