On Profanity: 3
Cunt, Cunt, Cunt, Cunt, Cunt
Across cultures, geographically and historically, profanities vary but they pretty much fall into certain semantic fields — religion, race, sex, organs, effluvia, disease. Other than with religion (where the profanity is actually a misuse of a word considered sacred) and disease (where modern medicine has largely disempowered the curses of old, and words like “scurvy” are just quaint antiquities,) the “dirty” word almost always has its “clean” counterpart — “black person” for “nigger”, “fellatio” for “cocksucking”, “vagina” for “cunt”, “faeces” for “shit”. Where we are concerned with profanity, worried about causing offense, we’ll use the “clean” word rather than the “dirty” one, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the profanity of those words does not simply reside within them as some mystical quality, a power they are essentially imbued with because of what they refer to, taboo as an invocation of that which is itself taboo. If this were the case the “clean” words would be equally offensive. Rather it is that these terms have become inextricable from the abhorrence or disdain in which the moral dicta defining the object as abject is articulated.
Take the variant usages of the word “cunt”. The word “cunt” was not considered even remotely profane when, back in the 1500s, it was used in a medical textbook to refer, in entirely anatomical terms, to “the cunt of a cow”. Now it is inextricable, for the conservative, from the abhorrence through which the vagina is judged as morally obscene, as a thing in and of itself. For the US conservative it is also inextricable from the abhorrence through which any “overly” strong woman is judged as a moral transgressor, in a vilely reactionary misogyny. Larry quite rightly points to the pairing of “bitch” with “uppity”, leaving the reader to make the connect with “uppity nigger”. As I understand it — bearing in mind this is an outsider’s perspective — “cunt” is loaded with similar connotations of stridency and domineering aggression. Where the insolence of a “bitch” (like that of a “cur”) is generally the underhand nastiness — back-stabbing or passive-aggressive sniping — of the abject, of one who knows they lack the status to confront their target full-on, the viciousness of a “cunt” is a step on even from that of the “shrew” or “harpy” in its openness, its assumption of the right to act aggressively. So, in the US, the use of the word “cunt” in relation to women alone becomes a negation of that right for women alone, a reification of a profoundly misogynistic power-dynamic. Interestingly, a counter-taboo has emerged as, for the US liberal, it has become inextricable from the abhorrence through which that conservative misogyny is itself judged as morally obscene. So across the political spectrum, for anyone thinking in essentialist terms, the mores render the word anathema from both directions.
In the UK and Australia, however, because the word has remained applicable across the genders, that counter-taboo has not developed. There is no abhorrence of a conservative misogyny that labels any “overly” strong woman a “cunt” because the word is not used about or at women specifically. Without that power dynamic of gender discrimination, in fact, a cunt in the UK is just a prick with a little added spite. Yes, yes, it’s still a female body part too, but that’s not the base issue. I’ll repeat this because I know how taboos work: the reaction of moral abhorrence that’s triggered at the breaching of the taboo generally overrides any ability to question the validity of that moral abhorrence; that’s exactly what taboos are designed to do; so I’m almost certain there’s Americans out there too busy reacting with outrage at spuriously projected implications (“you’re denying the reality of my outrage!”) to parse what I’m saying properly. In the UK and Australia the word “cunt” does not and cannot express the same type of direct misogyny it does in the US, because its applicability to males, privileged as they are with the assumption of legitimate empowerment, requires the excision from its significance of any sense that he or she to whom the term “cunt” is being applied is exercising an illegitimate empowerment. (In so far as that “illegitimacy” is a product of gender-based power-dynamics at least. Like “arsehole”, the word “cunt” challenges the legitimacy of overweening aggression in and of itself; it says, “You have no right to act like that, because no one does.”) This is not to say that the word is simply not misogynist. In fact, if we unravel the precise differences in cultural usages, we can reveal, I think, a deeply twisted misogyny that needs to be soundly thrashed.
