Research, Advocacy, and Services »« The Reading List, 5/11/2014

Let’s Call It a Hitler

So by now you’ve probably seen that Ricky Gervais is once again desperately clinging to a word that he desperately needs to…well, for some reason anyway, I’m sure. I first saw it on Facebook:

If you grabbed Hitler and shouted “stop killing innocent people you cunt”, someone on Facebook would call you out on your sexist language.

As I pointed out there, if you grabbed Hitler and shouted at him, people would rightly point out that he’s dead and hasn’t been killing people for nearly 70 years, which just raises the next question: What are you really doing that’s so vitally important you can’t spare a moment to deal with sexism?

When Ophelia posted more of Gervais’s “defense”, such as it is, it struck me how hard he was working to defend something that’s fundamentally useless. It just doesn’t work as a serious epithet, unless your entire point is the misogyny. It’s even more useless for a comedian.

A great deal of comedy relies on surprise and creativity. Calling Hitler a cunt? It’s one of the most trite, unoriginal, even boringly reflexive things someone could call him. It packs all the punch of a two year old stamping their feet and saying, “You’re mean.” Ooh, somebody swore. A big swear! How utterly sheltered does someone have to be for that to elicit even a titter? You called a genocidal tyrant the same thing you’d call the person who took your bar stool while you were in the bathroom!

Gasp!

Giggle!

Yawn.

If you’re going to seriously stake your personal reputation on that as a defense of your comedic art, I’m going point out that you’re telling us you’re out of real material. What rank amateur couldn’t start with Hitler and cunts and come up with funnier material? The simplest, most obvious way to make it funnier is to turn people’s expectations on their heads.

Doing this can make just about any material funnier, from ungrammatical porn comments:

i love carmen i wanna suk them titswhile i fingr her hitler

To popular genre fiction:

“Bitch.”
“Slut.”
“Whore.”
“Hitler.”
I kicked Joyce in the shin. I draw the line at Hitler.

To misogynist literary It Boys:

You can forgive a young Hitler anything. A young Hitler doesn’t have to have brains. They’re better without brains.

To actual separatist radical feminism:

Without honoring Whores, we cannot truly understand and transcend the dynamics of violence, destruction and ignorance fostered in our Hitlerfearing society.

To Adam Carolla:

Nature knew what she was doing when she figured out the penis and the Hitler.

Yes, giving Hitler and cunts literally the least amount of thought from a comedic perspective can even make Adam Carolla funnier, if only because it now makes no sense on purpose. So much funnier than calling Hitler “rude names”.

So what exactly is Gervais defending here? He’s not going to miraculously, retroactively prevent the Holocaust. He’s not going to make a remotely worldly audience laugh. Just what good use is he going to put the word to that’s going to make it worth wearing “cunt”‘s colors into battle?

A quick note on comments: Don’t even.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    But Gervais is edgy and cutting and with-it and edgy and stuff like that. It takes real manliness to use a sexist word at a guy who’s been dead for almost 70 years. When was the last time you read somebody actually being rude about Hitler? If it weren’t for Ricky Gervais, all of us might have thought that Hitler wasn’t deserving of being grabbed and told off using a misogynist slur. I salute Gervais for standing up against Hitler.

    </snark>

  2. says

    Tossing this out for general sounding of opinions: As Gervais’ point was that some people are likely to be more offended by words than deeds, no matter how awful the deed (I don’t necessarily agree), what about the idea that words only have power that we give them? And if we “take them back” in some way, we can strip them of their power to wound? LGBT people have taken possession of “queer.” Here in Austin, members of the ACA run a feminist podcast called “Godless Bitches,” bitch being a word still held by many to be as vile a misogynist smear as cunt. I have a personal friend — British, atheist and lesbian — who uses both cunt and twat as general epithets quite regularly.

    Are certain words so toxic that there’s simply no way to un-weaponize them, so to speak? Are there some words that will just always have power over us, no matter what?

  3. says

    How’s that whole “But black people call each other ‘niggers'” thing working out, Martin? [ETA: For people in general. I’m not suggesting you do this personally.] Does grasping the positive connotations of “bitch” mean that somebody sneering at “bitches” is no longer saying women shouldn’t be so uppity? Reclaiming never makes using a word to denigrate a group of people, either directly or through association, no longer an act of denigration.

