Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tools of Oppression and the Value of Human Life

The argument over at this thread on 3Bulls and other places centers around words as a symbol and tool of oppression. Using words like dick, pussy, cunt, fag, girlie, bitch, ho, whore, slut, skank, gash, wop, spic, nigger, kyke and etc enables an insidious form of oppression according to many people pretty much everywhere in America. I have taken a whole one (1) Women's Studies class and it was an introductory course, but I am not unaware of the sometimes subtle sexism and overt racism existing in America. The use of these words displays and enforces the longstanding rule of a patriarchy. These words all contain an inherent superiority in white men and a similarly inherent inferiority in everyone else.

An astute and angry commenter in the same thread reiterated a point made in the movie Boondock Saints that many of our charming little phrases betray a history that isn't pretty, to put it mildly. Putting it rather more truthfully, we are a damn barbaric species. The last one hundred years have been rather peaceful in comparison to any previous hundred years since our species first decided to plant crops and create permanent settlements. Europe was at war almost continuously since we first started keeping track of the events in our lives until the end of World War 2. Africa remains a perpetually cycling system of war, famine and mild peace. The Middle East is not and has never been calm. Asia is rather beyond my research and I confess that I know very little of the history of any country west of California and east of Istanbul.

A colleague I respect asked me why we even attacked Iraq. I can see only the profuit made by contractors and the administration. Money. Money, money, money. So many people have died and certain corporations are making money habd over fist. If there were on thing that angers me the most about the Bush/Cheney Regime it is the complete lack of respect for human life. If the recent census that produced a result of 600,000 Iraqis dead as a result of our invasion of another sovereign nation and the famous "fungible" comment by Rumsfeld aren't enough to make my case, then Bush's comments to Senator-elect Webb should be damning. I would weep if I knew how much revenue has been generated by the human sacrifice in this insane occupation. This is not right.

The words that have created the latest storm raging across the blogoweb are also representative of a view of the value of human life. All of these words emphasize that male life is more important, stronger, better and in control of all life. As many events continue to show us, these words will never cease having power. Reclaiming a word is an utterly bankrupt attempt to remove the taint from these words. As evidenced in popular culture and recent news items, the word nigger will never lose it's foundation in oppression. Should we ever become so blase about slavery, the human species will be at a disappointing level of enlightenment.

All human life is equally valuable and this value is not based on utility or biology and one's dialogue should reflect this belief. To do otherwise erodes attempts to improve the horrible situation we have created for ourselves.

If you don't agree with me, fine. If you do, fine. If you want to complain, fine. If you never want to type to me again, fine.

A Clarification of My Point Has Been Requested:
No one is else required to follow my morals. If you want my respect, I will require you to be consistent in your beliefs. It is disingenuous to say that words like pussy and bitch are acceptable but then throw a fit about cunt. Likewise, I find it extremely distasteful and foolish whenever anyone makes an attempt to reclaim a racial slur. The double standards used in these arguments about reclamation require that the word still retain the foul origins for those not allowed to say and yet mean something beautiful or empowering for those that have decided that they are allowed to say certain words. There is no reclamation, just another definition in Webster. Reclamation is a fallacy that we all have come to accept so we can continue to think of the other as less than human, less than equal.

I may not have made my point as clear as I should in comments, thus I felt a post would clarify it.

A further clarification:
Racial slurs do feel somewhat worse to me than sexual ones. I have no doubt that this is based on my gender and my experiences even though I do everything I can to treat everyone the same. This is also an indication of how easy it is to accept words like bitch because we hear it so much more often and more casually, even though it is just as bad as cunt from my perspective. I still do not understand how one can be allowed but the other prohibited.

16 comments:

Res Publica said...

You're so hot when you're pissed!

Chuckles said...

Yeah, I really am.

plover said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
plover said...

My comment at 3B! was written before seeing this post.

My impression is that what you say here contains a good percentage of the arguments everyone at 3B was making against what you said there.

I don't see much of anything to argue with in this post. However, if you really do think it squares with the things you said at 3B – and you've said nothing to indicate that you've changed your mind about anything – you're doing a fairly awful job of communicating why.

While here you say that "[r]eclaiming a word is an utterly bankrupt attempt to remove the taint from these words", at 3B you gave the appearance (to me anyway, but I doubt I'm alone) of trying to do precisely that. And then when challenged, of playing word games to make your point.

And while here you say that "many of our charming little phrases betray a history that isn't pretty, to put it mildly", at 3B you seemed to imply that the history of words should be ignored and that words could be considered on the basis of some arbitrary-sounding logical equivalence you devised.

The best I've been able to come up with to square this post with your 3B comments is that you are arguing on the basis of some equivalence that a set of sexist words such as (to use your examples) "bitch", "pussy" and "cunt", all being words of oppression, should be treated equally, i.e. either equally used or equally abandoned.

