Friday, December 01, 2006

The Arid Land Of Politically Correct Debate

Or translated into a juicier language: Gimme sterility or gimme cunt. All this is in reference to some thoughts I've had today on the question whether the price of trying to avoid sexist and racist slurs is the death of all full-blooded and flavorful writing. Jane Hamsher, quoted in Shakespeare's Sister's blog post (with Sis's views on the topic which you should read), thinks that this might be the case:

Jane doesn't want FDL to become "a slave to the PC language police who want to mau-mau it into sterility by throwing around loaded and innacurate [sic] race- and gender-baiting accusations," which I understand, because I use both the word whore and the word cunt—and have defended their use on multiple occasions. But there are ways to use words and there are ways to use words—and knowing the difference, rooting out the subversive context from that which simply perpetuates oppression, is not enslaving oneself to language police; it's doing the basic work required of someone who wants to be edgy, rather than a retrofuck jackhole.

FDL is Firedoglake, Jane's blog, and what Jane is talking about in that quote is something that many people say: If we start policing language to avoid insulting particular groups, what sort of a language do we have left? An amputated one, with no lips and half a heart? Or something that sounds like one of those summaries you get on the medical studies they've done on your prescription pills (studies lasting for two months, by the way, while you take the stuff for fifteen years and recently find red horns growing on your forehead, but sure, the stuff is safe as it has been tested).

The fear some people (and almost all wingnuts) have is that language loses its evocative power and its rich history if we limit ourselves to only non-insulting terms. And that might be a real risk if language never evolved, if new smears (such as "asshat") were not invented all the time and if they never replaced older ones. But the evocative power of words such as "cunt" is something that I don't enjoy: to be reminded of how much some people detest my gender and my sexual organs. Likewise, the "rich" history of words such as "nigger" is a history of oppression and treating blacks as inferiors. Funny, by the way, how most people have stopped using "nigger" as a slur, at least in public arenas, but losing the use of "cunt" somehow causes a lot more debate about historical losses. This is probably further evidence of the greater unacceptability of open racism when compared to open sexism.

Shakespeare's Sister makes an interesting point in her post about this topic, and that is this one:

Sometimes in the past I have used cunt as an insult. (When CNN invited Ann Coulter to comment on the 2004 presidential debates, I sniffed, "I didn't realize they had officially transformed into the Cunt News Network.") I'm not defending it; I can't. If someone had called me on it, they'd have been right, because, let's face it, I love using the word that way. I love its power to demean so neatly, so economically, and so completely. It has so much gorgeous power that it's almost irresistible. And any argument I tried to use to defend my right to call someone a cunt—not ironically, not as a compliment—would be total and complete bullshit. I wouldn't possibly try to claim that using it that way isn't nasty, when the reason I love it is because it is.

So I know damn well if I call someone a cunt to demean them, I'm going to get taken the woodshed, and rightfully so, and if I try to rationalize it, I'm full of shit. There it is.

In other words, if you insist on calling someone a cunt, you better realize how it reads to many and you better accept the reactions your use of the word will cause. It's not sufficient to deny those reactions or to accuse the other person of political correctness or lack of humor or picking on trivial stuff. Because words like "cunt" are heavy artillery and they are misogynistic. If that is what you want to use, go ahead. But don't hide behind something much flimsier when the counterbarrage starts.

Still, I can see gradations in the use of sexist slurs. To say that "person x is a cunt because of acts a, b and c" is slightly different from saying that "x is a cunt because all women are". The misogyny in the last comment is more obvious, though I'm uncertain whether it's less pernicious. Something so openly woman-hating is easier to defend against, inside the mind, as if it were, than something more indirect.

I believe that debate doesn't have to become arid if we try to avoid words that have a history of demeaning women or minorities or other groups which have traditionally been demeaned. It just takes a little bit more creativity to coin new terms for insults if that's what you wish to do, and it's always possible just to describe the evil acts of x and to leave the judging of x to the reader or listener. In any case, politically correct debate is something quite different from what I described in the previous two sentences, if we regard "politically correct" as that which flatters the groups in political power. That's how I view the term, and it would be a pity if my evocative and rich interpretation of it was denied.