Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Profanity: 4

Part 3

The Abuse of “Rape”

I made the case above that the usage of “rape” in question can be considered, strictly speaking, correct. The word “rape” has a wider sense that renders the claim that “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” not figurative but literal. It is not an abuse of “rape”, not an abuse of its essential meaning. If we decide that it is, actually, does that mean that somewhere down the line we might not even be able to describe it as an abuse of its essential meaning? Because in one sense of the word “abuse” it has come to signify a very specific type of criminal mistreatment perpetrated by one human upon another, acts of molestation up to and including the rape of children. The word is now so bound to domestic abuse and child abuse that it may only be matter of time before that specific sense overshadows the more general sense and someone, somewhere, somewhen, ends up discussing whether the use of the word “abuse” in relation to the meaning of words risks offending abuse victims and trivialising their suffering.

That said, times change and the meanings of words do change with them. There’s no question that the word “rape” is now so strongly bound to the sense of forced sex that this meaning has come to dominate almost completely. The more general sense, where it is basically cognate with “rapine”, has meanwhile clearly fallen out of use to the extent that we might well consider it obsolete rather than just archaic. Despite my own instinctual querulousness about the historical root of the term, I’d have to say that before my quick nosey through its etymology I would probably have labelled the sort of usage in question as figurative. In fact, a large part of the import of the word, when used in a statement like “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” indubitably comes from the shock power of the figuration, the imagery of sexual violence. It’s the same reason we talk about being fucked, fucked-up or fucked-over, about being shafted, buggered, screwed. No, we don’t actually picture Brent Weeks forcing himself upon an epic fantasy series, but the resonance is there. In the past a phrase like “the rape of the countryside” might have been readable as a literal description, it might have functioned referentially, but maybe it’s simply not possible now to read it without it functioning figuratively. And if this is the case should that change my ethical position? How likely is it that most will read this as a figurative use? How does that affect its impact on the reader? How ethical is it to exploit that figuration in this context? Does this sort of usage constitute an abuse of its power?

I can see where the idea would come in here that such quasi-figurative uses, exploiting the power of the word in contexts of negligible importance relative to that of forced sex, might be considered trivialising. But let’s say we have an ongoing process of wanton ecological devastation that most know nothing about and care even less, where those who do know and care are powerless to prevent it. Say those concerned people, in the attempt to put across to the unknowing just how shocked they should be by this plundering and violation, this rapine of the land — say the clearest way they can articulate it is in the phrase “the rape of the countryside”. I pick this example because it feels like a grey area to me. The spectrum of relative importance we’re dealing with in such quasi-figurative usages of the word “rape” runs from the triviality of “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” right up to “the rape of Belgium” or “the rape of Africa” or “the rape of Rwanda” — to usages, that is, which attempt to encapsulate in that word entire days, weeks, months or even years of atrocities on such a scale that it beggars belief. When those atrocities include multiple instances of rape that certainly couldn’t be seen as trivialising the term. But if you’re talking about different kinds of devastation, trying to convey how shockingly something has been violated, I could see a lot of people going either way on whether “the rape of a countryside” basically mattered enough. I’d lay money that if you found the right environmentalist and the right feminist you could spark a flamewar with that question. So as for me: Would my ethics tell me that this is trivialising rape, that in their position I wouldn’t use that phrase? And would those ethics tell me that I should step up to the mark and speak my mind about it?

To tackle the second question first, from a basic anti-censorship position, I’ll largely defend free speech regardless of most other ethical issues. I pretty much reject wholesale any moral dicta over what “must not” be said. And by that I mean I’ll argue against social disapprobation as well as actual legislation; moral dicta need not be written into law for them to effectively impose limitations on what can and can’t be said. At the point where the condemnation kicks in, when I start frowning at someone for using the phrase “the rape of the countryside”, telling them that this is an insult to rape victims, for me this is the point when my own judgements of what I should do become judgements of what you should do. And if enough of us agree long enough and strong enough, that judgement gradually establishes itself as a moral dicta; for that reason I’m just as ready to take a stand if people start meting out judgements of what “could but should not” be said. I’m all for the idea of having one’s own choice of words guided by an ethics of etiquette, but that choice is an individual’s prerogative, to my mind. I’ll happily volunteer an opinion if asked, or talk about ethical issues in a theoretical discussion, or cruelly mock a bad choice of words on aesthetic grounds, but when it comes to imposing my personal ethics on another’s turn of phrase… fuck that shit.