    Also, if that’s actually Gervais’s point, he did a crap job of arguing it. No one has to rank their objections to the things they encounter in life and only complain about the top one.

  4. says

    Dwelling, CG? Finishing a post I started a couple of days ago because I still had tabs open and still found the idea of Adam Carolla being funny to be funny. But your imposition of a statute of limitations on the internet is noted for all it’s worth. I’ll try to remember that the next time I have a busy weekend. Mostly because it makes me laugh.

  5. CG says

    I’m with you 99% of the time, but I’m not a big fan of the righteous indignation. It precludes intelligent debate. It’s not like I want to argue FOR the use of the “C” word, as I do not use it. Ricky was using an obvious extreme to make a point. Again, I wouldn’t say that either – It’s treading a little too close to Godwin’s Law. Do you really think Grevais is as horrible of a person as you are making him out to be? You don’t like that word, I don’t like that word, but can’t we see that the hateful intent isn’t there?

    As for a statute of limitations for the internet… well, when is the last time you saw an ALL YOUR BASE reference? (Except now.) ;)

  6. says

    Indignant? If you have an interest in getting things right, you’ll want to stop trying to intuit my emotional state, particularly if you’re really the sort of person who sees laughter and thinks, “Aha! Indignation!” And I’m pretty sure I made Gervais out to be a comic impaired by his own need to use a word that–by associating it with Hitler–he himself made out to be hateful.

    I’ve seen an “all your base” reference within the last two months, and it worked beautifully. Callbacks can be the best. See above about comedy and surprise.

  7. Al Dente says

    Martin Wagner @2

    I have a personal friend — British, atheist and lesbian — who uses both cunt and twat as general epithets quite regularly.

    C*nt can’t be sexist. One of Martin’s personal friends, a British atheist lesbian no less, uses it so it must be okay to use in common speech. No further proof is needed since c*nt has the Martin Wagner Seal of Approval™ and is Martin Wagner Certified™ to be absolutely, positively, totally non-sexist and devoid of any hint of misogyny. MARTIN WAGNER HAS SPOKEN!!1!one!

  8. says

    Al Dente, I think that’s supposed to rely on the British, atheist lesbian’s authority, not Martin’s. That doesn’t make it any more valid as an argument though.

  9. says

    This is in general why I’m not attracted to Gervais, even though he can be rather funny. His “pushing the envelope” stuff, always cruelty pointed down the privilege scale, is boring and stupid and frequently reaches “you’re an arsehole, Ricky” proportions. Some of the bits I have in mind might be funnier if he were clearly intending to portray the character of a complete ass (i.e., the joke is the absurd behavior of an oppressor, not how bad the oppressed are getting it). And all that can still be done without the misogynist (or other bigoted) words.

    But since I never know what I’m going to get if I crack a box of Gervais, I don’t bother to go looking.

  10. says

    Bravo! Splendid complete misrepresentation of absolutely everything I said, Al. I’m sure that finely honed snide sense of moral superiority has gotten you far in life.

    For those whose reading comprehension skills are slightly above 2nd grade, I never argued that, because I know someone who uses the terms and doesn’t take personal offense to them, they therefore are not sexist in any context. My point was: as examples exist of words that have been de-weaponized, either by culture or by individuals in a culture, is there any case where a particular word cannot have its power to cause harm taken from it? Is “cunt” that word? Is this one instance where we just have to shrug and say “Yep, guess we gotta let the misogynists win this one”?

  11. says

    I mean, really, what is the “winning” condition here? The way you described it, Martin, “winning” appears to be just ceasing to interrogate some people’s idea that female = bad.

  12. says

    Sorry I was unclear. It seems like — and I’d love to be wrong on this — that as long as misogynists have weapons at their disposal that cannot be taken from them, they have a way to claim a “win” over the feminazi harridans who want to destroy mom, America and apple pie. Even if that weapon is a one-syllable epithet. They can assure themselves, even if it’s only in the most petty and juvenile way, that they’re still on top, still in charge, still get to dictate how the world will be.

    I’ll be honest, I don’t see how we can defuse some language of its volatility either, leaving the only possible response angry opposition whenever it appears. But some words, as in the examples I listed in my initial comment, have been defused and in some cases claimed by those they meant to victimize.

    When Beth Presswood, Tracie Harris and Jen Peeples launched “Godless Bitches,” several women on Facebook announced they simply weren’t willing to support the show, as they just couldn’t abide the word. Are they out of line for allowing themselves to be thus offended? I’d personally never dream of saying so. And yet, the title stuck, with the show’s three hosts entirely comfortable in their ownership and usage of a word that’s never remotely been intended to compliment women.

    So at a certain point in time, “bitch,” for some feminists, was a word that became disarmed. I guess I’m just intrigued by how that process occurs in a culture.

  13. says

    Okay, I understand that a bit better. I think there’s an important difference between words like “bitch” and “queer” and words like “cunt” and “nigger”, though. Calling someone “bitch” is telling them that they’re being too assertive to be properly female. Calling someone “queer” is saying that their sexual orientation is different from that of other people. In both cases, reclaiming the word is a matter of deconstructing it and pointing out that the positive underlying implications. Woman get to be assertive and can benefit from being so. Differences in sexual orientation can have a sexy, subversive edge. And if the bigots hate that, it just becomes more fun.

    It’s a different thing, though, when the “insult” boils down entirely to “You’re female!” or “You’re black!” There’s no subtext, no deconstruction to be done. These aren’t coded words used to justify oppression. They are bald statements of the oppression itself. There is no positive implication to be unearthed. There’s nothing to be said except, “What the fuck? Who are you to say those are bad things? In what world is that a reasonable insult instead of a big racist/sexist flag?” Because they are direct statements, dealing with them is just as direct.

    How do you take that from someone? You make the behavior cost them. Anger can do that, but so can mockery. Then they cry their sweet, sweet “persecution” tears, which looks a lot more like “winning” to me than adopting their behavior does. And in fact, there are quite a few people currently laughing that Gervais has resorted to painting himself as a WWII hero to try to look like a victim.

  14. brucegee1962 says

    Words have connotations. So, Martin, in the example you just gave, I can just barely see how the attempt to reclaim the b* word might attempt to reclaim the word. It’s always had both positive and negative connotations — on the one hand, women who are mean and cruel, but on the other hand, women who are strong and self-confident. So the attempt to reclaim the word might conceivably work by emphasizing the positive connotations of strength and toughness.

    But I doubt it, for the same reason the n word will never be reclaimed. Even if it becomes commonly used within the community to whom it has been applied, it can never lose those negative connotations enough to jump the barrier and be acceptable outside that community. A guy can never say, “She’ll make a great CEO, because she’s a really tough b*h.” It just won’t work — all the negative connotations are still stuck on and they won’t ever shake loose in that context. And that goes triple for the c word, which lacks any positive connotations whatsoever.

    That said, you’re right that there do seem to be a few words that have been successfully stripped of most of their negative connotations, like “queer” and “dyke” (for the most part). I guess I don’t know enough about the atmosphere they were used with originally to know how bad those negatives were originally. And even then — are they still really entirely safe to be used by those outside the group being referred to, without risk of causing offense?

  15. hoary puccoon says

    Well, sure, probably most of us now see homosexuality as a perfectly normal version of the human condition. So queer isn’t an insult, and dyke is heading that way. (Its negative connotations may now have more to do with assertiveness. As in the discussion of bitch, above.)

    But using normal, female parts as an insult– and then, to say it’s okay because you’re only insulting Hitler! No, Ricky, baby, you aren’t insulting Hitler. Hitler is dead and way beyond caring. You are insulting me, and millions of other people who have done you no harm. I’ve never thought you were funny. But now I just think you’re a slug.*

    *My apologies to any Mollusca who may be offended by this.

  16. Al Dente says

    I apologize to Martin Wagner for misrepresenting his argument. I read it that he was taking back c*nt but he was really asking if it could be taken back.

    That said, I have to ask why is it so important to Martin Wagner to “take back” c*nt? Is it a word which requires redemption? Will Western Civilization be improved and enriched if c*nt becomes acceptable for use by people besides British atheist lesbians? Why must a term for vagina be made respectable when there are other words which adequately name vaginas without being sexist? The word “vagina” comes immediately to mind.

    In short, I attributed the wrong stupid argument to Martin Wagner. Instead he was making a different stupid argument.

  17. sigurd jorsalfar says

    I find Gervais’ reasoning in favor of the word ‘cunt’ about as compelling as if he’d written:

    “If you grabbed Hitler and shouted “stop killing innocent people you nigger”, someone on Facebook would call you out on your racist language.”

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