So. In the UK, the word is condemnatory of any abhorrently vicious person, but that condemnation, as an action in and of itself, is not judged morally obscene. If we call someone an “arsehole”, this is rude, but it may be justifiably rude if the person is being an arsehole. However, on a feminist basis, using the term for a female sex organ to condemn a vile person and thereby implicitly denigrating that sex organ and potentially, by association, the gender it belongs to, can be judged as wrong. “I’d call him a cunt, but I like cunts,” I’ve heard said on numerous occasions as a way of articulating that sense, the notion that using the term in that way is an insult to a perfectly nice sexual organ and the perfectly nice people who have them. But this associative denigration is so indirect that it’s far less likely to become the subject of a taboo. Note that the comment is not “I’d call him a cunt but I like women.” There is no question that if you call someone a dog as an insult, you must consider dogs lowly enough that the comparison is insulting. So there’s an implicit insult being applied to all dogs. So too with cunts. But does the denigration carry over to the woman who possesses the cunt? What if I was to say, “I’d call him a dick, but I like dicks”? It makes perfect sense to me. If you call someone a dick as an insult, you must consider dicks lowly enough that the comparison is insulting. So there’s an implicit insult being applied to all dicks. I think that’s rather unfair to dicks. But does the denigration carry over to the man who possesses the dick? I’d call him a dick, but I like men? Hmmm.
I’d call him an arsehole, but I like arseholes? (Well, come on. I am THEE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!)
I’d call him an arsehole but I like humans?
I’d call him a dog but I like dog-owners?
In the US, the word “cunt” is wielded as a weapon against any strong woman, so it’s cut and dry. It’s patently bloody obvious that the word “cunt” is misoygnist when it directly expresses misogyny. If we used the word “arsehole” to refer only to gay men it would express a comparable homophobia, and in a comparable manner, binding the simple conservative taboo about the body part to an equally simple but nastier bigotry, multiplying the force of the venom, and implicitly attempting to reduce a human being to a passive object, a submissive thing, a hole subjugated by the penetrating phallus. But we do not use the word “arsehole” that way. And in the UK we do not use the word “cunt” that way.
Anyway, here in the UK, there’s a more complex judgement to be made of whether that associative denigration is even really taking place, and of how much impact it might have; and there’s enough variance of opinion there that the consensus sufficient for a moré to emerge just hasn’t coalesced. A person could go either way. Sure, you could construe it as an insult to all women, in the implication that they’re lowly enough to possess a thing that is, by implication, so lowly that comparing someone to it is an insult. But you could also see that as kind of fucking tenuous. And if you’re a liberal who disregards the conservative taboo attached to the vagina, the word “cunt” may be categorised with “fuck” and “dick” in their purely sexual meanings, as words which are ultimately as acceptable as the organs and acts they refer to. Indeed, if you’re a radical type you might well consider the use of those words an implicit assertion of the acceptability of those organs and acts, a defiance of the conservative moral dicta and the abhorrence it represents. And yet, “cunt” is still the most powerful swear word. As one of those radical types who feels no qualms at all about using the word “cunt” to refer to the vagina, I know that in my arsenal of insults aimed at people, it would take a hell of a lot for me to call someone a cunt. Is that because I instinctively worry about the associative denigration of cunts and women? I don’t think it is. For me, the physical link between cunts and women renders that word no more misogynist than the physical link between arseholes and gay men renders that word homophobic. Because in my culture there is no real semantic link, no use of either word in that specific way. So it must be something else.
Now, throw in Australia and it gets really interesting, because there, it seems, the condemnatory implication stands in stark contrast to the word’s use in affectionate badinage, at the level of “bum” — a greeting like, “How ya doin, ya cunt?” being equivalent to “How ya doin, ya bum?”. As surprising as it is to someone from the UK to hear the word used in that way, I can only imagine how shocking it would be to many from the US. But without the moral abhorrence of misogyny, I can make sense of it fairly quickly. In badinage, you can call your best friend a bum, a dick, an arse, a fanny, a twat, or a hundred other things, so why not a cunt? Is misogyny an issue in such cases? If there’s little or no real denigration going on, then there can be little or no real associative denigration, surely. And if we don’t have to worry that we’re slandering an entire gender, we’re faced with only the conservative taboo around the body part, a taboo that we can treat with the contempt it deserves. If there’s no reason to respect that taboo, we can use the word “cunt” as an informal term for that body part as freely as we’d use the word “dick”. Use it freely in affectionate badinage and we render it as mild as the term “twat” — which carries the exact same anatomical meaning. No?
