Is Karen A Slur, Or, The Continuing Problems Of Incivility In Identity Politics

One of the bad things about being isolated from real human beings is that one has more time to see people online.  As is frequently the case, people are not at their best when communicating on social media, and today’s tempest in the Twitterverse teapot involved a question of whether to call someone a “Karen” was a slur:


I do not know the blue checkmark named Julie Bindel, but her question has received a great deal of scorn, some of it unprintable in a family friendly space like this one.  In order to determine if the expression “Karen” is a slur, let us examine the definition of a slur:

  1. 1.
    an insinuation or allegation about someone that is likely to insult them or damage their reputation.

By this definition, is the term “Karen” a slur?  Absolutely.  Any expression that is meant or taken as an insult is a slur.  Period.  The intentions and subjective feelings of both sides of a given communication matter here.  If we mean to speak of someone in a negative way by labeling them, we slur them.  If we take someone’s label as an insult, we are insulted and therefore the expression is a slur.  If it is improper and unjust and immoral to slur someone, then our conversation must be limited to that which does not insult or speak negatively about any other people or group of people whatsoever.  It is very clear if we look at our communication that this is not the standard that we judge by.  If our age is a very thin-skinned one, and it is, and we are all quick to take umbrage and offense at what others say to us and about us, we are not a generation and age that is kind about the way we talk about others.  There is a fundamental hypocrisy and asymmetry in the way that we demand to be respected ourselves but do not respect others nor do we even attempt often to respect others.  Frequently we feel proud about our disrespect of whole groups of people whose only offense is being different or thinking differently than we do.

It is possible that not all uses of the term Karen would be negative ones. defines a Karen as the following:  “A “Karen” is typically a woman between the ages of 30–60 who likely has children and has the air of a suburban mother. However, what is most distinctive and important to notice about a “Karen” is that she is incredibly entitled, nosy, and belligerent. “”  One thinks of the people who snitch to a HOA about the lack of lawn care of a neighbor or demand to speak to a manager when a restaurant screws up on an order as being the behavior of a Karen.  A Karen expects life to go smoothly (this is probably what is meant by “entitled” in this case) and tends to seek the assistance of authority figures in being compensated and appeased whenever something goes wrong.  Given this definition, it is obvious that Ms. Bindel is correct to note that calling people Karen or insulting Karens is woman-hating (since part of the definition involves being a woman) and is based on class-prejudice, since a Karen is being insulted based on expectations that result from being raised in the suburbs in a condition of some material wealth.  By and large, people from less privileged backgrounds do not expect service to be perfect and recognize that people make mistakes and that their wishes and preferences are not always going to be taken into consideration.  This acceptance of human error reduces some of the belligerence that makes Karens hard for others to deal with and makes them a plague for harassed service employees who are simply trying to get through the day without being hassled.

Yet if I have so far agreed with Ms. Bindel on her definitions, there is a way in which her claims are somewhat self-defeating.  After all, most people understand that others are going to cope with the misery and unhappiness of their experiences by seeking to label and understand others.  To the extent that we can size up other people we can therefore be better equipped to deal with them.  If we work in customer-focused jobs, knowing that someone is a Karen will put us on our guard, as we will have to be prepared to do something perfectly if we wish to avoid unpleasant confrontations with someone who demands that everything go according to her wishes.  It is a particularly Karenesque quality to be offended and upset at being called a Karen and to demand that authorities of some kind call others to account for such an insult.  Those who would expect that others might view them negatively would be less bumptious and hostile towards others for harboring negative views.  The expectation that others would listen to us and respect us and take our thoughts and opinions seriously may itself be a matter of class prejudice as well, especially if we are not reciprocal in taking the feelings and thoughts and opinions of others seriously as well.  If we see the wrongs and insults we suffer clearly, as most of us tend to do, we are far less clear-sighted about seeing the insults we casually and thoughtlessly inflict upon other people.

