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Posted by on Apr 5, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 22 comments

Things look different: aftermath to the c-word post.

Things look different from where you’re standing, or more to the point depending on your personal experiences (perhaps as these have interacted with your natural inclinations, etc.). So far, that’s pretty obvious, but it ought to give us pause when we rush to make adverse judgments about other people based on slim evidence… and especially if we (foolishly) expect those people to accept adverse judgments that we make about them.

I’m reminded of this as I re-read the thread under a post I made the other day about the controversial word “cunt”. I explained in some detail why (with certain qualifications) dislike the word, which meant digging back into some of my personal experience of it. But I pointed out that other people will have had different experiences of it – sometimes more benign, but sometimes even less so – and I tried to encourage open discussion in an atmosphere where we’d listen to each other without the dogpiling, vilification, etc., that are so common in the blogosphere.

A couple of people wanted to bring in wider issues relating to Elevatorgate and its aftermath, but didn’t press their points when I said that was not welcome (I still consider this blog pretty much an Elevatorgate-free zone, although a day may yet come when I’m confident that we can discuss the issue without some horrendous flame war breaking out here or elsewhere; today is still not that day).

Generally speaking, I was rewarded with thoughtful, sometimes very detailed replies. This is what I like about my readers. You are not here to rant, rave, and lash out, but to offer perspectives and listen to each other’s. That leads to good conversations, even if no one’s minds are radically changed. You can benefit from a discussion without your mind being radically changed – you might still find your understanding is deeper and more complex, perhaps more tolerant of others who are coming at the topic from a different background or with different (but legitimate) priorities.

I especially want to point out the comment by An Ardent Skeptic, which partly defended the use of “cunt” as an insult. It’s fairly obvious that she sees the word as applying to obnoxious behaviour (whereas in my experience it was often applied to someone who was simply hated for being different – e.g. imputed to be gay). I’m okay with that: presumably it matches her life experience, and it’s in her bones that the word is used in a certain way, while it’s in my bones that it’s used rather differently, even though we both know at an intellectual level that its use varies quite widely among various cultures and social milieux. The thread confirmed the latter point as various people talked about their own experiences of the word (in some cases quite similar to mine, but in others very different from mine).

An Ardent Skeptic wants to have a truly intense word of denunciation, particularly a word that she can apply to somebody who has treated her in a horribly callous, even cruel way. I can understand that, even if I’m suspicious of words that express such intensely negative emotions about people. It would be downright presumptuous of me to tell her how to feel about someone very close to her who has treated her viciously, or to tell her what word she should apply to them.

None of that is to say that I am going to start welcoming the word here, let alone that I am going to develop a liking for it. My own experience still stands, as does my argument about why the word is connected (at least in many places and milieux) with an element of callousness, posturing, misogyny, etc. Furthermore, it is just one extreme example of words that I don’t welcome. I’m not going to lay down any inflexible rule, but insulting words and phrases in general are usually not welcome at the Hellfire Club (as some examples, I don’t welcome “bitch”, “slut”, “liar”, “chill girl”, “scum”, “idiot”… but you get the point).

Nor do I welcome flimsy or contrived accusations of misbehaviour. We’ll have plenty of clear-cut examples of bad behaviour to talk about, and when we do so there are plenty of more precise words to use than “cunt” (or others that do little more than express anger or dislike).

But I’m not going to think badly of An Ardent Skeptic merely because she uses some word that I don’t like in some other forum with less insistence on civility. I’d want to know a lot more before I made an adverse judgment. Of course, some other forum might, if you actually go and look at it, be devoted to male posturing, to callous attitudes toward women, to callous attitudes in general, or whatever. Even broad-mindedness has its limits. There are clear-cut evils in the world, and by all means let’s identify them, denounce them, and do what we can to resist them. But the situation is often murkier or more complex, and things can look very different depending on the experience of the individual. Let’s use our intellects and imaginations sufficiently to maintain an awareness of that.

