From an email that arrived in my inbox last night, authored by a self-described "young guy who has only just started researching all of this stuff about discrimination and equality":
I've been reading through the feminist 101 posts and, while I agree with the majority of points made in them, found issue with the subject of misogynistic language.What has been edited out and replaced with ellipses is a bunch of Oppression Olympics about how the n-word is still real bad and stuff. Unlike misogynist slurs. Which are just "ordinary insults," allegedly.
I love words and I love using them. I've never had a problem with swearing because I've always believed that context is what matters; not the words themselves.
If the argument against using these words is that, even if the context is harmless, it slowly but surely reinforces a negative mentality about women … then I would agree.
…Cunt began as a misogynist term; popular usage evolved it into an ordinary insult.
I'll be the first to say that popular usage doesn't erase the original meaning of a word, but popular usage does change the majority of peoples' own meaning of a word; this means that using the word cunt and bitch nowadays doesn't actually reinforce a negative mentality about women at all.
…I'd like to know what you think. If I've missed something or haven't made my point clear, please let me know.
What I find most remarkable about this email, like all the others from men (always men) who feel entitled to email me and demand personal private education, is that its author fails utterly to make even the most cursory attempt to empathize with women who are the targets of misogynist slurs, deployed specifically to remind us that we are less than. He speaks about context as if "cunt" and "bitch" exist in a void. There is no context in which a word that is predicated on devaluing the feminine is "harmless." Not for women.
(And not for men from marginalized populations defined by gender and sexuality who are demeaned with misogynist slurs.)
"Nowadays," he says, misogynist slurs don't "actually reinforce a negative mentality about women at all." Even were it true (it is not) that men (and other women) who call women cunts and bitches are using the words in some sort of magical history-free context that isn't explicitly designed to demean women, and explicitly designed to demean men by comparing them to women, how women who are being called cunts and bitches feel matters.
Even if it were true (it is not) that misogynist slurs do not maintain institutional sexism that marginalizes women, that such slurs don't "reinforce a negative mentality about women" among the people who use them, we know—because multiple studies and millions of public statements by women about their lived experiences confirm this fact—that being repeatedly exposed to oppressive slurs negatively affects the people targeted by them.
Even if it were true (it is not) that misogynist slurs don't negatively affect the slur-users' opinions about women, they still negatively affect women's opinions about themselves.
There are certainly women who don't even bat an eye at being called a cunt or a bitch, myself among them. But it's not because the words don't have the capacity to harm—it's because I'm inured to them after a lifetime of pervasive exposure.
That misogynist slurs have lost their capacity to harm (some women) because of their ubiquity isn't evidence of their neutrality. It's evidence of humans' capacity to normalize abuse in order to survive.
What a luxury, what privilege, that's something my correspondent has never had to consider.