In general, that is. There are occasions, of course, when one of those key ethical maxims — “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” — comes into play strong enough that I reckon, actually, I think I will just make it clear what I think of the terms “paki” and “raghead”, your Royal Retarded Racist Fuckwitness. But that would generally be where the speech act is the bandying of a prejudice-born derogatory epithet, and it’s less about the person’s use of the word than it is about them breathing. Whether a phrase like “the rape of the countryside” trivialises rape or not it is not part of the distinct process of abjection that results in racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise asininely bigoted slurs. It is not in and of itself a racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise asininely bigoted slur. “Nigger” is insulting. “Kike” is insulting. “Wop” is insulting. “Slut” is insulting. “Bitch” is insulting. “Whore” is insulting. “Faggot” is insulting. “Homo” is insulting. “Queer” is insulting. They’re all insulting in a very specific way and for a very specific reason. They are deliberately and aggressively hostile, othering and demeaning. They are not just products of the process of abjection but actually constituent parts of that process, acts of abjection. A phrase like “the rape of the countryside” is not, so for me it simply doesn’t call for the verbal pistol-whipping that the sort of cretinous curs who use the epithets above do.

But if we’re talking purely theoretically, in terms of ethics, if it was simply me choosing what words to use in describing rural despoliation, would I baulk at “the rape of the countryside”, in case rape victims hearing or reading my words might feel insulted at the comparative triviality. It’s not very likely, I’d have to say. If we’re assuming that this was an important concern for me, given my propensity for rhetoric, figuration and just plain old-fashioned fucking swearing, I’d probably be a damn sight more colourful than that. Hell, we could probably cut to the chase here, because if I’d ever read any Brent Weeks or Robert Jordan and cared enough to comment, I can easily imagine myself throwing out a phrase like the one that started this all off. It’s all too likely that, asked to describe how I felt after seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time, for example, I might say something along the lines of “George Lucas raped my childhood”. Actually it would quite possibly be along the lines of “George Lucas raped my childhood. He kidnapped it from me when I was sitting in the cinema, drove it to an abandoned warehouse, tied it up and burned it with cigarettes it till it was sobbing for its mommy, and then raped it. He kept on raping my childhood with his brand new fucking CGI-enhanced gosh-wow-isn’t-it-so-fucking-spectacular dick until my childhood was fucking anally ripped to death, and then he took the corpse, he dug a shallow grave in the forest and he left it there to fucking rot. But, you know what? That wasn’t fucking good enough for him. Oh, no. He had to dance on the fucking grave. No, tell a lie, he pissed on the fucking grave to soften the soil so he could dig up the fucking corpse, wire it to a giant X-Wing Fighter and make it dance like a fucking puppet of Jar-Jar Fucking Binks while he fisted its rotting arsehole and wanked himself off over every single Star Wars comic I ever owned.”

In for a penny, in for a pound, I reckon.

