"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Feminists divided by a common language

WARNING: This post references language that some may find offensive.

I have this very bad habit of not being able to leave certain issues alone when reading other people's blogs. One of the subjects I really should avoid commenting on is sexist language, because I seem to hold an opinion which I see as being quite reasonable but apparently raises the ire of a certain species of feminist. This disturbs me because I consider myself a feminist and I find very little to disagree with in most of the assumptions of the movement. However I am suspicious of the assertion that the use of certain words is automatically sexist regardless of context and intention, mainly because creating taboos in language even for good sociopolitical reasons is something that should not be done lightly. So a couple of days ago, Jen McCreight at Blag Hag posted this "bingo card" of apologetics for using the word "cunt" which many argue is an intrinsically sexist word. My contribution and the immediate responses are as follows...
February 7, 2012 at 2:59 PM

Context is important, and words do not always mean what you think they mean or even what the speaker intended them to mean even if they meant what they thought they said. Semantic arguments for or against; cunt, bitch, fag , nigger, wop, kike, wally, etc are probably flawed and futile. Righteous indignation over the application of these words to individuals is perfectly justified and should be condemned unequivocally, but I’m not convinced that language is really the battleground we should be fighting on. Penn of course is being a douche when he uses cunt in that context, and in that context it is sexist, as is my use of the insult “douche” (arguably, unless you can think of another derivation) but cunt, like bitch and prick and knob have deviated from their gender affiliations and in many contexts mean something else. The word “gay” is currently undergoing the same transformation and while it is obvious and reprehensible that its de novo translation as “pathetic” or “disappointing” has homophobic roots, it does not necessarily have that intention in the throat of every teen that uses it. “Gay” once had no gender, “bitch” was on a par with doe or hen or vixen as a descriptive but not derogatory gender term. Language changes, and these days rapidly so it doesn’t seem productive to me to angst over particular words unless they are obviously and intentionally being used slanderously.

Reply Antonov An-225 says: February 7, 2012 at 3:09 PM

Thanks ever so much for telling us ladies not to worry our pretty little heads about this.

Reply Ms. Daisy Cutter, Feral Fembeast says: February 7, 2012 at 3:55 PM

I’d like to second Antonov An-225 in thanking you for mansplaining language to our teensy widdle ladybrains, which obviously are too emotional to understand when we are or aren’t being slurred. Whatever would we do without all-knowing dudes like you to tell us how to do feminism and not to “angst” over things that don’t bother your privileged self?
I had a little follow up whinge about the "mansplaining"comment but that is not the point of this post. You see I was so taken aback that what seemed to me to be a relatively benign and almost self evident comment should get that kind of reaction that I looked a bit more closely at the argument and realised where I had gone wrong. You see I still think my point is generally valid, but it is culturally relative to an extent of which I was completely naive and unaware. The middle square on the bingo card reads "England" which I took to mean that the word "cunt" is used so ubiquitously in the UK that it has become essentially meaningless, or at any rate divorced from its anatomical root to render it gender neutral. Now I believe this is true, in fact I would say that "cunt" and its less contentious stablemate "twat" are used completely non-cognitively in Britain and most people who use and hear the word in its abusive context frequently would struggle to make the connection to vaginas without being prompted. My error was assuming that this is also true in the US which, it transpires, is not the case.
The Blag Hag post was a follow up to one about the magician Penn Jilette who had called a woman a cunt in a tweet. At the time this struck me as slightly odd as here in the UK it would be very rare to insult a woman using that word and extremely outrageous. However in the US it is in fact the norm, it's a deliberate derogatory aimed primarily at women, or when used of a man intended to feminise him with sexist implications of inferiority. This is so far away from the British use or abuse of the word it's tantamount to being a different language. In fact in Britain the use is almost exclusively masculine and (I suspect) that due to its hard phonetic edge feels wrong when applied to a woman.
I am not sure to what extent this translates across to other gender words. "Bitch" seems to have become extremely plastic in the way it can be used, in gender negative, gender positive and gender neutral contexts, but on balance I think its association with perceived female traits makes its use sexist on both sides of the pond, at least if not used with caution. However it is worth being aware of the potential cultural divide in perceptions of sexism in profane language. These words are by definition used out of context in linguistic environments which will cause them to deviate wildly from their original meanings, so while I stand by my comment despite the reaction, I will concede that those arguing for the obvious sexism in "cunt" are absolutely correct within American culture and unless or until it acquires the same guttural meaningless it has acquired here should not be used by any American who considers themselves a feminist. Needless to say, it's not one of my favourite words under any circumstances, but it is useful to have the odd heavy weapon in your arsenal of available expletives. You just have to be careful what country you drop it on.

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