  • It seems like there an many words out there that have the effect of ending communication, whether that is the intent of the person using them or not. When someone calls me “cunt,” “misogynist,” “rape apologist,” or a similar term, this typically marks the end of my efforts to communicate with them. After all, they’ve just signaled that they are not really interested in any sort of calm, rational communication. I suppose I could get upset in response to these words, but I usually just take them as my cue to move on. But like you said, they mean different things to others based on their life experience.

  • keddaw

    I’d much rather ideas were socially taboo rather than words. I feel we, in the UK, have mostly robbed the word “fuck” of it’s shock value and is now routinely used in many social situations (and even many work ones). It may not be the most appropriate word to use in many situations but any fall out from using it lands squarely on the user not the recipient. I feel other words could do with similar rehabilitation.

    PS. As regards personal experience of “the c-word”, many times I have heard people (mainly men) being called “a good cunt” as a genuine term of affection. Or a “stupid cunt” with as much hatred as calling someone a “silly sausage”. That’s me, ymmv.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yup – and some readers might recall that I discussed that latter usage, or a similar one, on the earlier thread. I don’t doubt that it exists, though I’ve never personally encountered it in real life (as opposed to books, the internet, etc.). However, that’s just my experience. As so often, yes indeed ymmv

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I agree with you, Vjack.

    Part of the reason I feel there is usefulness in such an ugly word is because it’s a conversation stopper. When I have said things like “My mother is a nasty witch.” or “She’s vile!”. The response is usually, “Why do you say that?” And, unless I discuss the worst and most painful experiences I and my siblings had to endure, I hear, “But she’s still your mother. You need to forgive her.”, (always said in that ‘shame on you’ tone of voice) I’m not in the habit of forgiving people who have absolutely no remorse for their abhorrent behavior.

    I haven’t even been able to prevent the conversation by saying, “Sorry, but I would rather not talk about her.” (which is what I always say first). The response to that is “Why is that?” If I say, “Because it’s painful and unpleasant.” They say, “But why?” So I say, “Trust me. You don’t want to know.” Then I hear, “Yes, I do!” To which I reply, “No you don’t. And I REALLY do NOT want to talk about it.” They respond with “I do want to know or I wouldn’t have asked. Why won’t you talk to me about it?” After a few more go rounds of this nonsense, I lose all patience and say something in anger I immediately regret. Of course, I apologize, but they insist on hearing about my mother so they can understand why I’ve gotten so upset. I feel obliged to tell them in order to mend fences. And, when I’m done explaining, they usually say something like, “I’m sorry I asked. That was painful to hear.” People really need to stop bullying others into conversations they don’t want to have.

    If I say, “She’s a cunt!” The response I get is usually something like, “WOW! Got it. Let’s not go there!” I have never had anyone wish to continue the conversation. Most people are just as uncomfortable hearing about painful experiences as I am talking about them. But if their reason for bringing the conversation to a halt is because they have made a negative judgement about me, then I’m doubly glad that I have not had to discuss it. It’s these types of people who have said things to me like “You must have asked for it.”, or “You should have done XYZ so it’s your own fault.” (I wouldn’t have mentioned my experience in a comment on the internet except that my name isn’t Ardent Skeptic and, in order to explain my thinking about the ‘c” word, I thought I should state what it takes for me to be willing to use that word without any regret for having done so.)

    It is a very ugly word. The ‘k’ like ‘kapow’ or ‘kaboom’ even gives it a harsh sound when spoken. And, like you and Russell, I don’t think its use is appropriate in civil debate precisely because of the very negative experiences associated with that word for many people. Those negative experiences are why it can work as a conversation stopper.

  • EllenBeth Wachs

    “It is a very ugly word. The ‘k’ like ‘kapow’ or ‘kaboom’ even gives it a
    harsh sound when spoken. And, like you and Russell, I don’t think its
    use is appropriate in civil debate precisely because of the very
    negative experiences associated with that word for many people. Those
    negative experiences are why it can work as a conversation stopper.”

