‘He’s a loser! You’re a loser!” Among all the hurtful slurs we mindlessly utter, this particular one is perhaps the most hurtful and damaging. It needs to be forbidden in our public discourse and stricken from our vocabulary.

We’ve come a long way today in forbidding certain language in our public discourse. Mostly the terms that we outlaw have to do with pejorative phrases that refer to someone’s race, gender or disability. Categorically forbidding them in our language was long overdue and may not be dismissed as simple political correctness. It’s a matter of correctness, plain and simple, of justice, of charity, of fundamental human decency. Language is an economy that’s also often unjust. It unfairly affirms some and unduly slanders others. We need to be careful with it. Language can deeply scar others, even as it keeps us unconsciously locked inside negative stereotypes that leave our minds and hearts coloured by racism, bigotry and misogyny.

But racial, gender and disability slurs are not the only ones that cut, wound and scar others. Terrible as they are, those insulted by them have the consolation of knowing that the insult is aimed at millions (or, in the case of gender, billions) of others. There’s consolation in numbers. Being shamed along with millions or billions of others still hurts, but you’re in good company.

There are slurs, however, that are more brutally singular and more cruelly personal, which aim to shame one’s particularly private inadequacies. With such a slur you’re no longer in good company; you’re now unanimity-minus-one. The term “loser” is such a slur. It aims to shame a person in a very singular, hurtful way. When you’re called a “loser”, you’re not being singled out and shamed because you belong to a certain set, a race, a gender or a class of people. You’re being shamed because you – you alone, singularly, personally – are judged as not measuring up, as not worthy of respect, and as not worthy of full acceptance. You’re judged as inferior with an inferiority that cannot be blamed on anyone except yourself. You’re deemed a loser. And you’re alone in that.

This kind of shaming isn’t new. It has ever been thus. Certain people have always been shunned, shamed and ostracised. We have this curious human flaw which, unless it’s addressed, has us believe that for us to be happy it isn’t enough that we be accepted; someone else has to be excluded.

In biblical times people who had leprosy were ostracised from society, condemned to live in regions outside normal life and cry out “unclean” whenever anyone approached them. But there were legitimate reasons for putting those persons outside the circle of normal life. Leprosy held the danger of contagion. Today, without any kind of legitimacy, we’re still designating certain people as “lepers”, as unfit to flourish inside the circles of normal life. We classify them as “losers” and condemn them to the fringes. They’re the new lepers.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection