What’s in a name?
Representative Yoho called Representative Ocasio-Cortez “a Fucking Bitch” on the steps of the Capitol. He continued to tell her that she was “disgusting” for saying that poverty was the driving force behind a rise in crime in New York City. I think we know who is disgusting, but we don’t have to yell it at him on the steps of the Capitol.
Then, they each went to the House floor to speak about the incident. By now you know that Yoho apologized for being disrespectful, while denying that he called A.O.C. a “Fucking Bitch”. He went on to talk about his wife of 45 years and his two daughters and his love of country etc.
A.O.C. gave a powerful rebuke, suggesting that Yoho came to the House floor to “make excuses for his behavior”.
She continued, “What I do have issue with is using women, wives and daughters as shields and excuses for poor behavior,” she said. “Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters. I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter too. My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter.”
For many, her words were a moment of clarity. Regardless of party affiliation, or political attachments, she spoke to the significance of speech as behavior. What is decency? What is responsibility? How we treat each other matters.
I was floored that so many men were awakened—men who typically value women and have sided politically with women’s issues. Like the #MeToo outpouring that revealed basically every female (and plenty of males and those on a gender spectrum) who have experienced sexual harassment and/or abuse, so many men were shocked.
Those moments of clarity are sobering. For those of us who feel redeemed, we know we are not alone or that we didn’t do anything to warrant such behavior. For those (mostly men) who are sobered by the pervasiveness of disgrace, despite thinking that they are champions of women, welcome to the real world.
Language defines worlds. As (his)tory has unfolded, it has been his. Women have been the other. We thought we moved beyond the 70s and 80s, those waves of feminism that brought women’s issues to the forefront. Like our reckoning now with systemic racism, we are still reckoning with sexism.
I see this moment as an opportunity to confront what I call “Slurred Speech”. You know when someone makes a racial slur. It’s a form of name calling intended to evoke an image—perhaps a stereotype or a negative image, even from a bygone era, that demeans and depicts the person as less than. It is intended to degrade and humiliate, and is expressed with venom, anger, or disgust. Or maybe it’s expressed as a matter of fact, which is more insidiously dangerous. It is intended to wield power, and even children understand this without being explicitly taught.
I dare say we have all used Slurred Speech at one time or another. For kids it’s part of play. Kids learn how to deal with insults of all sorts, sometimes in useful ways; usually not.
We define ethnicity with Slurred Speech, and despite decades of “political correctness” that has sought to remind people that insults are bad behavior and beneath our character, many have been slow to grasp the social cues. Our recognition that insulting people based on ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, mental capacity, (dis)ability, is not only about decent behavior, but about transforming the way we think. Transforming speech is transforming behavior. I’m actually appreciative of Sarah Palin’s directive to not use disability as an insult, including “retarded”.
Now, this is different than merely saving denigrating speech for private or select situations. Comedians have always sought to push the envelope by using Slurred Speech for its shock value. Audiences laugh because it gives them permission to not be perfect—to feel like their perceptions are true in some way. It’s validating.
It’s also distorting.
Slurred speech, when one has a physical condition, whether congenital or temporary as brought on by drugs or alcohol, is difficult to understand. The distinct phonemes blur together. It’s interesting to me that a slur also means a derogatory name or insult. It blurs together everyone in a category and demeans and dehumanizes them.
Throughout history, humans have used Slurred Speech to dehumanize the other. Racial, ethnic, (dis)ability, sexual preference, gender, have been verbal weapons. Sometimes the Slurred Speech conjures up some myth that lingers—even as a myth—but remains as an understood insult, and so is hurled because it is a known weapon, like a knife. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a new tool; it still stabs and wounds.
Feminizing someone and using female related words as slurs have always been weapons. The most demeaning thing to say to a man has always been that he is like a woman—as though that is the worst thing imaginable. How to degrade a man? Call him a pussy. And what’s the worst thing to call a woman? Aside from a Fucking Bitch on the steps of the Capitol, call her a whore. Because a woman who has to sell her body to make a living must be worse than the John who seeks her out.
We’ve seen a shift in speech since the Baby Boom when letting it all hang out became preferred to uptight polite repression. Everyone just lets it rip. It has lead to a moment that still sends chills and nausea through me: the moment when Representative Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie! ” on September 9, 2009 during President Obama’s joint address to congress.
That was not Slurred Speech, or was it? It was a direct reaction, but it was hard not to believe that the only time that such a disrespectful outburst occurred was by a White congressman against the first Black POTUS.
When did letting it all hang out evolve into disgraceful behavior through speech? There is no doubt that aggressive speech is better than physical aggression, but they are not disconnected. Words inspire. Words are reflections of control. Who utters what matters. Shifting norms is a fluid process. We are always evolving as a culture. But evolution can be messy.
Sometimes, we get clarifying moments. Other times, we get to hear language that sounds familiar but in a new context, and we have to learn to listen differently. Controlling language shifts power dynamics. That’s why there was a backlash to “political correctness”. It was a threat to a power dynamic.
When words like the N-word, Bitch, and Queer are newly controlled , people, along with those words are transformed. Those previously victimized are empowered. Power dynamics shift from dehumanizing/objectifying to ownership and control.
When a woman is called a Bitch, it is an attempt to remind her to step down from power. This is a concept that isn’t even thought by most who utter it. Words just fly off the tongue. It is a habit, passed down to each generation. The human need for power is eternal. But in the USA, everyone seems to fear losing whatever power could possibly be held. I see snarky comments by so-called bleeding hearts all the time. Everyone seems to have Slurred Speech. Some contain it better than others, and know their “safe spaces”.
We have become a scared ,diminished society, not because of the Pandemic. This is America. We strive here, and when that is threatened, personally or as a group, we insult, degrade, dehumanize and diminish through Slurred Speech.