Monday, March 26, 2012

Ugly Words, Ugly People

I know I've banged a gong about this, but it's a pet hate of mine, considering I live in the UK, where foul language is an everyday occurrence, from patrician to politician to pleb. A day doesn't go by with the ubiquitous "fuck" isn't heard, on the average of at least once an hour.

The British have long been known for their bad teeth and bad language, and since I've been here, in the past thirty years, it's gone from bad to worse. It wasn't until some fifteen years ago, when I started working in a situation whereby I was the only female in an office of males, that I realised how much and how fond of the word "cunt," the British are.

Yes, they know what it means, but they know how to use it in the most pejorative way. It's the ultimate insult to level at a man, and there's no hesitation to use it in reference to a woman, sometimes directly.

The word was used pretty liberally in my current office, where I've worked for about six years - again, as the only woman amongst three men. It didn't help matters much that the managing director and owner of the business regularly peppered his language with the word, itself. But, credit where credit was due, the c-word was dropped by him, the moment I started working on the premises. Occasionally, however, it would slip out, used mostly by the Polish translator, as a means of linguistic follow-the-leader the moment conversation turned to soccer or Formula One racing or something they reckoned I absolutely had no capacity for fathoming.

But a year ago, the use of this pejorative reached fever pitch and has increased since then, with the arrival of a 21 year-old kid, who's every other word issuing from his mouth is some of the vilest of swear words, his favourite being "cunt."

The kid isn't some dumbass, he was a grammar school boy, educated to further his studies at university, but - coming from Dover (Google it) - he reckoned university couldn't teach him anything he didn't already know, so he turned down the place he was offered. Besides, going to university might mean leaving Dover and being educated with gay people or even black people, because he's got a problem with those demographics also.

But, mostly, he's got a problem with women ... or as he puts it, "cunts."

Last Friday, he wondered why one of the two women working in our Dutch office, put the phone down on him, when, in the course of the conversation, he called her a "thick Dutch cunt." He was trying to bully her into doing something her office hadn't the capacity to do, and, taking his cues from a staff member who'd worked for the company longer and had personality issues with the woman, himself, the kid did the ultimate dirty deed, and was arrogant enough to wonder why the woman wouldn't co-operate.

Who was she anyway? She was never helpful (well, who would be helpful to someone who'd called you a "cunt?") And besides, she never worked Saturdays the way he did, so by that token, she was not only a "thick Dutch cunt," but a lazy one as well. Ne'mind, that the woman in question was a single mum, who was capable of speaking three languages, in addition to her own native tongue, and who was raising two children on her own, after her husband had committed suicide a few years ago. Pointing that out to this little toerag only elicited the observation that if he'd had to live with this woman, he'd top himself as well.

Today, there was another such remark, this time to one of the other fellows in the office, about a woman who works for a major client. The woman, a middle manager, wanted something special done, which prompted the remark that "So-and-So was being a cunt again."

This is the same wise soul whose language is also littered with the n-word when speaking about Afro-Carribbean people.

What is the purpose of calling a woman - or, indeed, any person, a "cunt?" If I were to question any of these men about their obvious issues with women, they would all vehemently deny then. Indeed, when I registered that I was offended by the word, I was the one with the problem.

As the blogger Raven wrote:-

A woman is almost certain to be called a cunt by a someone who is obsessively interested in demeaning her image. Bitch vaguely illustrates power plays between men and women in the office. Being called a cunt almost always offends, whereas being called a bitch just might be a compliment. People think cunt and bitch as obviously offensive and always denote hostility.

There you go, a power play. Andrea Grimes, way ahead of the game when it comes to the c-word's prime perpetrator, Bill Maher, better describes what's at play, psychologically, behind men who regularly speak this way, using Maher's repeated use of the word when referencing Sarah Palin. Maher says he uses "cunt" to describe Sarah Palin, simply because there are no other words for her. Grimes begs to differ:-

Actually, there are some other words for her. Liar. Jerk. Willfully ignorant hypocrite. Self-righteous mouthpiece. Wholly unqualified former occupant of an important political office. Narcissist. Of course, those words all have to do with Palin’s thoughts and actions, and not with her anatomy, so that is a problem if the main idea you’re trying to get across is that you’re a man, and therefore important, and she’s a woman, and therefore, well, a cunt.

If you’re a privileged white dude who wants to exert figurative power over a female without doing any intellectual heavy lifting and relying entirely on sadly timeless narratives about gendered behavior, violence and assault, I guess, there really is no other word for Palin than “cunt.” Because what the word “cunt” does is remind the audience that mostly, Palin is female, and that mostly, Maher is the powerful kind of man who can put her in her place with a single word. Cunt. (I’m talking specifically about American use, here–I believe the word works somewhat differently in British English.)

Actually, the word is no different in British English. It means the same thing, and men who use it, including the snotty-nosed, pasty-faced, ginger-haired, little creep who chose to use it maliciously against two older, better-educated and vastly more experienced women, chose to use it for the same reason Maher used it against Palin. It was the eternal power of the man over the woman. At the end of the day, he's still the hunter-gatherer, even if he's still wet behind the ears, and the object of his scorn is trying to eke out a living and bring children up in a world which proved too much for their own father. He was reminding her that, at the end of the day, he was the male, sitting in the head office of the company, and she was just a lackey, a weak and difficult woman, a "cunt."

Cunt is a gendered insult. Perhaps that’s obvious. Perhaps it’s less obvious that when an angry, American white male comedian chooses that word, he’s not a joker hilariously cracking on the politician Sarah Palin. He’s a man of power and privilege–performing for an audience of hundreds in the city’s newest, most beautiful performance space–calling on an ages-old story that reinforces his status and denigrates hers, not because she’s a crappy politician, but because she is female. When privileged white men call women cunts–especially when they play it off as easily as “there’s just no other word for her”–the audience hears this: those women may think they’ve got power, but with one word, I can remind them of generations, of hundreds of years, of violence perpetrated against women by men.

In a man like Bill Maher’s mouth, “cunt” isn’t a joke. It’s not even an insult. It’s a threat. I believe most Americans know that on some level, and I believe that’s why we don’t use the word casually. It’s why we default to the still threatening, but less-so, “bitch,” when we think the situation calls for it. But Bill Maher knows about language, and he knows “bitch” doesn’t quite get at what he wanted to say. It’s just not quite violent enough.

Think about the bold bit, about the violence behind the word and the history of violence against women in the Western world and that which still exists today in other parts of the developing world. Now think about the threat bit. And consider this anecdote.

About ten years ago, I worked in a smaller company, again, the only female amongst men. One of the men working there and I developed a rapport. His oldest child was a budding soccer player, and he told me an anecdote about a game in which his son had played. The referee spoke to both teams before the game, and told them that he was used to abuse coming from players. That was part of the game, but he wouldn't tolerate one word, and anyone using that word, would be issued a red care.

The offending word was "cunt."

I guess the British must be some Class A dumb dudes, for all they like to bang on about their moral and intellectual superiority, especially when the listener is American. But, like Andrea Grimes, I have to believe their problem is this: that if they're genuinely not offended by the "cunt" word and have no qualms about using that word in connotation to a woman, then they must surely not understand what the word means.

And maybe that's their ultimate problem with women.

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