    Yes, precisely. It has worked as a conversation stopper. I have very negative feelings about the word. I loathe it. BUT, confession (gasp) I have also used it in the same manner it seems as Ardent Skeptic. I have done so rarely in my life and it was reserved for those times where I simply could not find any other word that would adequately express the absolute disgust I was feeling. I also did not feel good about using it towards the person.

    Have I asked others to not use it? Yes. Does that make me a hypocrite? Probably. Can I defend that hypocrisy? Well, I will say this, I think many words get tossed around too easily and lose their impact. That is, until we hear a five-year old blurt out “fuck you” That has impact.

  • GeorgeLocke

    Supposing you thought a person was exhibiting mysoginistic or rape apoligist behavior, how would you communicate this to them? “Cunt” doesn’t mean much besides “fuck you”, whereas the the two other terms you put in your list have meaningful content (in addition to condemnation).

  • RussellBlackford

    ^Which makes it so much worse to use them when they are not true. I dislike the word “cunt”, as I’ve said in both posts. But at the end of the day if someone calls me that online it does me no real harm. In some circumstances, it might be less harmless in the real world, as it can be a precursor to violence, and I might have to be thinking about how to get away from this potentially violent person or even whether I could, as a last resort, defend myself in a physical scuffle if attacked. The word can be that viscerally powerful if, like me, you’ve experienced it in physically violent or menacing situations in the past… but online it does not necessarily convey much more than the fact that someone strongly dislikes me.

    By contrast, if someone calls me a misogynist or a rape apologist online, especially in a place with a large readership, that is quite devastating to my good reputation. And that is precisely because these expressions do have specific substantive content.

    The fact is that those sorts of damaging claims are often made with breathtaking irresponsibility. Commenters here will certainly not be allowed to say those things about each other, or about third parties who are unlikely to be misogynists or rape apologists. It is not only irresponsible and uncharitable – it’s downright defamatory.

  • It is precisely knowing that there is this type of moderation that makes it comfortable for me. I’m a big proponent of free speech but don’t appreciate being abused nor will I stay where the blogger allows me to be defamed.

    I think the louder someone screams “tone trolling” the more likely it is you”ll see abusive language in their comments.

  • Thanny

    You’ve chosen two terms which are entirely about labelling a person, not about discussing particular views or behaviors.

    Unless the person called a “rape apologist” is advocating for the legality of rape, the term is nothing more than a vicious slur.

    A misogynist hates women. Disagreeing with or even hating a particular woman is not misogyny. Saying otherwise is, again, mere calumny.

    So if you’ve decided to go that route, be honest – use unambiguous insults and move on. The route you seem to be advocating is instead the reduction of civil conversation into pretense, where the real goal is hurling invective and slander, without using “bad words”.

    We can do better than that.

  • RussellBlackford

    I think it’s fair to observe that the word “misogyny” can be used, I think legitimately, for certain attitudes to women that fall short of actual hatred – some kind of callous attitude or deep prejudice, perhaps.

    But I agree it would have to be something pretty strong to justify the use of such a strong word, at least without qualification and explanation. I think it’s best to be very reluctant about applying the word to individuals, as opposed to cultures, sub-cultures, doctrines, and so on. If you want to say something more specific like that someone is too impatient with certain concerns or anxieties that women feel – well, that’s what you should say. The English language is very rich – we can make all sorts of fine distinctions and say all sorts of precise, thoughtful things. We don’t have to use it to lash out at each other.

  • “I think many words get tossed around too easily and lose their impact.”

    Very true.

  • GeorgeLocke

    I think I mostly agree with this. I think labelling people as misogynists or rape apologists is best reserved for extreme cases. I think it’s generally much more productive to point out specific acts as misogynistic/racist/what have you than label the person. Whether someone “is a rape apologist” is considerably harder to determine than whether something that person said is a rape apology.

