Apology, Context, Use – or, how being a jerk can teach us about words

I have some apologizing to do. It is true. I used the word ‘cunt’ rather randomly to refer to a man who I believe to be cranky and petty on the internets. Now before anyone starts to sling arrows at my misfortunate choice of pejoratives, let me say that I fully understand the history and volatility associated with this ‘term’. Only in a culture which underappreciates the feminine and institutionally oppresses its females (not to mention all the gender blends in between) in favor of males is such a word deployed. Does this word evince an underlying hatred or resentment for women percolating under the course skin of Western society? Perhaps. Quite simply and without qualification I apologize for using such a word. The word is disgusting and nothing good can from its use.

Yet, despite accusations to the contrary, I do not believe that I am misogynist in any stable sense of the term. I was raised by a single mother who I witnessed first-hand struggle with discrimination, and I am raising two daughters of my own – one of which already self-identifies as a feminist – both of which I often coach on dealing with patriarchy directly. I fully support women's rights and follow the their lead in all things having to do with improving their lot in all cultures. I certainly hold no ill-will against women, nor do I hate vaginas generally speaking. So then why did I use the word? What was my reasoning? In retrospect I think it was quite simply an absence of reasoning. I chose that word for its vulgarity and impact without the sensitivity to historical-cultural context I would normally want to cultivate and advocate. In short, i wasn’t thinking. I was purposely being aggressive and offensive (an “asshat” as my intended target so astutely observed).

Now all this leads me to reflect on two things: 1) like any other human on this planet I am capable of stupid behavior and expressions socially gleaned, and 2) just how much words are artifacts that can and do get used in ways not originally intended for via misappropriated denotation. Words and concepts get deployed and redeployed in various ways and for various purposes creating alternative contexts of utterance and reference. There are no stable assoications. Hence the type of ‘random mutation’ we witness with all languages. Mutant sentences as speech-acts and sequential strings of words and associative meanings can and do arise. Pace Derrida.

When I called the person a "cunt" my intention was to point out this person’s (self-admitted) tendency towards rudeness, pettiness and condescension, completely unrelated to its association with the female body. This much should have been obvious as the person  in question is male. By choosing such a vulgar and alarming word I meant to covey an intense distaste for the manner in which this person tends to communicate. Regardless, using that word in such a manner failed to deliver any intention I may have had. What I meant was not what I said.

So my question is this: if my intention was not to attack any particular female (or females in general), but to simply signify strongly my aversion, should such intentions excuse or at least explain this unfortunate choice of words? Or is my word choice so inappropriate and culturally toxic that intention matters little? Let me know what YOU think dear readers...

My original statement is included below.


arranjames said...

Words, like concepts, are instruments. They do things. Some of the things they do are in line with our intentions and some are not. A word like "cunt", in the original context, has a clear intention: to offend. The question seems rhetorical more than anything, given that a person is unlikely to reply "oh because..." or "i'm not. what i am is...". So it was a rhetorical use of a word intended to cause offence; and it did. We inherit that word in two ways. Firstly, as an insult. Only secondly do we learn that it is misogynistic.

But on that, there is another question. Was it misogynistic? Misogyny speaks of a hatred of women as a kind of existential orientation. This being hates women. The use of the word in question doesn't imply that the user hates women. It implies that they used a word in order to cause offence that can also offend beyond the target. At best, using that word ca be considered sexist.

How does this relate to the idea above? Simply, because if we extend the meaning of misogyny to the use of words then we're in a position where women who use the word as an insult would also be misogynists- self-hating and sex-hating and therefore absolute victims of patriarchy. It would be the existential condition of such women that they hated women.

Sexism, on the other hand, can be thought of as either purposeful attack on women/using women or as a residue, even in people who consider themselves radical, of living in a society saturated with patriarchal values and mores. In this latter way, it reveals that consciousness and intentionality don't just jump out of the conditions of its production. If anything, this just highlights that one can't simply consciousness-raise themselves out of patriarchal society.

All that said, I'm British and hear that word so often that any offensive gloss it might have is pretty much evaporated to my ears :-)

Anonymous said...


noir said...

If you use such expressions in your everyday life, why would you not use them on the net? Do we separate our speech patterns in real life and the net? Yes, the term is sexist, but it has only become a derogatory term since the age of feminism. So, yes, that would be a factor to take in for the self-regulation of one's behavior, etc.

Yet, that is one of my own pet peeves: not that feminism isn't right, but that we have become so controlled by political correctness that we are suddenly giving into the fascism of a policing of our behavior both external and internal.

Anyone that accuses you of sexism is bringing down the old forms of Shame and Guilt Culture on your head. I guess I'm a rebel at heart, and even rebel against such politically correct social behavior. Does that make me a bad person? Well, since I'm outside the law I'll leave that to the language police, thank you.

But all joking aside, if you feel that it was wrong, it is wrong for you, and it is up to you to correct it. Otherwise don't beat yourself over the head about other people's judgments concerning these loaded terms. Once we begin policing ourselves for every little vulgarity, we've entered the land of doom: the fascism of the mind that will lead to Big Brother watching everything we say or do... I rebel against such bullshit, so will use cuss words when and where I please, thank you!

blkrn said...

I'm not so crafty with the elite-speak bandied about sometimes, but here are some responses:

@Michael: good post. I like that you asked questions around a mistake without being defensive-aggressive. Word choice was toxic, intention doesn't negate that choice, BUT I feel like the manner in which you own and handle that mistake demonstrates an interest in challenging domination rather than shrugging and reproducing it, and to me at least that is important.

@arranjames: Perhaps your inheritance of the word 'cunt' primarily as an insult and only secondarily as a misogynistic reference to female anatomy relates to your gender identity and position within patriarchal social constructs. Not sure of who you are though. I only mean to suggest that someone with a vagina might reorder that inheritance, thereby shifting its significances as a misogynist term and/or insult.

Also patriarchy absolutely does assemble female identity that hates women. Plenty of women have been raised to abhor femininity, and therefore those people women or not who enact it, as unavoidably weak and submissive. I interpreted your bringing up the point that women using misogynistic language would themselves be enacting misogyny to mean you were raising it as proof that the term is not misogynist, and I disagree. After all, domination teaches the dominated to be self-loathing.

@noir: I find there to be a critical disconnect in something you're saying.

I assume you can agree with the basic principles of at least some feminisms (this based upon parsing out the comment "not that feminism isn't right..."). I think its fairly obvious that dominant power isn't solely developed in top-down hierarchical governance-type situations; it finds its essential reproduction in social relations, in the daily interactions between people as typically dictated by cultural norms. I think there is an important element of linguistic practice in the reinscription or alteration of social relations and norms. Or in other words, the depth of your investigation into your own patriarchal (or colonial, capitalist, white supremacist, etc.) socialization is reflected in the manner in which you speak.

Take a similar example: I can claim to be against homophobia all day, but if I use the word "faggot" with the intent to offend, I'm creating an environment around myself which is imbued with homophobic norms, and which threatens non-hetero identities.

The "rebel at heart" bit is funny, sort of summoning some roughneck cowboy airs, here on the wild frontier of the internet. But seriously, if you're such a rebel that you rebel against people's struggle for liberation, then you're no better than Belinksy, using radical rhetoric to arrive at conservatism. Or if not that, then perhaps just a lazy privileged person wielding that privilege offhandedly.

There are so many wonderful and specific ways in which to insult a person with intent and without utilizing the power we claim to oppose. Lets not be lazy about it.

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