toward a more enlightened vitriol

Yglesias links to a Feministing post about a GOP consultantdefense of the word “bitch”, then discusses the difficulty of untangling the high-minded, purely pejorative nature of the insult from its sexist connotations.

As it happens I found myself thinking about this just the other day when, while biking, a driver cut me off. I immediately thought some unkind things, then found myself tentatively rephrasing them when I saw the driver was a woman, then found myself backing off from the effort entirely when the most obvious alternate reformulation struck me as inherently sexist.

To be clear, I think that justifying the application of the word “bitch” to Hillary Clinton, as the consultant in question is trying to do, is pretty obviously sexist — Senator Clinton seems just as amiable as the next politician, and I doubt she’s ever done anything to this specific guy other than disappoint him by not having murdered Vince Foster. But in the abstract I wonder if the use of sex-specific insults is any more inherently problematic than the use of sex-specific pronouns. Obviously any such epithets will inevitably become tangled up with indefensible opinions and prejudices related to the gender with which they’ve been associated; but equally obviously, a truly egalitarian society will make it equally easy to spew venom at someone, regardless of their sex.

And, given that people will continue to get upset with one another, it seems like we’re probably stuck with gendered swearwords: perhaps my capacity for creative profanity just isn’t up to the task, but it seems like androgynous put-downs are inevitably stilted or lame. Whether that’s because they aren’t in common usage or because harsh words lose some impact when divorced from visceral, unspeakably ugly hatreds like racism and sexism, I couldn’t say. Ideally it’d be the former — and on this score, the decreasing (but still significant) ridiculousness of the word “frak” is encouraging.

But I suspect that all the best insults — the single words that actually sting — will remain connected to sexist conceptions of gender roles. But we can all at least aspire to liberally apply these horrible oaths more evenly across gender lines. That’s the future I’d want to live in, anyway. Call me a utopian dreamer if you must, but the next time I’m endangered by a driver I’ll call them an asshole loudly, proudly, and without consideration of their sex. To do any less would betray a lack of respect for a fellow human being.

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