So why the blithe disregard for the possibility that I might be trivialising rape here, not to mention murder, necrophilia and, by implication, the perpetrations of such actions on a child? It’s not that these are just words; because that would be a cop-out, and these words are deliberately chosen for their graphic transgression of any decent human being’s sense of what’s not just wrong but abhorrent. It’s not that I reserve the right to be as creatively hyperbolic as I damn well please, given that the craft of canting rant demands it; because I’d feel the same if I stuck to the root figuration that I’m riffing off, the simple “George Lucas raped my childhood”. It’s not that I simply don’t care about causing offence; because the general maxim of “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” is based on a general appreciation of people’s niceties and a tolerance of their quirks. (Although this is a more complex issue as sometimes said quirks becomes irks requiring the attention of a two-fingered salute. Sometimes the Grundys and Whitehouses are just asking for a “fucking rotter” — quite literally, in Grundy’s case. Hell, I will, on occasion — when dealing with homophobic hate-mail, for example — quite deliberately adopt a language of heteronormative behaviour-based insults which carry a sense of emasculation or sexual passivity (“pussy”, “bitch”, “cocksucker”) precisely because these terms are pretty much guaranteed to be the most effective tools for baiting someone driven by macho bullshit, and because I feel I can simultaneously make it completely bloody clear that I’m fucking proud to be called any of those things by a bigoted fuckwit, that I fucking revel in it because I know the pitiable crawling fear of domination they signify, and that makes me the top in this verbal shafting, no matter who the actual faggot is.) No. Rather I see such figurative language as “George Lucas raped my childhood” as acceptable because every such use is an implicit assertion that rape is fucking abhorrent, that the rapist is fucking abhorrent, and that the victim of such an abhorrent act has every fucking right to be furious. It does not, I think, trivialise rape. Rather it asserts, implicitly but certainly, that rape is a fucking benchmark in the field of abhorrent acts. As an act of hyperbole, I don’t think it can be dissipated with overuse. I don’t think applying it to books plundered for ideas will drag the concept of rape down in our minds to the inconsequential scale of plagiarism, no more than overuse of the word “cosmic” as an indicator of scale used in the most banal circumstances really affects the scale at which we imagine the cosmos. If anything, I suspect that just as “cosmic” points to the cosmos to signify a vastness we cannot really imagine, figurations of rape point to that act to signify an abhorrence at the edge of imagination.

Oh, I have heard that figuration used in truly suspect ways, heard it used in the “rapine” sense, applied to some resource or other, and the phrase turned with a sort of cosy, jokey wonder at the sheer thoroughness with which that resource was exploited. I’ve heard it used that way — in a business context, needless to say — with a sort of unquestioned obliviousness to any idea that where “pillage”, say, is fancifully redolent of Vikings and buccaneers and thereby open to a casual figurative use imbued with the romance of the rogue, “rape” is not something you really want to be comparing your own actions to with even a hint of ease in your voice let alone wonder. It’s one thing to describe a bargain, with relish, as “a total steal”. It’s another thing to describe an optimally utilised resource, with similar relish, as “totally raped”. But the problem here is not trivialisation; it’s the shift of valuation, the reversal of polarities that blithely paints rape in the charm of a rakish escapade. One key word by which this type of bullshit marks itself out is, I suspect, “totally”, and where it does, on message boards and forums in particular, we do have the sort of vague inchoate usages Larry points to, but as personal boasts and taunts rather than complaints — X “totally raped” Y, Y “totally raped” Z, with “rape” substituting for “ream” or “pwn” in a puerile crowing of one’s own domination or another’s victories vicariously-enjoyed. If you’re working with an ethical maxim of “treat people with a bit of fucking respect”, that sort of crassness fails on all counts, I’d say.

When it comes to “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” though, we’re not dealing with that sort of braggartry and boorishness. The question is whether or not it’s acceptable to say that a nation’s countryside has been raped, that a people’s heritage has been raped, that a city’s culture has been raped, that an archeological site has been raped, that a writer’s creation has been raped. I’m inclined to suspect that this particular claim vis-a-vis Weeks and Jordan is insubstantial given that the texts in question are Epic Fantasy and the basis for the comparison is shared tropes. And I’m not convinced that even straight plagiarism would be sufficiently violating given that it leaves the original intact. But I can imagine the situation where a writer of seminal fantasy series, say, specified that he did not want other writers to produce sequels, treating it as a shared universe, only for his estate to authorise prequels to be written after his death. Or where a publishing subsidiary of a vast American entertainment corporation, say, exploited their independence from a UK Act of Parliament, which extended in perpetuity the copyright of a classic children’s fantasy that had been gifted to a children’s hospital, in order to publish derivative sequels that display little concern with the integrity of the original. Maybe these classify as exceptional circumstances, but I’m not sure the word “rape” would be entirely unjustified here.