And yet it’s still more complex, because regardless of the badinage, in Australia the word is still also used as a forceful epithet, just as it is in the UK. Sure, if you’re using it to a mate and don’t mean it, it’s fine, but if you’re squaring up to someone in a bar and you call them a cunt, that’s — as it is in the UK — way beyond the limits of civilised discourse and right at the limit of one-word verbal hostility. So where the fuck does “cunt” get this force from? Is there just enough concern in a liberal like me that it might be misogynist for it to have that extra weight of transgression? Is there just enough vestigial conservatism buried somewhere in my psyche that the vagina reference still imparts an aspect of abhorrence? If so why wouldn’t “twat” be just as powerful? I think there might be something sneakier going on. I think when that word surfaces in the consciousness, as anger brings you up to the limit of self-control, and you realise just how fucking angry you are in the summoning of that word, at that point the taboo kicks in and all reason is suspended, as the wave of abhorrence washes over you. Those two could easily be feeding off each other, or disguising themselves as each other. You can’t tell. Maybe that abhorrence you’re feeling is at the misogyny of the word alone, and you are actually entirely comfortable with female anatomy. Maybe it’s some deep-seated Freudian neurosis and you are misogynist down there in the depths. Maybe it’s an abhorrence of the misogyny of your own abhorrence, or maybe it’s an abhorrence of the mere possibility. Maybe there’s no liberal outrage or conservative misogyny at all, just abhorrence, at this person in front of you, abhorrence circling in a feedback loop of anger at this bastard in front of you, abhorrence building and reaching for the word that will encapsulate it in a communicable form not because of what it means, but simply because of what it is — taboo — because all you need to communicate right now to this person is that they’ve driven you to the limit, to the crossing of a line, the breaking of a taboo, because that’s how much you abhor this person, this prick, this arsehole, this bastard, this fucker, this cocksucking, mungmunching, gleetlicking, shiteating, goddamn…
We should not use this word, according to the moral dicta of both liberal and conservative, because to do so would be to cause offense. But largely it would cause offense because it is the “dirty” word, the profane word, the transgressive word, the taboo word — because, in other words, we should not use it. As Steven Pinker says, in The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, “taboo words, though evocative of the nastier aspects of their connotations, don’t get their punch from those connotations alone. Taboo status itself gives a word an emotional zing, regardless of its actual referent.” So here’s my hypothesis on that “deeply twisted misogyny that needs to be soundly thrashed”. I suspect that, outside the US, in the UK and Australia, those liberal and conservative dicta are part of what gives the word “cunt” its power. But I suspect that the vagina-squick is not actually so powerful and the PC-angst not so extreme as to fully explain the force it carries. Rather I think there’s another taboo shared by both liberals and conservatives alike that is just as crucial, maybe more so — the moral injunction against offending the delicate sensibilities of the fairer sex. It’s not universal, I’m sure, and it takes different forms according to different political stripes, but the sense that swearing is a male domain, that one should not swear in the presence of women, that one should certainly not swear at them, might have, I suspect, at least some part to play in the selection of “cunt” as the A-Bomb of swearing. What could be more offensive to the frail ears of a lady than the mention of her unmentionable. Why! She might faint! Or, oh my God, what if talking in such coarse, crude language about a woman’s sexual organs could conceivably be read as a vulgar, macho contempt for the concerns of womankind? She might be outraged! I mean, the idea of women talking about our dicks doesn’t bother us, cause we’re men, and men aren’t fussed about such things, but we can’t expect women to see our locker-room talk as anything other than sexist objectification.