    The problem is that otherwise good people make mistakes or have errors in judgment such as adopting rape apologist attitudes in some cases. We can’t just remain silent when this happens, and I don’t think it’s sensible to suggest that when we see a rape apology we need to avoid using the term that characterizes the situation best. Of course it’s a charged accusation, but that’s the point; indeed that’s why the phrase was invented. Rape apology is awful and it needs to stop.

    My general feeling is that everyone is a sexist/racist/ablist/poopyhead (myself included) even though nearly all of us (certainly those who are willing to discuss such issues) are actively trying not to be. We need outside eyes to show us when we’re slipping up. It’s not pleasant, but that’s progress.

    We’re all biased and we should get used to having it pointed out. (Also, America could use universal health-care, and I deserve some free candy.) Telling a liberal she said something sexist is a bit like telling a religious person that there’s no God. You’re undermining their core identity, and people react defensively to that, often getting rude and belligerent. In an ideal world, progressives would accept such criticisms with the pride that they are willing to entertain their own biases as a skeptic may be proud to reconsider his opinions on other issues.

  • Charles Sullivan

    I used to teach a fiction writing class at a college some years ago (in the States). One of my lectures was about writing in dialect, and I used an excerpt from Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” to highlight how some narration written in dialect can be hard to grasp (at least for those who aren’t familiar with the dialect). The excerpt I chose was also peppered with the c-word, but in that unoffensive manner. I certainly felt an obligation to explain to my American students that the c-word does not (always) have the same negative force in Scotland as it does in the US.

  • RussellBlackford

    Even if we do all have some subconscious racism and sexism, I think that many of the arguments for it in particular cases are contrived and/or uncharitable. In those circumstances, making those charges is highly irresponsible, because of course they are hurtful and damaging to reputations. I think it’s a good thing to respond forcefully to resist a culture in which this kind of “calling out” of other people is encouraged. We should not have to live under others’ microscopes in this way.

    For some of us, this is one of the most unpleasant aspects of religion, so when we see it starting to happen in the secular movement we are angry. And frankly, I think this is a case where anger is justified.

    This leaves aside that the kind of unconscious sexism that people (both men and women) might have is unlikely to take the form of the kind of deep-seated and serious prejudice, callousness, or hatred that is conjured up by a word like “misogyny”; and it is unlikely to take the specific form of apologetics in favour of rape. I expect that you will almost never find a situation where what you are seeing from people in the secular movement is most accurately described as “misogyny” or “rape apologetics”. So you are at extreme risk of making highly hurtful and harmful statements – statements that produce justifiable anger – if you go around using those expressions. If you currently do that, I hope you’ll stop.

    If we really do want to discuss what we might see as a reflection of someone else’s unconscious sexism (or racism), despite how arrogant this will appear, I think we ought to do so with very great care – this might include going to some lengths to offer alternative, more charitable explanations, etc., and trying to be precise (e.g. accusing someone of not using their imaginations, and so being overly impatient with a certain concern, if that is what they have really done wrong when you think about it, rather than accusing them of, say, misogynist thinking). The tone should not be one of “calling out” individuals for secular sin of some kind.

    For some of us, including me, this is a deal-breaker. We did not sign up for a movement with a call-out culture. Quite the opposite – we signed up to fight for a society without the old religious concepts of scrutinising people for falling short and sliding into “sin”. There are plenty of clear-cut evils to identify, of course, but we want a society where individuals of good will are not subjected to creeping social surveillance and minute moral assessment.

    Now if you were merely enjoining us, as individuals, to be constantly scrutinising ourselves rather than pointing the finger at others for various bad tendencies (whether sexism, racism, or just plain tendencies to be illiberal), I’d go along with you. Those tendencies are worth watching out for. You could even warn about them by using examples where you believe you have stuffed up. But it’s better to stick with pretty clear-cut examples if you’re going to “call out” (I really hate that expression) others. And of course, there are plenty of clear-cut examples to “call out” Out There in the larger world.