Like the OK Boomer expression, a similarly negative way that people have of attempting to dismiss the views of those from older generations who have expectations of being respected and having their views taken into consideration and acted upon, the expression has elements of class and generational warfare.  It is evidence of the way that humanity in the contemporary period both is highly sensitized to demand respect and honor for ourselves but is hostile to the privilege claims of other people.  These are fundamental problems in any kind of view of justice that is based on intersectionality and identity politics.  If we do not seek to respect and honor everyone, then we will behave in a way that is unjust towards some group of people, and while we may feel that we are being perfectly just to disrespect others and view them as less important than we are or less entitled to the respect and honor that we all want, those who are dishonored and disrespected will disagree, sometimes violently.  And yet if we committed ourselves to treating everyone with honor and respect we would have to drastically change our own thought processes, our own attitudes, and our own behavior to such a dramatic degree that it appears hopeless to ask for such a thing.  And yet it would appear to this biased observer at least that the only way that we are to avoid continual hostility with other subgroups based on matters of identity politics is if we commit ourselves to honoring and respecting all people, regardless of whether we agree with them or even particularly like them.

After all, we have an ultimate authority in heaven above whose views on the matter are plain and unambiguous:  As it is written in 1 Corinthians 12:26:  “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  As it is written in 1 Peter 2:17:  “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”  We were created in God’s image by a being who demands our honor and respect, and we likewise as beings demand honor and respect from others.  Whether or not we feel that others deserve our honor and respect, we all feel that we deserve to be honored and respected by others.  To the extent that we recognize others as beings like ourselves who deserve to be treated as kindly and respectfully and honorably as we know we wish (and demand) to be treated, we will treat them with honor and respect and may have some ability to hope that we can overcome the disagreements and divides that exist among us at present.  If this cuts against the spirit of our times, it only shows what wicked times we live in at present.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Is Karen A Slur, Or, The Continuing Problems Of Incivility In Identity Politics

  1. mothfire says:

    Any word can be a slur or an insult. It depends on context and tone. I could make up an string of sounds that have no relation to any language and turn it into an insult. In elementary school the accepted term for someone who was slow was “retarded”. It was never meant as an insult but we turned it into that. The slur is not the word but the sound of scorn.”You are not like us so you do not deserve our respect.” It is generally used by bullies and bigots.
    I will disagree however on the use of “Karen” and “OK Boomer” as necessarily a slur.
    As my daughter describes it, a “Karen” is a woman who expects people to bow to her will instead of taking responsibility for her own actions. My daughter recently took a plane from her home in Boston to our home in San Diego for a month or so. Her plane was a direct flight with 9 people on board. One of the other passengers asked a stewardess to tell my daughter to close shade on her window because the light was bothering her. My daughter, in a voice that was loud enough for the other women to hear, said that she would and if the other woman didn’t like it, she could move to any of the other empty seats on the plane. Instead of doing that, the woman took out some eyes shades and put them on, remaining in her seat. My daughter referred to her as a “Karen”. Well, one of my sisters is named Karen and, at 5 years old, it was my idea for the name. I asked my daughter if that name describes her aunt and she said that it didn’t. I reminded her, that while her definition may be justified, it can and will be subverted just as the name Dick has been.
    With respect to “OK Boomer”, as someone who is on the tail end of that, I don’t have a problem with it. It is unfortunate that people my age and older tend to be condescending when talking to young people just as our parents and grand parents were condescending to us when we were that age. I think that “OK Boomer” is a perfectly good way of responding to condescension while at the same time trying to defuse the rhetoric.

    • The problem is that anything that expresses frustration and that labels people is going to be viewed in a negative fashion, and the end result is to alienate people into mutually hostile tribes who view each other with contempt and disregard. In general, our response to feeling dishonored and disrespected only tends to make others feel disrespected and leads everyone involved to respond to others with contempt, which is a general pattern one sees in our contemporary discourse.

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