Granted, the concerns of the liberal on the matter seem more justifiable, less condescending paternalism and more valid consideration for the feminist issues of language use. But if we’re dealing, as we are in the UK, with a word that’s not directly derogatory as it is in the US, if any associative insult to women is equivalent to that which occurs to men with the word “dick”, and if the whole taboo around the vagina itself is just fucked-up nonsense, then the feminist issues at play here, in this culture are negligible and that’s not consideration, it’s just pussy-footing. We’re really just avoiding the word “cunt” for the same reason Uncle Fred who was in the Merchant Navy and worked on the docks will strew filth willy-nilly through every sentence, but will never swear in front of his good missus, or any lady for that matter… unless maybe it’s the odd uncontrolled expletive at the stubbing of a toe, a “shit!” or a “bugger!”, followed by a quick “Pardon my French,” but, oh, even then, even then, there’s that word, that one word that’s just beyond the pale, that he’d just never use in the presence of the opposite sex, because it’s the one that would surely shock the little lady to the core. And if this is true it makes for a damn good candidate for the very mechanism of selection and reinforcement by which “cunt” becomes the swear word that trumps them all.
(It occurs to me that many of the other Big Curses — “bastard”, “whore”, “son of a bitch” (which in other countries is “son of a whore”), “motherfucker” — might owe their selection to a similar principle applied to children and parents, mothers in particular. If we think of two other moral dicta as being articulated in the phrase, “not in front of the children”, or the question, “Would you use that mouth with your mother?” it seems only logical that those taboos would empower words dealing with parentage, legitimacy and Oedipal incest. Further, it’s fairly common knowledge that swearing in previous centuries has been far more focused on religion than it is today, down to the fact that the semantic nonsensicality of using words like “fucking” as fucking emphasis more than anything else fucking suddenly makes complete fucking sense if we only realise that the goddamn word “fucking” has been damn well brought in to replace a goddamn religious epithet which does work semantically in positions that the goddamned word “fucking” just fucking doesn’t. So, is it simply that this religious swearing has fallen out of vogue, is it that our culture has rendered it less taboo just by becoming more secularised… or is it possible that the loss of import in a more secular age is specifically because any taboos as to what one would say in front of God can only be as strong as one’s faith in his existence?)
Anyway, the question that follows on logically from this gnarly, fucked-up hypothetical is whether all of this means that the appropriately feminist strategy in the face of such paternalism is to use the word “cunt” freely, breaching the taboos at each and every opportunity (cause taboos are cunts), using it when you stub your toe (cause that’s a cunt), using it in front of women (are there women reading this, cause if there are, and you’re offended, feel free to call me a cunt), using it indiscriminately about men and women alike (cause mankind and womankind have pretty much the same ratio of cunts) and to men and women alike (but, no, if you’ve got this far then you’re almost certainly not a cunt, so I’m hardly going to call you a cunt), as a way to dissipate its power. But given that the misogyny is revealed by the word’s adoption rather than fostered by its use, I’m not sure it actually makes much difference anyway. Still, if we scatter it willy-nilly like “bollocks!” and “arse!” maybe we can tame the wild “cunt”. As Pinker points out, “Words can shed their taboos over time.” As example he offers the scandalising effect of Elisa Doolittle’s outburst of “Not bloody likely!” in Pygmalian, the key word of which — “bloody” — had become so mild by the time of the play’s adaptation into My Fair Lady that the writers had to add in the Ascot races scene with her shouting, “Move yer bloomin’ arse!” Maybe we need a 21st century remake with her calling the bookie a cunt.
Whatever, the more interesting questions are those that arise when we bring in the American use of the term as a directly misogynistic label. Let’s suppose, for example, that we in the UK don’t embark on any grand desensitisation campaign but allow the word “cunt” to retain its power, continue to use it as the Big Bad Word for women’s sex organs and people, male or female, that we really don’t like. What happens as the interweb brings us into closer contact with all those Americans for whom it’s a hate-word as anathema as “nigger”? What happens when, in some forum discussion, someone from the UK dismisses Donald Rumsfeld or Walt Disney or Ann Coulter as a “cunt”? Two out of three times, applied to a man — a Rumsfeld or Disney — the gender-neutral meaning of the term might be gleaned from context or an awareness of other usages; even if some can’t sever the word from its gender-specific use, and wrongly project a sort of… emasculating intent, they might consider that an acceptable treatment of men ruled by their own bollocks, so to speak. That third time, however, when the term is applied to a woman, the meaning conveyed to most, if not all, US participants may be entirely different from that intended. Calling Ann Coulter a cunt may read as deeply offensive for its misogyny even to those who hate her with a passion. What happens then if an awareness of the US meaning causes those from the UK to avoid this potentially incendiary term in a reluctance to cause offense, if a recognition of that gender-specific use becomes an acceptance of that gender-specific use which becomes an assumption of that gender-specific use? Is it possible, in other words, that an acknowledgement of the US liberal taboo attached to the misogyny of the term could become a mechanism by which the gender-specific meaning usurped the gender-neutral one in UK English? And would this, in effect, constitute a propagation of prejudice, an empowerment of the would-be misogynist outside the US with the same weapon of a word that sits in pride of place in the arsenal of the US woman-hater?