And morally speaking, if we garnered a broad spectrum of opinions, I doubt that the majority would consider this usage wrong. I’m tempted to say that it simply isn’t — that mores are based on consensus and therefore measurable, that whether or not there’s a moral injunction against this type of usage is a straight yes-or-no question which we can answer by simply studying the culture, and that the conventionality of such usages indicates the general consensus is, in this case, no. That the consensus of those few comments on Larry’s blog drifts in the other direction though is highly interesting, because it suggests to me that the perception I’m basing that judgement on may be either out-dated or parochial. I could be just plain wrong, but it feels more like I’ve websurfed into a moré that’s either nascent or alien, a consensus that’s emerging out of a general shift in attitudes or one that I’ve simply been unaware because it differs between UK and US cultures. It might be a mixture of both, for that matter. And the difference might be between the culture at large and a particular subculture of people with shared literary interests and political concerns. Whatever, it’s the general discomfort with “rape” as a “word of power” that niggles at me, the swirling cloud of vague apprehensions, notions of offense and profanity, responsibility and transgression.

What worries me at the core, I think, is the idea that a moral dicta imposed around “rape”, proscribing its “casual” use as vulgar, rendering it an act of moral transgression to speak this word flippantly, while it might serve to affirm the gravity of the crime, might at the same time, for that very reason, prime that word for exaptation into the realm of swearing proper. If it becomes a word we frown on others for using irresponsibly, when does it become a word we scold children for saying inappropriately? When does it become a word we scold them simply for saying, because they’re children, and they shouldn’t be using such words because they’re too young to know what they mean? When do they start to learn that the word has power simply in the utterance as much because of this taboo as because of its meaning? When do they start to use it as a deliberate transgression? When do they start to use it for the crude effect of it? When does the usage shift from a derisory description, “he totally raped you” to a directed insult, “rape you!” or “you rape victim!”? (Check the internet for the answer: it’s already out there in those forms.) So when does it become a word we need a euphemism for because it’s now considered a bona fide obscenity? So what does the rape victim say when “I got raped last night” just means you got drunk, got high, got wasted, got fucked?

As repulsive as I find those appropriations -- these abuses of "rape" -- my concern about tiptoeing around the word — reserving it from uses where it is at least figuratively appropriate, even if it is gross hyperbole — is that making it the focus of a moral dicta, a taboo of limitation, may simply fuel those appropriations, hasten its transformation into a “dirty” word that does sit comfortably alongside “pussy”, “sissy”, “bitch” and “cunt” to some future analogue of me because its literal meaning has long since been perverted and usurped, warped and twisted into a weapon.


Blogger Larry said...

I feel bad for missing out on this these past three days, Hal, as I've been mostly offline. Your commentary on my commentary was thoughtful and I'll try to respond in a like fashion here (although much briefer, as I have many things to do tonight :P)

The problem with my post's briefness on that is that I really did not go into the semantics of the issue - you cover a lot of it, but perhaps due to the brevity of my post, some things were not communicated clearly (or at all). First, I do know and understand the older meanings of rapere; I took four university Latin classes. I don't object to the older forms of it. But as has become the case with an interesting Spanish verb whose meanings almost parallel that of rapere, "coger," the slang/common meaning (at least in parts of Latin America; it is a "safe" verb in Spain) have shifted from a grabbing/seizing to a taking hold and fucking someone/thing.

It is my annoyance that the sexual violation part of "rape" has been appropriated in a fashion that does not refer to the despoliation of a countryside (the Rape of Nanking) or to the sudden seizure of an object/person (the Rape of Ganymede), but instead to the sexual act that lies at the heart of my response. I can't recall (since I didn't click back on my own link) if I covered this or not in my comments (I think I might have in passing), but the word has a more "personal" meaning to me due to working almost three years in a residential treatment center for teens where around half of the males and all the females were victims of sexual abuse, plus one of my two closest friends is the survivor of incest.

There is a dissonance between the semantic meanings of the word as I am accustomed to hearing them used and that sense of the word found within that forum link I provided. While you cover quite well the other words in that list I provided, I would argue that "rape" belongs there despite it being used mostly as a verb, but rather because of the user mindsets in how those words are used in certain situations.

Yes, there is a cultural shift here in the US for certain words. Even today when teaching about W.E.B. DuBois and his The Souls of Black Folk I had to explain to my students that when I was reading aloud passages, that "Negro" back in 1903 was as "safe" of a term as "African-American" is today in the U.S.; "Negro" nowadays having shifted into the "nigger"/"N-word" range of semantic meaning.