If that is indeed what you are saying, then my response would be that language is just never that tidy. Each word has its own history that includes not just how it came to have the meaning it does, but also how it acquired the range of situations where it is permissable to use, and which give it an emotional charge that may or may be brushed aside in various situations. You don't get to choose that context. That a category "sexist epithets" can be created, and that that category documents one aspect of culture worth resisting is not a sufficient theory of how the words in that category function in language.

This is pretty much the same argument I was making at 3B. You seem to be demanding a rather ahistorical consistency from language that it just does not possess. If I'm wrong, and something else is going on, I would be interested to hear what it is.

It's possible that you are making an argument similar to the one Neil the Ethical Werewolf made at Ezra Klein's and which Res discussed both in his post and with Neil in the comments.

Res Publica said...

"Yeah, I really am."

Are what? Pissed, or hot?

I'm tired of talking about this in any case, so I'll just be sexually harassing you from here on out.

Chuckles said...

Both, res. In regards to the rest of your comment, at least someone is interested in me. Sexually.

In regards to plover, you can't have your reclaimed word and use it to describe yourself and then charge a different person with an -ism if they use the same word to describe you. That is just perpetuating the -ism in the language.

Anonymous said...

having just stumbled upon all of this, the question is do you refrain from the usage of the words you though out, or is this purley academic?

Chuckles said...

I think anonymous is asking if I use the words I discuss and the answer is: some.

I admit it. I say bitch and dick as frequently as any and that doesn't make it or me any better or worse. I have called some men cunts. I have never used the racial slurs except in discussing them as slurs, like in a class or in discussions like this and even then as the "n-word". That is just wrong.

plover said...

In regards to plover, you can't have your reclaimed word and use it to describe yourself and then charge a different person with an -ism if they use the same word to describe you. That is just perpetuating the -ism in the language.

I don't really understand what you're saying here. It seems like (as an example) you might be saying that black people shouldn't call each other anything they aren't prepared to hear white people calling them.

I don't see what this has to do with anything I've said.

If you think I'm defending "reclamation" in some general sense, I have no idea why. I did offer a qualified defense of an extremely limited type of "reclamation" at RoD (and I think "reclamation" is pretty much a misnomer in that case), but that doesn't seem to be what you're referring to.

If you want my respect, I will require you to be consistent in your beliefs. It is disingenuous to say that words like pussy and bitch are acceptable but then throw a fit about cunt.

This is also an indication of how easy it is to accept words like bitch because we hear it so much more often and more casually, even though it is just as bad as cunt from my perspective. I still do not understand how one can be allowed but the other prohibited.

As I've been saying words have the histories they have, and the meanings they have. And neither you nor anyone else gets to choose on their own what those are.

And the usage of words, being governed by the vicissitudes and contingencies of history are never tidy.

You seem to have taken the category of sexist epithets and declared all words in that category equivalently wrong – perhaps because you, yourself, experience them as equivalently wrong – but, in the name of consistency, you are also apparently demanding that everyone else also experience them as equivalently wrong – whether or not they actually do.

I can offer speculation as to why I think "bitch" and "pussy" function differently than "cunt" (though I don't how much good it will do). If I had to guess, I would say that "cunt" is used to denigrate women as physical beings, while "pussy" and "bitch" (along with even more etiolated words like "shrew") are applied against the somewhat more amorphous concept of "femininity". And further, I might guess that someone trying to equate those words probably experiences the word "cunt" as partaking of that amorphousness.

However, whatever one's experience of a given word may be, one doesn't get to choose what anyone else's experience is. No one but the woman herself gets a say as to whether she experiences "cunt" as a direct assault on her person or as an indirect assault on the idea of being female.

And no single person gets to decide the balance of those experiences that drives how the word is perceived socially.

There is, of course, no more defense for attacking the idea of femininity than there is for direct denigration of women's bodies, and that the first is perhaps brushed aside more easily than the second doesn't make the first right.

You say that "Racial slurs do feel somewhat worse to me than sexual ones." Why is it then surprising that some sexual slurs feel worse than other ones? It is not any more (or less) logical a feeling, and it derives from the same sources you cited: gender and experiences.

As far as I can tell, you have not defended your idea of "consistency". It is not an obvious corollary of the premises in your original post as many people hold (more or less) those premises without drawing your conclusion from them.

I have no real sense of how you view this conversation. If you view my comments as some kind of personal attack rather than as an attempt at debate, then I apologize. In no sense was it my intent to offer abuse. And if you would prefer not to have this discussion at the moment, that is fine. I have no wish to be intrusive.

Chuckles said...

I take no personal offense.

If our entire society is going to decide that one derision of a gender is disallowed but then allow another derision of gender, aren't we being hypocritical?

Again, we get back to a point I find totally confusing. Bitch is not equal to cunt because it isn't so bad and we can say it on TV and stuff now whereas in the 90s it was off limits. If that is the case, then we should be able to ask the Simpsons to start breaking in cunt, so that we can all get over it as well?

Furthermore, I hold to my position that you can not remove stigma from a word like cunt by saying that only women get to use it. That only keeps the stigma and the power in place.

