On Profanity: 1
Over on OF Blog of the Fallen, a good week or so back, Larry pointed to a forum discussion with the heading Brent Weeks Raped “The Wheel of Time”!, noting (as a potential discussion topic) the use of the term “rape” to describe one author’s alleged plundering of another’s trope-set, and by implication raising the question as to how we should view such a usage… right or wrong? Although one commenter says that, in their experience, dancing coyly around the term itself is of no benefit to the victims whatsoever, otherwise in the comments there’s a clear drift towards such a use of this term being undesireable if not unacceptable:
Colinhead: “I think that any time you hear 'rape' you should be made to think of the horror and destruction that the act visits upon a person. Using it for something so (relatively) trivial takes away from that.”
Larry: “The cavalier way that title and others related to the traditional powerlessness of women[…] I do have to question the underlying attitudes that are associated with the way certain words are used.”
Larry then offers examples of the types of words he means, words loaded with anti-feminist meanings — “pussy”, “sissy”, “bitch”, “cunt” — in a list to which he adds “rape”. My immediate response to that part of it, I have to admit, is “What the fuck?!”
Sorry, but adding “rape” to that list doesn’t compute at all for me. These four words, all nouns, and all distinct types of noun — derogatory hostile epithets, used to verbally attack, to denigrate and demean, to abject an other — clash jarringly with the word “rape”. Rape is used as a verb in the phrase in question, as a descriptive label for an action that is reviled, rejected, spat upon as an abomination, yes — treated, in other words, with a similar level of disapprobation to that with which the misogynist regards women or the homophobe regards queers, sure — but justly so. It’s rape. Rape is a thing to be reviled and rejected, an action to be hated. There are verbs like “mince” or “castrate” (used metaphorically) that express an unjust hatred, the prejudice-born hostility of the user, loaded with scorn for the faggot who walks so swishily, the bitch who reacts so touchily, but “rape” does not sit with them. The word “rape” sits with “lynch” or “gaybash”.
Even taking it as a noun the word “rape” doesn’t fit with those epithets. Nobody is ever, I very much doubt, going to call someone else a rape. Nobody’s ever, I suspect, going to mutter quietly to their colleague about how their boss is being such a rape. Rather these words — “pussy”, “sissy”, “bitch”, “cunt” — sit quite comfortably with their masculine parallels — “dick”, “tomboy”, “cur”, “prick”. Setting the scope wider still, those words sit alongside a whole host of insults ranging from the innocuous — “dufus” or “numpty” — up through the insulting — “wanker”, “fucker” — to the incendiary — “nigger”, “faggot”. For me, the word “rape” simply has no place in that list at all, so it seems weird to see it thought of in that context.
(As a brief aside, just to be clear that I include the male counterparts (no pun intended) not as some simplistic anti-feminist bollocks as to how “men are treated with the same reduction-to-body-parts, yanno, so that makes it even, right?” there are intriguing differences of import, sense and usage across the genders in each pair, more if one considers variations across culture. Like the fact that “cur” is pretty much obsolete while “bitch” is probably one of the most common curses in the English language. Or that “sissy” is unquestionably insulting while “tomboy” is not an insult at all, at least not in my experience. Or that “cunt” and “pussy” have contrasting meanings when applied to people (referring to an active victimiser on the one hand, a passive victim on the other) while “dick” and “prick” are almost indistinguishable (both refer to a sort of active offender of etiquette, though a dick is perhaps more stupid than a prick, a prick more deliberate in his dickishness). Or that “cunt” is way more vicious than “prick” in the US and UK and yet used as a term of affection in Australia. Or that “cunt” in the US almost invariably applies to a woman while in the UK and Australia it can just as easily apply to a man. But we’ll deal with that further down the line. For now…)
The whole comment thread, even as short as it is, niggles at me on a number of levels, I’ve got to say, because seeing this use of the word “rape” challenged in this way, seeing the notion of offensiveness attaching to it, seeing it drift into contact with those derogatory epithets, it worries me. Why pick on this sort of idiom and not be concerned that we might be trivialising the suffering of a victim in a sentence like, “That singer murdered that song”? Why feel we should tread so carefully around this word, comparing the force of shock it is imbued with to that of swear-words?
So, instinctively, I have no problem with that usage. Where others seem to be treating it as (both historically and currently) a word that relates simply to forced sex, I’m not at all sure that’s accurate. Where Larry describes the word “rape” as “now seemingly used to describe certain undesirable changes, regardless of the centuries-long association of that word with the sexual trauma inflicted upon mostly women, but also quite a few males[,]” my immediate instinct is that this is a dubious characterisation of the word’s history. As a writer, my first thought is that this comes from the same root as “rapine” and “ravish”, right? Which both carry a more general sense of taking something by force — something which is not necessarily sexual gratification. A quick check of the dictionary confirms this, tracing both words back to their Latin root “rapere”, from which we also get “rapt”, “rapture” and “raptor”, that root term being, in fact, the Latin word meaning “to seize”. We also find, in fact, that the word “rape” has a subsidiary definition, as an (albeit archaic) term meaning “to plunder, to violate, to carry away by force”.
So, historically the word had that meaning, and etymologically it’s pretty damn likely that this was the primary meaning — to seize and take by force, with the implication that what is left behind is violated and diminished. Larry’s characterisation is most likely, it seems to me, arse-backwards, disregarding this centuries-long signification of the term and doing so a little cavalierly, the phrase “certain undesirable changes” glossing over the precision of the non-sexual meaning in order to present those usages as vague inchoate complaints. OK, I’m guessing Larry has seen the term used in that vague way often enough to justify that criticism. If someone says “that bloody interior designer raped my room” meaning simply that the designer made certain changes they didn’t desire, I’d see that as a pretty sloppy usage — because the sense of plunder seems only barely applicable. I could imagine that person using “raped” to mean “violated, ruined”, even an idea that the cosiness of the room has been “taken away”, but they’re adding a sense of “with force, without consent” that just doesn’t apply. So I can see where Larry’s coming from. In setting this sort of usage up as the alternative meaning to the “forced sex” sense however, I think Larry is doing a disservice to the countless examples where it’s actually being used quite precisely and conventionally with an entirely specific meaning.
For me, maybe because I subconsciously recognise the etymological root (and making the “rapture” connection was a sort of forehead-slapping “duh!” moment for me), that thread title is instantly understandable, as conventional as “the rape of Belgium” or “the rape of the countryside”. I can imagine talking about “the rape of a race’s culture” in a cultural appropriation debate. And I can imagine talking about “the rape of a book” in a discussion about plagiarism. And the reaction against such a conventional usage feels… extreme. Not in the sense that it’s histrionic — because it’s articulated in entirely civil terms — but in so far as it seems quite a logical leap to recast such a common idiom as being in the same league as “cunt”. Actually, I can’t help feeling that the trepidation here is all too similar to that which shrouds a taboo. There’s a part of me that can’t help wondering if this is indicative of a sort of conservatism in the guise of liberalism, mores in the guise of ethics. But to talk about why I feel this way, I should probably lay a little groundwork. What I mean by the distinction between mores and ethics is a little complex, and I’ve talked about it enough elsewhere, so I don’t want to go into it in huge detail again; but keeping it as brief as possible, I’d argue that there are two distinct types of thinking as regards right and wrong — the essentialist and the existentialist, roughly speaking.
So… Part Two