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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.