I am wary of this happening to the word "rape" after it has been mostly subsumed by the sexual part of its etymology. To use it to describe one's negative reaction to an author's treatment of a text creates a dissonance of sorts - rape is bad, usually refers to things that women/men suffer at the hands of men/women, and has become something of a conversation killer/dampener due to the semantics and paralanguage embedded these days (especially in the US - I'd argue mostly due to rape survivor advocacy centers not not to any sort of puissant puritanism still lingering in my country). It is that sense of semantic "violation," the reduction of a term fraught now with emotional and physical distress suffered by millions to something much less personal, much less "human," while still trying to convey the sense of violent action that I find questionable at best and perhaps dismissive at worst.

Perhaps it can be summed up much more briefly with this possible analogue: the sense of sacrilege that some feel when someone says "God Damn It!" in certain quarters. How that came to be sacrilegious would entail exploring the recipient's world-view, his/her place in society, etc. It isn't a strict conservative/leftist divide, though. It is very complex and perhaps a deeper explanation might explain why terms of superficial quality, like "nigger," became so loaded that saying it now is like some bizzaro world version of taking the Lord's name in vain.

But all I know is that due to recent shifts in common usage, I think one has to be extremely careful in the deployment of a word such as "rape," not because the word is sacrosanct, but because the imprecision of meaning often will lead to the person uttering it indiscriminately being viewed as a callous, insensitive person.

Does this make any sense on a Friday night after a few days of little sleep?

12:51 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Heh, I can't really say much about yer response being three days after my post, given that my post was weeks after your own, and this is getting towards the same time period. :D

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to clarify. I do appreciate where you're coming from. I think part of my point is I think there's a distinction of mindsets between the sort of forum uses you describe and the ones I see as more worthy of disapprobation. To me, at least, as long as it doesn't pervert the direction of valuation by using the word with that sort of crass triumphalism, like it was a fucking good thing to "totally rape" this or that, or somehow amusing to see this or that being "totally raped", then I don't see it as an issue. Again I appreciate the personal angle you're bringing to this, but I tend come down against language restraint on the grounds of sensitivity -- at least if we're talking morally rather than ethically. If I were a different person, I might be sensitive to an utterly commonplace platitude used casually and thoughtlessly by people every day to express the idea that it's wrong to be over-cautious -- "You can get killed crossing the road". Why? Because that's how my brother died. It's a phrase that does actually press a button. If it doesn't open up the old wound it does sort of poke it, and I could theoretically find the flippancy with which its used insensitive. Hell, I remember one of my uncles using it once at a family gathering and being aghast the moment it came out of his mouth, horrified at what he'd said. Neither my parents nor myself took offense though, because we knew it was just... an idiom. He was *way* more horrified about the offense he might have caused than we were bothered about it trivialising the particular type of trauma it latches onto just to make a point.

At the end of the day, I can imagine someone else in the same position having a different response, being more sensitive to the reminder, more angered by the banality, but I still wouldn't consider it reasonable to expect others to guard their tongue with that phrase. It's asking too much to demand that degree of caution, I think. I don't say this just to blithely justify a blanket dismissal of the sensitivities of rape victims; certain types of deaths may be comparable trauma in terms of magnitude of effect, but the violation of rape makes it a quite different type of trauma, so any judgement of what level of sensitivity is a reasonable expectation has to be made on the basis of different criteria. But I do think it's ultimately a judgement in the same ethical domain.

I wouldn't disagree with the idea of deploying the word with care; that sort of comes under my umbrella maxim of "treat people with a bit of fucking respect". It's just, I think, that I come down on a different side of the argument from you in terms of the specific example -- in terms of how much of a "violation" it reads as to me. And as much as I might be in your position with someone else, finding a word-usage (of "rape", or some other word entirely) that *they* deem acceptable questionable or dismissive, ultimately I just place a pretty high value on the... ethical autonomy that allows such disparities of sensitivity, not least when it comes to language.

I guess the core of what I'm saying is that I don't think such semantic "violation" is within the moral remit of society. Which is not to say I don't support the right of others to challenge this or that use on exactly those grounds -- cause that *is* within the ethical remit of the individual -- just that I'll poke and prod wherever it looks to me like mores trying to gain territory.

6:18 am  

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