Sunday, February 23, 2014



Words have power, as I've discussed  before. Not in any supernatural sense, as they might have in various role playing games or fantasy novels, but rather in the psychological effects that they can have on us, good and bad. I'd like to examine a few of the words that are commonly used as slurs, and the harm they cause.

Before I get to specific words, let me be clear about a few things. If you use these words in a pejorative manner, I'm not saying you are necessarily a bad person. I am saying that you can be better (and so can I; I've worked on modifying my vocabulary to be in line with the views I express here, but sometimes I slip up). You probably do not intend to cause anyone to be upset, or to cause harm at all (except, maybe, to the specific individual person you're insulting). But there's a phrase that gets used frequently in discussions about these things, and that's "Intent is not magic."

If it's not obvious, I'll spell out what that means. It means that just because you don't intend to cause harm to someone, doesn't mean that harm disappears. If I step on someone's toes, and they yell "Ow!" because I hurt them, it's not my place to claim that they shouldn't care I caused them harm because, hey, I didn't intend to hurt them. No, the right thing to do is apologize, and resolve to be more careful in the future.

A stepped on toe is probably pretty minor, of course, and it's likely the pain will be gone quickly (although, they may have conditions that would result in the pain lasting a lot longer, such as weakened bones or something). And they'll likely forgive me. But what if I did it consistently? What if I was constantly stepping on people's toes, even after hearing the "ow"? At this point, I would suggest that the fact I'm not taking more care to avoid it means that I either don't care that I'm hurting people (despite any apologies I make in the moment), or that I actually want to hurt these people. Neither option says anything good about me, and in fact, says something downright bad about me.

So, when we use certain words or phrases in a pejorative manner, the mere fact that we don't (hopefully) intend to hurt someone with that usage doesn't mean we haven't hurt them. This is something we need to acknowledge, and be aware of.

Now, of course, there will be times that it's unavoidable that we will offend or hurt someone with our speech or expression. There are people who get offended when someone (like myself) expresses support for using government funds to assist the less fortunate, or supports LGBTQ equality, or speaks out against the notion of a "Christian nation." And some men appear to get offended by any woman who dares to speak up for themselves at all. These sorts of things are not the kind of harm I'm talking about. I'm ok if a bigot gets offended by being called a bigot. I can hope that they will reflect on why someone might consider them a bigot, and what they can and should do to change that perception. I have my doubts that will happen, but depending on the individual, I can still have hope. I don't think it would be possible for humanity to function well if we constantly tried to avoid offending everyone.

But as I said, there are certain words or phrases that cause hurt that aren't of the sort that need to be said. One that actually gets to me on a personal level is when "gay" is used as a pejorative, as in "That's so gay!" (NOT "That's so Takei"). I'm bisexual, not gay, but nonetheless, when I hear "gay" used negatively, it causes some twinges. What I hear is that the part of me that's into guys is bad, merely by it's existence. It's gross. It's disgusting. It's weak. It's sneer worthy. And because this is a part of me that cannot be changed (nor would I wish it to), then by extension, I am all of those things.

It's worse when I hear it from those who claim to support equality for the LGBTQ community, who claim that it doesn't bother them, that they're fine with it, etc. People who claim they're allies. Hearing it from right wing fundamentalists is something I expect, and can be hardened to. Hearing it from those who supposedly support equality? Not so easy.

Now, I realize that generally speaking, such people aren't intending to cause me offense, and would probably claim that it's the furthest thing from their mind. It's might even be true. But if they were to keep doing it after being told that it does cause offense, then their protests can hardly matter. It says something about how they implicitly view those who are gay, bisexual, or any other orientation besides straight -- as gross, disgusting, weak, and sneer worthy. It may even indicate how they feel about the genderqueer or trans* community. And if they wish to view themselves as allies in the quest for equity, then why would they wish to give that impression?

Then we get to gendered slurs: bitch, cunt, dick, prick, etc. Basically any word that has a distinct gender associated with it and is used pejoratively, though, in our historically patriarchal culture, the ones referencing women tend to come across as worse in intent and meaning. Words like "bitch" and "cunt" being used as slurs is implicitly and inherently sexist. A word like bitch, seeing as it's targeted at women (since one of its literal meanings is "female dog"), implies that the speaker sees not just one particular woman as mean, cruel, overly aggressive (which would probably be just called "assertive" in a man), etc, but that at some level women in general are mean, cruel, overly aggressive, etc.

"But it can be used to refer to men too!" Yes, and consider the context. When used to refer to men, there's still a sense of "feminine" qualities, but specifically, it's used to refer to men who are seen as weak or subservient. "Bitch slap." "He's totally his bitch." And so on. It acts as a comparison to qualities that women are seen as having, and that "real men" don't have. Which is flat out sexist.

"Cunt" acts in basically the same way, although I frequently hear more contempt in it's usage than I do with "bitch." It takes a single part of a woman's anatomy, twists it into something negative, and then equates the entirety of the woman (or occasional man) to this one thing. Again, sexist. (For more, please see this post by Jen McCreight, and this comment on that post)

The slurs that generally refer to men, and are used almost exclusively against men, like "dick" or "prick," I realize usually don't come across as being as bad as the likes of "bitch" and "cunt." This it seems is likely related to the same implicit sexism that allows bitch/cunt to have the power to insult that they do. Women and womanly qualities (or perceived qualities, anyway) are seen as worse than "real man" qualities, even when such "manly" qualities are seen as worthy of insult. So, being mean, cruel, petty, or overly aggressive, and thus a "dick," just isn't seen as bad as being the exact same thing if you're a woman. There's also a historical aspect, as our culture is one that has long had a great deal of sexism inherent within it. It's improved, sure, but there's still a ways to go. All of us are influenced by the culture we grow up in, whether we like it or not, and it's up to us to consider whether all of that influence has been positive, and act accordingly.

*A note of gratitude to the feminist bloggers and commenters that have helped me develop these thoughts over the past few years, including Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, and I'm sure others whom I can't think of, or whose name I never caught. 

No comments:

Post a Comment