In regards to the bit about the weight of racial versus gender slurs, I was trying to lay out my biases and work them into the conversation. I am biased and I am trying to see this conversation from a view that is other than mine. I am also trying to apply logic to a conversation about a topic that is mostly emotional in nature. That usually doesn't work.

plover said...

If our entire society is going to decide that one derision of a gender is disallowed but then allow another derision of gender, aren't we being hypocritical?

Well, we're being human anyway, with all the randomness, habit, and self-serving nuttiness that entails...

Thers addressed your point a bit. While there's more to what he says, this is the perhaps the most relevant bit:

if someone wants to say "cunt" and there's a good reason for it, we [i.e. the Left] won't censor them. BUT, at the same time, we also recognize that speakers have an ethical responsibility to choose what words they use carefully: "don't tell me I can't say 'cunt!' You're not the boss of me!" is not of itself a persuasive justification for using the word "cunt" [in most circumstances]

It's not a question of allowing or disallowing, it's more a question of recognising when the discriminatory character of a word is the chief effect of using it in a particular way. That character never disappears, but can be subverted or at least pushed into the background by context.

Subverting language, like most acts of resistance, is not pure. It can be liberating on one plane while reinforcing discrimination on another. But it's rare to find acts of resistance that aren't that way, and expectations of purity can be just as oppressive or stifling as anything else.

Bitch is not equal to cunt because it isn't so bad and we can say it on TV and stuff now whereas in the 90s it was off limits. If that is the case, then we should be able to ask the Simpsons to start breaking in cunt, so that we can all get over it as well?

I think you've got this backwards. On these kinds of things, TV trails usage in the rest of society. "Bitch" isn't used by people now because they put it on TV. It started being used on TV once it became a more or less (for lack of a better term) "public" rude word instead of a "taboo" rude word. Of course, this doesn't happen everywhere simultaneously, so the people who weren't using it the time were still bothered.

"Cunt" is still taboo. "Fuck" is taboo in most public contexts, but not all. And by taboo, I don't mean people don't use something a lot, but rather whether it is allowed as a part of public language. And while awareness of discrimination can have a large effect on whether a word is public or taboo, (e.g. "Negro" is pretty much taboo outside of contexts where it is historically accurate), it is far from the only factor affecting such things.

"Bitch" and "cunt" are not equal because there is no single dimension that captures all the vagaries of how they are used.

Furthermore, I hold to my position that you can not remove stigma from a word like cunt by saying that only women get to use it. That only keeps the stigma and the power in place.

I'm still not sure why you're saying this. You keep bringing this up as if it's in response to an argument someone (in this general bloggy neighborhood) is making. However, if that is the case, I have no idea what was said that you may be responding to, or who said it.

Also, in the form you give it here, I'm not sure I've heard the argument you're opposing made by anyone: if the word is only used by women, that will remove the stigma? Am I reading you correctly?

To me, it looks like there's a few things tangled up here:

1) Members of an oppressed group have more freedom to use the words that stigmatize them than members of the group that oppressed them. That's just context. There are more contexts where the discriminatory meaning is necessarily the dominant one when such words are used by the oppressor.

2) Is it a good idea for members of the targeted group to use a given word?

3) Is it possible for members of the targeted group (and perhaps their allies) to use the word in such a way as to remove or reduce the stigma attached?

4) Is there any value in creating a new meaning for the word by members of the targeted group whether or not the stigma is removed?

In the commentary I've seen around this end of the blog pool, 1) is pretty much taken for granted. While 2), 3) , and 4) are not, as a rule, not carefully distinguished from one another, the verdict has been mostly against 3), while 2) and 4) are treated either as neutral or as somewhat dubious.

I am also trying to apply logic to a conversation about a topic that is mostly emotional in nature. That usually doesn't work.

There are also elements of considerable historical contingency – which rarely lend themselves well to generalization.

plover said...

Oops, that should be:

"While 2), 3) , and 4) are not, as a rule, carefully distinguished from one another"

(only one "not")

plover said...

It seems I misread or somehow skipped a few sentences from your first update to the original when I initially read it. Thus my comment timestamped Dec 7 at 9:27am exhibits more confusion over what you were saying than should have been the case. I expect my brain needs more duct-tape.

Chuckles said...

plover, I wrote one of those updates before reading one of your comments because I didn't refresh and notice that you had responded. Confusion is rather to be expected when your interlocutor fails to make his point as clearly as you have.

I am saying that my point is muddled to those other than me and I am working on a way to restate it.

mdhatter said...

One nitpick:

"The last one hundred years have been rather peaceful in comparison to any previous hundred years since our species first decided to plant crops and create permanent settlements."

I would argue the killing has merely become more efficient since 1906, but no less. Less starvation, more violence.

as I said, a nitpick.

the rest of the convo is a bit played out, sure hope all have said their peace.

mdhatter said...

played out for me, that is. I'll lurk.