Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ambiguous Conversations

Anthony McCarthy has a post up on Echidne of the Snakes that is well worth reading, The Suppression Of Clearly Bigoted Words Is A Necessary Step. What he proposes is very straightforward - when anyone uses bigoted derogatory language towards individuals and/or classes of people or that perpetuates bigotry and derogatory treatment of a class of people, harass the living hell out of them until they stop doing it:
Achieving the suppression of the language of bigotry is straight forward, you suppress it. You make the use of the words uncomfortable and an invitation to be hassled. For example, the blog boys use the word “cunt”. The way to make them uncomfortable is to constantly call them on it when they use it. It’s simple as that. They refer to women in that way, you make that uncomfortable for them, you harass them whenever they say it. You make it not worth their wile to use the word. When they whine about your calling them on it, you just do it anyway. They pout about you ruining their fun and boy bonding, you ignore it and keep calling them on it while taking pleasure at their discomfort. Their discomfort is a sign your plan is working, I see nothing wrong with enjoying it, privately. Of course, you've got to give up using language like that yourself, you've got to have credibility.

I fully concur.

There is no liberal cause that is advanced by using bigoted and derogatory language. Nailing someone for using this kind of language does not require you to check their political credentials or determine what side they're on because it's just wrong. The difficulty will be in training yourself to think more critically about the language you encounter and to refuse to excuse it because it is aimed at a political opponent.

Some stuff is easy, like name calling. "[Name goes here] is a [epithet goes here]!" is a simple formulation that calls for critical evaluation. Calling someone a cunt, a ho, a fag, etc., is simply out of bounds. Simply starting with this would do an enormous service to the level of discourse without preventing powerful opposition.

What's harder are oblique references. What do you do with a statement like "They're just bitter knitters."? To me, this is bigoted and derogatory because of the stereotyping, the projection of intent, and the reduction of a class of people (all supporters of a candidate) to a gendered and mocked activity, but it doesn't use a "bad" word. What about a phrase like "throwing dishes" or "the claws come out"?

What about uses of language that do attempt to use bigoted words and phrases in an ironic or contestatory way? Anthony notes, "Those words and similar ones shouldn’t be tolerated no matter what comedian or pop star has used them in their act, no matter how gratifyingly transgressive they make the user feel." OK, so what about my blog tag line - "You say I'm a bitch as if that were a bad thing..." I use it to mock those who would (and do) call me a bitch. Qualities attributed to being a "bitch," being tough, getting in people's faces, fighting back against domination, are things that women are not supposed to do. Yet, it is clearly an epithet, so should I use it? Why or why not? What about my use of the tag "Media Whores"? Is calling anyone a "whore" ever acceptable?

Pressing on, what about a term that is used widely and is not aimed at anyone in particular, perhaps not even used as an epithet, but which has derogatory overtones? My current pet peeve is "bitch slap", a term linguistically paired with "pimp slap" and arising from abuse of prostitutes by pimps and johns, which was brought into the political lexicon by WKJM as "the bitch-slap theory of politics," and is now used in economics discussions by people like Paul Krugman and Ian Welsh, who used the term today in this article. Why use this particular phrase? What value does it bring except to invoke the picture of a woman being slapped around or, focusing on the slap itself, of a weak, laughable, "girly" way of doing things. Without the derogatory gendered meaning, it doesn't work.

How about agreement with the statement of others? What about Atrios and his infamous "Heh," when he quotes another person's words or links to something that is derogatory and bigoted? Does agreement or promotion deserve the same reaction as being the originator? How about stuff in the comments? Are bloggers or site proprietors to be held responsible for the language of the commenters? I say yes. What do you say?

Finally, what about non-linguistic communications? If I post an image of Anne Coulter being subjected to violence of some kind, but I don't write any objectionable words, should I be harrassed until I remove it? What about blogs that run ads that have bigoted or derogatory imagery and/or phrases?

I think Anthony is right. The only question for me is how far to take it. Commenters, share your thoughts.




Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...

I don't see how you "fully concur."

You cite many good examples that show what a slippery slope this is.

In what circumstances is it generally accepted to unironically use the "c" word or the "n" word?

As for me, I'm for debate and criticism, but not censorship or overbearing political correctness (which shaming you into shunning your tagline might qualify as).

BTW, I agree with you on the thoughtlessness of terms like "bitch slap." At best it's a dose of gratuitous misogyny.

Likewise, the adoption of "that's so gay," in recent times, hasn't done much to promote enlightenment.

To debate the appropriateness of language is not, to me, PC. Nor is leading by example.

To be doctrinaire about language is, though, thus I don't "fully concur" with the goal of speech "suppression."

Mike J. said...

