The uses of commitment


As I was saying… in free inquiry one doesn’t want taboos, to put it mildly. In political commitments, however, one does (in a sense).

What sense? Maybe the most basic one, the one you learn slowly as a child: that other people have minds too, and they are different from yours, and you can’t treat them just any old how.

Or maybe Google’s is a better version: don’t be evil. Or that of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. Or the first clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

That’s a commitment rather than a fact, and everything depends on it, and it implies some taboos. To make equal rights of all humans a reality as opposed to a pretty phrase, it’s necessary to make certain kinds of behavior and discourse taboo. Calling people “niggers” or “wogs” wasn’t taboo at all a few decades ago, and now it is. I had thought that calling people “cunts” or “twats” was taboo now, but it turns out to be not as taboo as it ought to be (not as taboo as “nigger” or “kike” for instance).

That’s a taboo much more than it is a matter of free inquiry. I don’t think that by itself is a genuine problem for free inquiry (does free inquiry need to call people cunts? No.), but other taboos can be. There are subjects that are notoriously minefields, and that is obviously inimical to free inquiry into those particular subjects.

But I don’t conclude from that that therefore atheists/freethinkers who have egalitarian commitments are doing their atheism or free thinking wrong. It would be the other way around. Atheists and freethinkers who had no egalitarian commitments would in my view be the wrong kind of atheists and freethinkers, however good (tightly argued, carefully thought through, eloquently expressed) their atheism and free thought might be. They would still be atheists and freethinkers, certainly, but I wouldn’t want them as comrades. That’s all the more the case if and when they become active in their freedom from egalitarian commitments – when they take to sneering at the very idea of feminism (i.e. at the very idea of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family including women).

 

Comments

  1. says

    To make equal rights of all humans a reality as opposed to a pretty phrase, it’s necessary to make certain kinds of behavior and discourse taboo.

    That’s something I argued once about pedophilia in opposition to someone who was advocating viewing it as just another sexual orientation (which it is NOT–search on Almost Diamonds for current research showing it isn’t), and overlooking the real harm it does to people, mainly children. I mean, can you imagine a society where pedophilia was treated as meh? It’s not one I’d like to be part of. Nor do I want to be part of a society that shrugs off systematic disparagement of women.

  2. says

    Maybe there’s some validity to the idea that there’s no room for feminism in atheism/skepticism, I don’t know. What I do know is that if you’re interested in having a vibrant, diverse community or movement of any sort, you’d damned well better make some room for feminism and other equality movements. And if you want to be a decent person, you’d better make room in your overall worldview for equality, and not treat it as some abstract idea that you can ignore when it suits you.

  3. SallyStrange, FemBrain in a FemBadge (Bigger on the Inside!) says

    Maybe there’s some validity to the idea that there’s no room for feminism in atheism/skepticism, I don’t know.

    Really? Because it seems pretty damn evident to me that claims rooted in bigotry pretty much never stand up to rational inquiry. As such, the interests of skeptics/atheists and feminists dovetail quite nicely. I’ve never seen “skeptical” claims to question feminism in general hold up under scrutiny. As Ophelia says, there are certain aspects of feminism that don’t hold up, but this is true of any academic discipline, and discussion and criticism thereof is in no way inconsistent with the central value of feminism, which is that women are human beings with all the rights and responsibilities attendant thereto.

  4. Rudi says

    The problem with taboos – even the good ones – is that they can easily and imperceptibly become dogmas. When one is advocating a scientific worldview, or even just intellectual honesty, there will inevitably be collisions between what we want to be true and what is. And that’s fine – provided we are honest about where we are making an aesthetic rather than wholly-evidenced stance.

    I am not 100% convinced that everyone in the atheist community appreciates this, even though they will all happily bash religious people for falling into the exact same trap.

  5. says

    I’m not sure that’s true. I think many taboos are too simple to become dogmas. How would you make a dogma out of “don’t call women cunts” for example? Many taboos are more like “don’t run into the street” or “don’t bite” than they are like anything content-rich enough to be a dogma.

  6. Grace says

    We wouldn’t be having this conversation if people who accepted women’s humanity as a matter of fact. If you think you are being oppressed by the idea of seeing women as fully human, you are taking for granted that you have the right to not be oppressed. Is that up for debate? Do you need to prove your right not to be oppressed to me? Are you setting up unscientific taboos or dogma for me, then?

