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Putting Slurs In Their Place

(Warning: This post will mention, but not use, some coarse language.)

There's been a good deal of discussion going around about the use of bigoted insults, in particular anti-woman ones like "bitch" and "pussy." Hugo Schwyzer brings homophobic insults into the mix as well:

You'd be amazed how few [of my students] understand that "suck" is derived from "cocksucker", and thus to say something or someone "sucks" is to use anti-gay/anti-woman language. They are also stunned that "asshole" is also anti-gay, misogynistic speak; "asshole" is invariably only used for men, despite the fact that women also possess this part of the anatomy -- it is used to refer to men who allow themselves to be penetrated like women.[*]

I think Schwyzer misses the mark a bit by going for the argument from etymology. What he's giving is a causal explanation of why "suck" and "asshole" have anti-gay baggage. But that's not the same as a moral argument for not using the words.

The decision factor is really how the words are recieved. Numerous female bloggers have testified to feeling targeted and excluded when they read a male blogger calling someone else a "pussy." That, not the origins of the use of "pussy as an insult, is why you shouldn't say it.

Schwyzer gets back on the right track later in the post, saying:

I do think, however, that if one is going to use these words, one has to save them for "safe places." In environments where you can be certain as to how these words will be received, I think it's sometimes acceptable to cuss with abandon.

If "asshole" were inherently homophobic, then it would never be acceptable to say it in any context. But if the problem is that it carries homophobic meanings to certain people, then the key is to avoid using it in situations where the word will carry those meanings to, and hence offend and exclude, part of your audience. Indeed, even sexist-insult-purveyor extrordinaire Atrios seems to get this on some level, since one of his excuses for using "pussy" is that he knows it would bother Republicans to be called that. His problem is that he doesn't realize the collateral damage he's doing (both by offending female readers and by validating the insultees' view that being a "pussy" is a bad thing).

* I had always understood "asshole" to connote a sort of bullying or boorishness that is stereotypically associated with men -- i.e., an overdose of machismo, rather than the overdose of femininity that underlies typical anti-gay slurs.


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