It's a double-edged sword, and a slippery slope (doubly dangerous, because you can impale yourself on your double-edged sword--pardon the mixed metaphor pun). What constitutes objectionable speech? These days you cannot voice any criticism of Obama without attracting accusations of racism. What McCarthy proposes is simply the suppression of speech through harassment and possibly intimidation (the next step, of course, being outright violence--because if the speech is bad enough to warrant intimidation, why not violence?). Even if the government is not engaged, this is still dangerous territory.

The proper antidote to such speech is more speech. Instead of intimidating people into silence, the response ought to be a confident affirmation of liberal beliefs and principles. Intimidation is a weapon for those who lack courage of their conviction, whose convictions lack merit, or who lack convictions altogether.

And once political discourse is waged using such means, the outcome will not be the triumph of the best idea. It will be the triumph of the most effective method of intimidation.

Unknown said...

I don't use the word bitch; unless I'm with my cousin, a woman dog breeder, and we are talking female dog stuff.

The general level of discourse in this nation is on a par with the stupidest, most banal imaginable. I watched the 'Politics's Bowl' this am on TeeBee and it wasn't actually that bad but they had to cloth everything in football and baseball metaphor so the rubes would be able to understand what the oh so clever Mr. and Ms. TV person was 'explaining' to Joe the Plumber & Co.....

America the Stupid.

My point?

Language which is designed to degrade, dehumanize and delegitimize anyone's life does just that....

To all of us.

Shainzona said...

(Typing with an embarrassed face....)

I've been reading your posts on sexism - particularly the ones this past week - nodding in agreement and sending them to family and friends. Then this morning I referred to someone (a women) as a ho.

After the word came out of my mouth I literally stopped in my tracks. And vowed to never do that again.

Kind of like using the F word out on the golf course...a friend who is now golfing with us never swears - so it kind of reminded me that my "talks like a sailor" vocabulary might need some spit and polish. Damnit.

Anonymous said...

I remember going in to speak to an attorney who had dictated a letter for me to type up to a woman, and had used the phrase "hiding behind someone's skirts." I told him that he might want to rethink it because I thought it was rather rudely derogatory toward women because it took an accusation and heightened the rudeness by FEMINIZING IT. The implication wasn't just "you were shielding yourself," it was "you were shielding yourself behind someone as lowly as a woman, which just goes to prove how low you were." He was shocked and thanked me for the observation, saying that he had never thought about it that way, but he thought I was right and wouldn't use that that phrase again.

Anonymous said...

The proposal is infeasible, ambiguous and redundant.

- Infeasible - people that control the media and the blogs will simply ignore any objection to their language.

-Ambiguous - some, rather few, terms and words are clearly beyond the pale. Other extremely derogatory terms are less obvious. For instance: SOB, ass, etc.

- Redundant - the political fight between the cursing left and the genuine left will go on with or without the proposal. It will be a tough, long and messy fight.

The desire to civilize the fight, kind of a Geneva convention for the feuding leftists, is commendable but naive as the League of Nations.

NĂ¡mo Mandos said...

I once had a very vigorous argument with Sadly, No!, a blog with which you might be familiar, over this very issue. It's not as easy as the Echidne post makes it out to be. The (passionate) argument from the sadlynosians is that, in fact, the some of the best political humour is vulgar and exploitative, and refusing to use it is actually a form of unilateral disarmament that exposes the left in a political system based on shows of strength and leverage to a fatal charge of weakness.

Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Enraged as I've been by the rank misogyny of the fauxgressive blogosphere and the MSM this campaign season, I'm inclined to agree with the previous comments that emphasize the slippery slope aspects of McCarthy's argument. I also disagree with his suggestion that derogatory terms can't be powerfully re-claimed and redeemed by those who have been stigmatized by them. Over on my blog (a weird little place where the personnel are a mix of canine and queer [speaking of re-claimed epithets]), we use the term "butch" much as you use the term "bitch" around here. It's an honorific aimed at praising the gender non-conformity for which some women are routinely judged and sometimes violently attacked. We also lovingly refer to the loyal contingent of gay men who visit my blog as "pretty boys."

There is a risk in using such language. One must worry about seeming to give permission to use such terms in other contexts and toward other ends. And yet I would argue that such transvaluations are a powerful and important political act, a way of insisting that words don't speak us -- We speak them and have some power to shift their meanings.

Two more quick points: 1) There is more to bigotry than language -- You can silence bigoted speech and not get rid of bigotry or inequality. 2) A sense of humor is essential to our survival as political animals. If we can't allow ourselves the occasional bitch or butch joke, we won't have the heart to fight the revolution.

Oh, and a media whore is just a media whore. Ain't no other way to say it.

Palomino said...

What Mike J. said: the answer to objectionable speech (as determined by whom?) is more speech, in a context of absolutely free speech for all. Anyone who has a need to curtail anyone else's free speech for any reason has a greater need to read and absorb the intent behind the First Amendment. End of discussion, as far as I'm concerned. I'm a real fundamentalist on this issue, given my four decades in journalism and book publishing.

cellocat said...