Conversely, would a pragmatic strategy for the US feminist be to do their utmost to propagate the UK gender-neutral usage over the US gender-specific one, to flense the misogynist muscle from the word “cunt” by using it as an insult aimed at men as much as women, weakening its connotative links with “harpy”, “shrew” and “bitch”, strengthening its links with “arsehole” (or “asshole”), “bastard” and “prick”? The misogynist convention of use by which it articulates, as Larry puts it, “the reduction of a woman and her personality to that of her genital region,” is just that — a convention. That convention is intolerable, but what makes it intolerable is the targeting of women, the use of the term as a mechanism of discrimination, rather than the act of insult itself (as if it’s really so bad to call an evil shit an evil shit) or the use of genitals as a touchstone of disdain (as if it’s really so bad to call a spiteful prick a spiteful prick). Slapping a liberal taboo on the misogynist epithet — placing it out of bounds and using “evil little shit” or “arrogant goddamn fuck”, say — does nothing to dismantle that convention, may even reinforce it, I’d suggest, reserving it to that beyond-the-pale use, intensifying the power of that word in the mouth of a misogynist who would spit it in the face of a woman precisely because he wants to go beyond the pale, to say, this is how much I hate you, this is the depth of my contempt. Spitting that word back in such the faces of such woman-hating fuckwits often enough might, on the other hand, serve to redefine the convention.
Here’s another question: would this simply be a reversal of the process by which “cunt” acquired its direct misogyny in the US? It would be interesting to know which usage came first, whether the definition has narrowed to gender-specificity in the US or widened to gender-neutrality in the UK (assuming that the two usages did not develop independently and simultaneously). I’m aware of gender-neutral usage being reported amongst soldiers in WW1 (applied to each other), and I’m not aware of any earlier reported uses other than in the anatomical sense, which tempts me to speculate that the original exaptation of “cunt” was as a gender-neutral epithet, that the definition was only subsequently narrowed in the more conservative culture of the US… adopted by the reactionary in the face of female suffrage perhaps? I can easily see this sort of use emerging out of a culture of lynchings and McCarthyism. This is utterly hypothetical, but I don’t think it’s inconceivable that the word emerges out of male-to-male sexual and scatological vulgarity along with “dick”, “prick”, “arsehole” and so on; that it is appropriated with those terms and reconfigured as a general insult (“asshole”, as I understand, being first attested in this sense in the 1930s) as older terms fall out of fashion, becoming milder with familiarity (e.g. “bugger” or “sod” — short for sodomite) and/or simply antiquated (e.g. “knave”, “blackguard” or “cur”, the latter of which I rather wish we could reinstate along with “whelp”, just to balance off “bitch” with the whole canine family); and that it is only in the backlash against women’s emancipation, and only in the US, that it then comes to be targeted against women to the extent that it eventually specifies women.
I could, of course, be talking out of my arse here. If so though (again assuming that the two usages don’t develop independently,) this only demonstrates that the term can be unshackled from its direct misogyny as it has been in UK usage.
So what does this all amount to? I guess what I’m driving at is the notion that taboos, conservative or liberal, are a perilous way to deal with the potential to offend, that the processes which have rendered the word “cunt” profane over the last five hundred years need to be examined. That we need to ask ourselves, if the establishment of such taboos creates, in effect, a linguistic arsenal of words of power, if semantically non-loaded words can be appropriated to that arsenal and invested with profound shock-value, if that arsenal can be brought to bear — through that appropriation and empowerment — on the marginalised and othered… well, how careful do we want to be about where and when and how we decide to step carefully around a word?
Which brings us back to “rape”.