Introduction: As we prepare for the upcoming Third Thursday discussion, we wanted to focus this week on the power and impact of language, and how language impacts not only our ability to communicate, but also frames our cultural, social, and spiritual perspectives. Rev. Robin offers this insightful discussion on the impact of language as we prepare for next week’s discussion.
Robin: In my book, and for many others as well, there is a difference, a significant difference, between being a leader and being a bully. They don’t belong in the same sentence, except to create contrast to enhance understanding. But some, like a certain presidential candidate and some of his leading male supporters, act and speak as if these two terms are interchangeable.
That’s the trouble with language. We want it to be precise, we want the dictionary to rule, but in reality context counts as does the identity and preferences of the speaker/writer.
Take, for example, “homosexual,” a word coined in 1869 and brought into more widespread usage in a book, Psychopathia Sexualis, by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886. For a long time, it was the clinical word used by people who spoke of same-sex attraction and sexual activity. But given negative attitudes among many, it nearly always contained at least some judgment on the attitudes and behaviors engaged in by persons who exemplified the term. Now, with the rise of Gay Liberation, it has become for many, certainly for those it seeks to describe (and proscribe), not a clinical term but one that signals deep disapproval of the attitudes and behaviors.
At the same time, it is National Coming Out Day as I write, and for some, “homosexual” is as far as they can get. It is still not easy claiming your sexual orientation openly—given ongoing homophobia by parts of society and especially religion. Still, LGBT folks know that when we hear someone outside the community speak of “homosexuals” it usually means they see us as perverts, at the very least as undesirables, people who should hide our affections if not our entire selves.
And then there’s “pussy,” a word that until recently, in polite usage, really only meant a cat or perhaps a fussy old lady. Now, thanks to Donald Trump and his endless need to dominate women, the slang usage meaning a woman’s vagina has been mainstreamed (the top definition in the online Urban Dictionary for “pussy” is “The box a dick comes in,” clearly from the perspective of a dominant male). In one sense, this may be good, in terms of my belief (see earlier posts on language) that “street” language should be available for publishing in all venues, especially if it conveys shades of meaning not otherwise available.
The problem is not his use of the term which offends but his celebration, indeed glorification, of sexual assault. “Dirty” language may be a problem for some people, but assault ought to be anathema to all. What he said was not “locker room talk,” but immoral and illegal, jailhouse talk. (check out this video clip from Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, especially at 6:44).
Interestingly, our culture seems to use the term “dirty words” only to refer to sexual, body, terms—certainly “pussy” fits into that category as do other words for body parts. I have never heard the term “dirty” applied to the use of the derogatory term, “nigger” or “Nigrah.” And yet that is what those who used, and use, it mean to convey, a person or class of persons who are so begrimed and dirty in their essence that they are beyond the pale of civilization. How much dirtier can you get? It is a dirty word par excellence.
And more, it is a violation, a violent word when used by white people, because it exalted, or at least excused, assault, lynching, denial of basic humanity, job loss, slavery, tearing apart families, etc. It is a term that justified sexual assault, especially of women of color by white men (all of whom had more social power than the women). Men of color also were
victimized—for example, lynched due to false charges of raping white women.
The word is no longer used in polite or even less polite society, but alas it is still in use among those who believe in and practice white supremacy. And our children still can hear it on playgrounds (and have to be taught it is wrong, degrading, to use it in reference to anyone).
However, there is a word which was used to degrade people, whole categories of people and certainly individuals who were being attacked simply for being themselves, which is now used, at least by some, as a term of liberation. That word is “queer.”
Many “queers” of my age cohort object to positive usage of the word, because they still feel its sting. Others, like me, and many from younger cohorts, are eager to claim the term and use it to understand the world we inhabit and share with other queers and non-queers. This is where the complexity of language is revealed, indeed where we see proof that language, and language usage, is always, at least to some extent, context-specific.
It has long seemed to me that we can tell which groups are struggling
with their place in society by how much they argue over the terms they want to use, and to be used by others, to describe themselves. “Black” was not always a positive term, even among Black people. There is still tension between using
Black or African American (in part, of course, because people who are “Black” are not necessarily either African or American).
What matters most, to me and many others, is that the groups get to choose, to be in charge of the vocabulary the rest of use to talk about them. White people can’t use that ugly N-term because our siblings have made it clear they are hurt by it, they are angry when any of us do. That does not mean they cannot use it among themselves. They are in charge.
The same thing is true about queer. The LGBT community is far from clear about this, but members can surely object when people, inside or outside the community, use it in ways that feel, and are, demeaning. The debate continues, even though many benefit from Queer disciplines: Theory, Theology, Criticism, etc.
So, women could decide to claim the term “pussy” as a positive one, they could decide that instead of allowing male supremacist usage to name the beautiful parts of themselves only as instruments to be used by others, that they will claim their own power to name and be named . “Pussies of the World Unite!” could become a rallying cry for those who seek to overturn male supremacy, and more immediately perhaps in the present moment, to rise above Mr. Trump, to show their disdain of his attitude and behavior by using his words against him to claim their own power.
I cannot say, of course, what they should do. What I can say is that I would be honored to join the Pussy Auxiliary, to show up to support them and to speak up for them, and even to be just a helper in whatever way the movement needs support.
My default position is to stand with those who are oppressed, who are demeaned by language and by actions. The adage is, “Actions speak louder than words. “ But, in reality, words are often all the action needed to do real damage to people.
So whether Mr. Trump physically assaulted the woman he mentioned in the video or not, he assaulted her and all women by his words, and by his dismissal of them as “locker room talk.”
Language is often about choosing sides, and I know whose side I am on.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What is your experience with reclaiming oppressive language? How does language choice impact and frame conversations for you? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online:
Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.