Thursday 2 March 2017

‘Mind Your Language’ | Watching our Ps & Qs OR Cs & Ts in Political Debate

As a teenager and young adult my musical taste was, I liked to think, edgy. So, with my formative years coinciding with the eclectic soundtrack of the 1970s it was Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple for me, rather than Cassidy or the Bay City Rollers. I was 18 when Ian Dury's debut album New Boots and Panties was released on Stiff Records and I was hooked. I enjoyed and sang along to every track but the one I remember most now is Plaistow Patricia, the first line of which goes ‘Arseholes, Bastards, Fucking Cunts and Pricks’. In my late twenties I returned to further and higher education after ten years training and working as a nursery nurse. The sociological and feminist writers, researchers and teachers I encountered during my studies encouraged me to think more critically about the use and power of language. In reflecting on how particular words and phrases are used to scorn at and demean people I think that it is more than just politically correct (an overused term admittedly, but also a phrase often used as an insult in itself) to think carefully before using words that draw on sex, gender and sexuality.

Don’t misunderstand me for I’m not shy of using an oath or two myself and I was encouraged to read recently an article suggesting that swearing, along with untidiness (which I’m also guilty of) is indicative of higher, rather than lower, intelligence I appreciate too that an outburst of profanity can be both an emotional release and a way of feeling a little more in control when dealing with difficult experiences and responding to upsetting images and stories of life in 2017. But, there is still, I believe, a need to reflect on the insults we resort to.

It has long been argued (seemingly supported given the frequency and vitriolic nature of their use) that the worst, most offensive verbal abuses are those that refer to women’s genitals or to women’s motherhood identity. So calling someone a cunt or a twat, a son-of-a-bitch or a motherfucker are serious signifiers of disrespect. Hearing these, alongside other swear words which derogatorily refer women to animals or to food is part of the everyday sexism that girls and women are subject to. The normalisation of these descriptors though doesn't make them any easier to hear.

Social media - which I greatly appreciate both for its challenge to the mainstream media and the opportunity it provides for broad based discussion, debate and education - adds to the problem. I, and I know I am not alone in this, am dismayed by the possibilities it gives for smears and insults, bullying and intimidation; both from named individuals and those who hide behind anonymity/alternative identities.  Indeed, on many occasions the ease of the action seems to inflame the activity. Sadly, it seems that people from all sides of the political debate; both those on the right and on the left, use Twitter and Facebook and so on, to assault those with whom they do not agree. Even those who are not particularly aggressive or personal in their condemnation of a person, political party, policy or news item often resort to chauvinistic abuse; unfortunately supporting the view that these are just normal, everyday, acceptable insults.  With this in mind I groan when people I admire refer to the minister for health as Jeremy *unt and I shudder when those I don’t combine racism, sizeism, ageism with misogyny to describe or lambaste female, and male, politicians and those that support or challenge their approach, actions and ideas. Recently, on my Facebook feed I was more than heavyhearted to see, on a page very supportive of the Labour leadership, a cartoon meme with Jeremy Corbyn holding a banner complete with the words ‘let’s try not being twats’.  When asked why he doesn't retaliate to the constant barrage of, often extremely personal, attack he receives Corbyn's response is ‘I’m not going to get in the gutter with anyone’. With this in mind it's hardly likely that 'twat' is part of his vocabulary. As with many other issues, I'm with Corbyn on this.

Some people reading this may question my ability to take a joke (that old chestnut) and I realise I am at risk being labelled as one of @piersmorgan’s 'rabid feminists’ (I’ve been called worse). My late husband John, himself a pro-feminist teacher, told me once that he felt he got an easier ride than women colleagues when promoting gender equality as he was seen to have 'no axe to grind'. So for a minute just imagine it's a man writing this piece. . . I strongly support the need to call out the smears and lies, to debate and discuss the potential ways forward. I passionately believe that we need to challenge and to struggle against the inequalities and injustices that evidence suggests are increasing on a daily basis. In doing this, in making our arguments and fighting our cause(s), please can we find alternatives to the longtime, offensive terms that demean and devalue half the population.

Despite, or maybe because of, all the above I am all for reclaiming.  So just as I loved that until just a few months before her death my 90 year old mother-in-law enjoyed lunch out 'with the girls' I appreciate and applaud the banner held high at one of the 700 or so Women’s Marches on the first day of Trump’s presidency that proclaimed 'I'd call him a cunt but he has no warmth or depth.'

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