Mouse rant blog vent mouse.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Intent and language

Hugo has a really great post today about how different curse words single out different people for abuse, etc. You know, the same stuff that's been kicked around for a couple of weeks now.

Hugo is an academic and a historian and so he has a perspective on these words that hasn't been put forth as heavily by other people who've addressed this issue, most importantly des femmes. Knowing the history of a word can often make people reassess how they understand it. I did not know, for instance that "suck" and "asshole" originated as homophobic terms. I know that "suck" of course refers to oral sex, but I always assumed it was just the same ol' fear of sex that informs all the various uses of "fuck", most of which I adore. That "asshole" is a homophobic term originally blew me away--I always thought it was just a nasty thing to call someone, since it's generally considered a nasty part of your body. And I thought only men were called "asshole" because it was a neuter curse word, and neuter is commonly thought of as male. Or to put it simply, if you want to call a woman a name, you have a plethora of woman-specific profanities to choose from, most of which are meaner than "asshole" is generally used.

Which is exactly how I think most people conceive of it. Which causes me to wonder--how much does one weigh intent when deciding whether a certain term is offensive as a whole or just to the person being singled out for insult? (In the latter case, hey, some people deserve insults.)

People who wield bigoted terms always use intent as their excuse. I cannot recall a single time I've ever heard anyone excuse themselves otherwise when being called out for using a slur. My all-time favorite, because I hear it at least twice a year, is a white person justifying the use of "nigger" by saying that he/she doesn't use that term for all black people, just the ones who "deserve" it. Every single time--word for word, the excuse never changes. Why not just single out individuals with words that don't slur the entire race, I ask--and the answer is to simply repeat that the previous sentence. Really, the whole thing is a step up the racist scale from, "I'm not racist, but...."

But....what about someone who sincerely thinks that "asshole" means someone who smells like poop? Can they be excused for intent? I think so, yes. (I will be saying "shithead" until further notice, by the way.)

What about people in between who unthinkingly use offensive terms, but can't really say that they had no idea that such terms might be offensive? All the liberal bloggers who use "pussy" to mean "coward" are smart and most are friendly to women. Hell, most if the men get a warm fuzzy when they think of what pussy actually means, though they may not actually put it that way. They are educated on why this is offensive, to boot, but they resist. Why?

Well, they resist because they are suffering under the delusion that they deserve a cookie for being a liberal instead of a gun-toting, wife-beating, Bible-thumping conservative, and they think we women aren't grateful enough, but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Anyway, it's hard to explain exactly why one usage is wrong and one is acceptable, because the only way to explain is to use inexact comparisons, and the differences are bound to be pounced on by those who still want to equate having a pussy with being a pussy with being a coward. A conservative on Hugo's blog, for instance, bristles at the suggestion that sexist and racist slurs are comparable. Apparently, we can only compare sexist slurs with other sexist slurs that are also under attack and voila! There are no sexist slurs.

On other language fronts, my sister startled me yesterday with a tale of antiquated sexist traditions clinging to respectability by crying tradition itself. She is in a co-ed business fraternity, and older members take on younger members to mentor. She casually mentioned that she was mentoring her "brother". I refered to the "brother" as a he, and she corrected me and said that no, her "brother" is also a woman. The fraternity has traditionally always had brothers and when they went co-ed, the women became "brothers", too. I asked why they didn't do the logical thing and just add "sisters" to the lexicon, and she said it was tradition.

I pointed out that traditionally universities don't admit women and traditionally her fraternity didn't admit women. Tradition means she shouldn't be there in the first place. She got defensive and said I was accusing her brothers, the male ones, of sexism. It ended up being the same old story--she likes her friends therefore they cannot possibly have an ounce of sexism in them. We all get that way about friends and in this case, her own behavior was also on the line. She had proudly taken her promotion to honorary male and didn't like being called on it. (I don't like it, either, but you have to take your licks, no?) I think it's a cut and dry case of institutionalized sexism, where everyone participates in elevating male over female but no one has to own it because it's tradition.

In a way, the latter may actually be just as bad, if not a worse, problem than a few liberal bloggers acting tough by using juvenile taunts. Both exclude women from full equality, but the latter manages to get nearly full female cooperation, making it harder to call out.

By the way, Norbiz takes on his own use of the word "bitch" and makes my laugh while doing so.

Oh, and note to white men who complain about not "getting" to use profanity that is sexist or racist while members of that sex or race use the terms with impunity: You are welcome to change places with me and say "bitch" all you want.

38 Comments:

Blogger Lanoire said...

I think intent matters as well. I think Ampersand at Alas, A Blog put it well: it's okay in a parodying way. Like if you use the term "girlie men" in a way that makes it clear you're making fun of the Gropinator for being a misogynist, rather than girls or feminist men.

9/20/2004

 
Blogger Norbizness said...

Remember: Bizbenotch and bee-aye-itch are still acceptable. Or if you use a Scottish accent.

9/20/2004

 
Blogger La Lubu said...

Great post!

Actually, I thought of "asshole" as being someone who spews shit, not necessarily smells like it. Someone whose every utterance has all the socially redeeming value of a hot steaming pile. And that's why I thought of the way language is translated, 'cuz I grew up hearing "asshole" and "shit" being used by people whose first language wasn't English, so the word didn't take on the connotation of homosexuality for me, but an "earthier" meaning that came from my ancestors' more agrarian history. Asshole always seemed to be inextrixably tied to what came out of it.

But "shithead" will work just as well! ;) One of my grandmother's favorite curse-words roughly translates as "shitty-ass".

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