Well, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, given that I'm due to have a kid (my first) in a few months. I teach professionally, and of course, keep my speech clean when I'm working. When I'm not, I can have a bit of a sailor mouth too.

I think this is one issue that can't ever be totally resolved; language is just too slippery, subjective, and contextual. However, a line I want to try to draw as a parent is that while it's ok to be as critical as necessary about what someone does, it is not ok to be judgemental and insulting of them as a person. I grew up in a household in which character assassination was a regularly used behavior modification tool, and it was damaging.

I also think that making assumptions about people's motivations is tricky.

I like the comment above about positively stating one's belief's and pricincpals, and I would add, also, that we can request that such language not be used by the person when he/she is around us.

It is possible to be very consistently verbally responsible oneself, and that means being willing, imo, to speak up when others employ derogatory language, even if the people in question don't stop. That also means being willing to handle some conflict, which can be quite uncomfortable.

But if enough of us start saying "Please don't" when we're uncomfortable, I think we can ultimately achieve a cultural change, and that sensitivity to these issues can be increased.

Anonymous said...

All this discussion of the slippery slope and ambiguity is hiding from the real issue. Which is the blatantly offensive woman-hating language that is so prevalent and socially acceptable.

Opposing the obviously disgusting, bigoted and hateful will occupy us for quite some time. Let the ambiguous take care of itself.

Unknown said...

I am amused to be used as an example. Perhaps not the best word choice, and I'll do my best to choose other words in the future, not mostly as a moral matter, but as a matter of not wanting such connotations to get in the way of the message of the writing. (Which, for the record, is that the market, aka invisible hand, if you don't pay it respect, will beat you severely. And it will often come as a surprise, though it shouldn't.)

Unknown said...

I wish the commenters here would get real and wake up. We refuse to tell racist jokes and that's not viewed as "unilateral disarmament" -- why is disgusting misogynistic humor any different? These protestations are weak as hell. Why are you objecting to a "slippery slope" when the C word is treated like ironic humor, and send-ups of domestic violence are viewed as hilarious all over Left Blogistan? The slippery slope we're sliding down is one that's leading us to worse and worse depictions of women. They will only proliferate unless and until we begin to object vehemently.

Racists complained we were ruining their fun when we told them to stop using the N word. Sorry, I don't feel one bit of sympathy. The situation right now is that bloggers and media use disgusting sexist language thoughtlessly, then dismiss anyone who calls them on it as oversensitive. Unless we wake people up by calling them on it the situation will only get worse.

R. S. Martin said...

My personal view is that calling someone out for his or her use of a particularly loaded word or even stereotype needs to be done on a case-by-case, largely because one has to allow for context. It leads to a slippery slope otherwise, and before one knows it, there are going to be calls for banning Mark Twain or D.H. Lawrence.

The words do carry nuances. Most of the female-specific stuff you cite have gender-specific equivalents for men. Examples: a man is called an "asshole," while a woman is called a "bitch," and the masculine equivalent for "cunt" would probably be something like "motherfucker."

As for words like "nigger" or "fag," well, I've had to live and work around people for whom those words are part of their everyday vocabulary, and one tends to notice that they usually aren't talking about blacks or gays in general. More often than not, those words are used to describe blacks or gays who conform to negative or extreme stereotypes, and the designations can be rather subtle. For example, someone who talks like this would say that O.J. Simpson is a scumbag but not a nigger, while Allen Iverson is a nigger but not a scumbag. I personally find it inappropriate and offensive, but it isn't arbitrary. This usage reflects an expressive need beyond empty invective, and if one word is gotten rid of, it's just going to be replaced by another.

I don't see any justification for calling a woman a whore or some derivation thereof unless she's trading sex for money or some other advantage or gain, but again one can't make the distinction unless one knows the context.

A G said...

Don't know if the harassment really works - e.g. when you made the gratuitous comment criticizing the Confluence and every commenter on that blog, plenty of us came here and left comments of clarification, questions and sometimes a genuine 'seeking to understand'. I didn't see any of those comments published, nor a change in behavior. Not sure if all of us commenting here everyday would've ever changed a thing.

And if such mass 'calling out' didn't impact you enough to even merit a clarification if not a retraction, unlikely it would impact any of the blog boys who're happy with any attention, negative or positive.

Anglachel said...


Let me start by saying I otherwise really liked your post. I got the meaning of the invisible hand of the market that delivers unexpected slaps. I note that "bitch slap" means either the makert slaps like a girl or else those being slapped are women in need of punishment, and undermines your argument at a logical level, too.

Bigoted language rarely behaves itself.

If the only thing this post achieves is to make someone as widely read and respected as yourself to refrain from using that particular phrase, I'm pretty happy.

This is not about morality, however, which is simply abiding by the mores of the community. By the mores Left Blogistan, misogyny is pretty cool. This is about human rights and making people think about why they *don't* think when using language that is meaningless when detatched from its underlying bigotry.

Thanks for commenting,