  • Yes, even sticking particular statements with those labels can be problematic, if we aren’t at least a bit careful about how we use them. As with any other crime (including murder, terrorist conspiracies, or whatever) rape gives rise to legitimate disagreements around the margins, both re the crime’s essential elements, and re the procedural rules relating to its prosecution. Reasonable, principled people can, for example, disagree about the level of intoxication or misrepresentation that that invalidates consent to sex, or about the circumstances in which, and the extent to which, evidence of the complainant’s sexual history can be admissible. There are strong interests and arguments on various sides here, but the conversation is rarely elevated when either side begins to rely on labels rather than reasons. There most assuredly are ‘rape apologists’ (an odd term, actually, as they are really seeking to excuse or blame-shift rather than apologise), but not every expression of scepticism about a particular incident or suggested law change merits that tag.

    Another good example would be the recent debate on here (and continued on my Centre’s blog) about prenatal screening. Terms like ‘eugenics’ can serve to inflame passions and polarise opinions without really telling us anything much about the rights and wrongs of what’s under discussion. In extreme situations, they can be used to shut down debate altogether. That’s not to say that we should pack such terms away and never use them, just that we might want to think about what they actually contribute in a particular context.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Perhaps appropriate: A quote from the recently deceased American film critic Roger Ebert:

    –I had no idea the word “midget” was considered offensive, and you are
    the only person who has ever written to me about it. In my mind it is a
    descriptive term, like “dwarf.” “Little People” has seemed to me to have
    a vaguely condescending cuteness to it. If I am now informed that
    “midget” is offensive, I will no longer use it. What is your feeling
    about “dwarf?” Is “Little Person” always the preferred term? Our
    newspaper’s style book, based on Associated Press, does not consider
    “midget” or “dwarf” to be offensive terms, but perhaps we have not
    caught up.–

  • GeorgeLocke

    These are good points and well taken.

  • GeorgeLocke

    Thanks for this full reply. I fear that continuing this discussion in total generality is becoming strained, but I don’t wish to beat any dead horses either.

    Of course it’s possible to use these terms inappropriately, and, tautologically, nobody should. The question is what is appropriate and what isn’t. Vjack seemed to be saying that “misogynist” and “rape apologist” were always used inappropriately when applied to him. This discussion touches on question of whether, when atheoskeptics talk to each other, we tend to use these terms rather too freely. This specific context is quite fraught, and it colors

    I’m trying to wrap my head around what you mean by “call out culture”. Clearly, you don’t mean that if I see you making a mistake, I should keep quiet. If I understand you, you’re saying I have to be conscious of the effects of my words both in communication (whether my words are likely to be heard as intended) or, your emphasis, on the general environment of communication (how my words control the dialogue, e.g. silencing, angering, shaming) or behavior more generally. A “call out culture”, to put it hyperbolically, is one where everyone is too scared to say anything lest a deluge of opprobrium fall on him for the slightest error, or, worse, lapse of conformity.

    The sticky wicket with me is that this issue, how our words control dialogue and behavior, is exactly the problem with misogynistic and rape apologist statements. Misogynistic language has the effect of belittling women and disempowering them, forcing them out of the public square or into subservient positions there. (We see the former quite literally when bloggers quit their blogs after harassment.)

    So it is self-defeating to worry about whether we’re harming another’s reputation or silencing her by accusing her of “rape apology” if we don’t also consider the effects of the putative rape apology.

    I suppose, in the end, what you’re saying, Russell, is more or less the same thing: it is self defeating to worry about making a safe space for women if we fail to consider that accusing people of making sexist remarks at the drop of a hat makes the space unsafe for everyone.

    What remain, afaict, are questions of how “clear-cut” or “minute” particular putative moral infractions are. These are questions of degree not to be answered in generality.

    I just hope it’s clear to everyone that “moral assessment” is not a merely academic or rhetorical exercise but a question of real harm to real people. It is entirely appropriate for anyone to consider whether his or her own actions are moral just as it is appropriate to consider the actions of others. If I consider that a remark you made has harmful effects you may not be aware of, it is up to me to communicate that effectively, or not if it’s a minor issue.

