The newest “atheist gender clusterfuffle” (a phrase I’m finding myself using with saddening regularity) has at least turned up one point of fun: Jen McCreight’s “Cunto” game.
If you were lucky enough to miss this one, it involved people using the word “cunt” to describe other people in an unfriendly manner, and other people being offended by this, and a slew of excuses being proffered as to why it’s not something anyone should get offended over. Jen’s Bingo-style game brings a bunch of those responses together onto one handy scorecard.
And I’m feeling obliged to attempt another opinion. Because, while part of me wants to defend any enjoyable use of creative profanity, many of the people doing the swearing are just terrible.
The thing about most of these discussions is that they don’t even really need to be about gender. They certainly don’t need to be about feminism facing off against the patriarchy. It’s not like there are really any different rules here than in any other form of human interaction. Context is key, and always err on the side of compassion.
A number of words in our language come with a great deal of historical baggage for a lot of people. That baggage varies from person to person, but when it’s shared by a significantly large number of folk, you have no excuse for not being aware of it ahead of time, considering how it might affect your audience, and choosing your words carefully as a result.
There are some instances in which I will use the word “cunt”. A discussion of the word and its impact on my own blog is one such instance. A public speech in which, for whatever reason, I don’t care if people take offensive to that particular word use, might be another. A casual conversation with any of my neighbours, whom I don’t know particularly well, is not.
My use of the n-word is even more limited. I’ve used it when discussing the word itself, or quoting somebody else who I’m deliberately portraying unsympathetically, to people who I know how they’ll react. But that’s about it. I know how it can affect some people, and I don’t want to do that to anyone.
(I really don’t think any of this is that difficult so far, is it?)
I use more minor curse words and blasphemy a lot, because it’s a natural way for me to talk, and few people seemed particularly bothered by it. If I was having a nice chat with someone new, and they asked me politely not to take the Lord’s name in vain, I’d be surprised, but I’d most likely comply. (I’d then either steer the conversation away from religion or directly into it, depending on how playful I was feeling.)
If their limitations on what they deemed acceptable language became too restrictive, I’d suggest they leave the conversation. If they were trying to stifle me more generally or publicly, I’d advise them to tune out and leave me and my non-offended listeners alone. But laying off the god-swears for a while is not a request that significantly puts me out.
And you know what, “Please don’t call me a cunt” is also not something to get flag-wavingly, First-Amendment-fappingly, free-speechily defensive over. Words mean things, and they don’t always mean the same things to everyone else as they do to you.
The times I’ve called a woman a cunt in the past, they’ve been good friends of mine and I’ve been damn certain they wouldn’t take it the wrong way. (The only person I can think of who I’ve publicly called a cunt and meant it harshly is Danny Dyer, and I’m pretty sure he won’t be hurt by it because he can’t read.) But if you do offend someone with it, and they protest, it’s sort of impossible to dig your heels in and defend your right to use that word with no apology unless you’re being either deliberately malicious or immensely oblivious to the culture you live in. If you’re paying any attention, you should appreciate what it can mean.
If a lot of people tell you that they’d prefer you didn’t so casually use a certain heavily loaded word which demeans some people, and your only response is to assert your freedom by stubbornly repeating it over and over, you know what you are? You’re Dr Laura.
I apologise for my use of that offensive term, but I believe it was justified by the context.