  • GeorgeLocke

    An aside as to unconscious bias, the exposure of unconscious bias is a central project for skeptics, so I find your suggestion of arrogance quite out of place. It’s not arrogant to suggest that a person may not have considered all the implications or motivations behind a particular statement or judgment unless I’m unwilling to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong. It’s arrogant for me to suppose that I have perfect awareness; it is not arrogant for me to suppose that you don’t have it.

  • RussellBlackford

    Well, we disagree on the arrogance thing. It’s true that we all have motivations that are not transparent to us. But we are all complex individuals, and we all have complex motivations that actually are somewhat transparent to us, but not to others – and we’re not under an obligation to try to explain them all. If someone claims to know my motivations better than I know them myself, that is going to look presumptuous. On occasion, such a person may be right, but if this person insists in a particular case, perhaps even while knowing that the accusation is hurtful, and perhaps even making the accusation in public in a way that will hold me up to shaming, damage my reputation, etc., then, yes, that will appear to be arrogant to most people.

  • RussellBlackford

    Well, you have a lot of options. You can keep it to yourself. You can have a private word with the person (and this sub-divides into options that range from asking them a question about what they meant, through to giving them a heads-up that some wording probably came out wrong, to saying something quite strong about how you think they stuffed up). You can say something in public that does not escalate and that tries to be charitable and/or precise, rather than accusing someone of something that is only distantly in the ballpark or not likely to be in the ballpark at all. Or you can go nuclear by escalating to a prominent site (perhaps with a bigger audience than the one the person had in the first place) where you denounce the person,or his/her “sin”, and perhaps encourage others to pile on (which some will probably do in terms that are more offensive and damaging than the ones you used yourself).

    As you say, how you make these judgments will depend on many things – how clear-cut was the infraction, was it really what you initially think it was or perhaps something less (or even much less) serious, do you need to put some sort of contrived argument if forced to explain why it was an infraction at all (if so, this should set off alarm bells), what is gained in the particular case by your own specific contribution (are you just piling on? is the main aim merely showing to others that you are on the “right” side of a dispute, which should also ring alarm bells)? And so on.

    As I said, there will be clear-cut cases. But often the alleged infractions are very dubious or, even if they happened when you squint at them, quite minor in the scheme of things. So by all means denounce the pope or the Catholic Church for some misogynist pronouncement. By all means denounce John Norman’s Gor books for what looks awfully like rape apologetics. By all means denounce the imam who famously likened women who wear sexy clothes to meat that is being offered to cats (i.e. men). There are plenty of real and clear cases to denounce.

    But by a call-out culture I have in mind a culture where people are scrutinising each other’s behaviour for even minor or dubious infractions, and holding each other up for public shaming (“calling them out”). Within such a culture, we have an atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and fear. Unfortunately, we’re a long way down the road toward such a culture, and I, for one, will continue to resist it. At the end of the day, I will simply not participate in a culture like that if I have the choice, but I’d rather do my bit to prevent the secular movement going further in that direction than to walk away from it. The secular movement is sufficiently important to me that I want to participate in it and give it my support, but not if it takes on many of the obnoxious cultural trappings of religion and authoritarianism.

    Edit: and just to be absolutely clear, none of this is meant to oppose criticisms of people’s ideas and arguments. It’s when people are held up for shaming for some kind of bad character or shameful conduct or something of the kind that it starts to become a call-out culture. By all means, let’s have civil, charitable debate about ideas.

  • GeorgeLocke

    I agree that claiming superior knowledge of another’s motivations is arrogant, and I retract/repudiate anything I said to the contrary. Bias can prevent me from seeing how some of my views (e.g. rape is bad) are inconsistent with others (e.g. she wasn’t a perfect victim). Regardless of whether you suspect bias, there’s no arrogance in you pointing such an inconsistency.

    If you also tell me I’m biased, that’s not a judgment of my ideas but of my character.