    It’s pathetic beyond belief that this is even an argument. But this is how male supremacy is maintained. Over-reaction to women speaking about anything, demonizing women who question the idea of man as default human or asking for some basic human decency.

    “Maybe there’s some validity to the idea that there’s no room for feminism in atheism/skepticism, I don’t know.”

    Then I would ask atheist men to stop using women’s oppression only when it fits your argument against religion. Stop pointing out how evil misogyny is only when religious men do it.

    Maybe there’s some validity to the idea there’s no room for men in atheism/skepticism unless they are submissive to women and accept that they have no human rights. (Look at me, I’m being edgy! Oh wait, it’s only edgy if you are a man questioning women’s rights.)

  7. says

    I’m not sure I agree that some things should be “taboo”. It depends on how you mean the word. All of Ophelia’s examples of taboo behaviours are words. Words should never be silenced by force or violence. They can be discouraged by sound argument and social sanctions. i.e. If someone says “nigger”, the community as a whole can first point out why that is a hateful word and move on to ignoring, vilifying and, essentially, deciding the person persisting in using that word is an asshole. I’m pretty sure this is what Ophelia meant but as I read the comments I see pedophilia thrown into the mix as something that is and should be “taboo”. This is another kettle of fish altogether. Unlike Ophelia’s example, sexual abuse of children is a violent act done to someone who cannot give consent….sure, this must be taboo but it goes far beyond that into the criminal which justifies the use of force (and government force at that) to prevent it.

  8. SallyStrange, FemBrain in a FemBadge (Bigger on the Inside!) says

    Well yes Jurjen, I’m sure she did. However, his first sentence is the most interesting part of his post. It expresses the essential problem that we’re trying to get at here. Joe’s support for diverse approaches is appreciated, but: Is there room in the atheist/skeptical movement for feminism? The fact that this is even in question betrays a huge amount of ignorance about feminism and how much scholarship and data there really is backing it up.

  9. SallyStrange, FemBrain in a FemBadge (Bigger on the Inside!) says

    It depends on how you mean the word. All of Ophelia’s examples of taboo behaviours are words. Words should never be silenced by force or violence. They can be discouraged by sound argument and social sanctions.

    Isn’t that exactly what a taboo is?

  10. simonsays says

    Great post Ophelia. Only thing I’d like to add is that I think that not using certain language is more a collective acknowledgement of a certain history. It’s an informed choice to have a more humanist dialogue. In my experience folks that violate these taboos are either ignorant of the history or haters.

    Another taboo we’ve seen being violated in the name of “free inquiry ” is torture advocacy by Sam Harris and his sympathizers.

  11. Natalie says

    One thing I find worth pointing out:

    There is absolutely NO idea you can convey with terms like “cunt”, “shemale” or “faggot” that you can’t convey with less hateful terms like “vagina”, “trans woman” or “gay man”. None at all. Period.

    Therefore the “taboo” against those offensive terms DOES NOT in ANY WAY actually impede the free exchange of ideas.

    Whereas on the other hand, creating an environment that is hostile to given groups or identities, like women, LGBT people, people of colour, people with disabilities, etc. is to exclude ENTIRE sets of experiences and perspectives, and necessarily cripple yourself in terms of having access to the full range of possible interpretations of whatever it is you’re discussing.

    Therefore creating that unwelcoming environment IS harmful to the free exchange of ideas.

    So…

    in short?

    Getting to say slurs and epithets adds nothing to the actual goal of free thought, critical inquiry and open discourse.

    Creating a welcoming, safe and inclusive space for women and minorities adds a TREMENDOUS amount to the goals of free thought, critical inquiry and open discourse.

    The “right” to be a bully, misogynist, cissexist, racist, ableist or homophobe does not in any justifiable way trump the right of others to feel welcome in the discourse, community and exchange of ideas.

    I just don’t see how ANYONE can think opposing the taboo against “cunt”, etc on principle is somehow so important that that abstract principle outweighs the concrete harm that the actual words and behaviours in question entail.

  12. Natalie says

    By the way… on the matter of whether feminism belongs in skepticism…

    I can’t really see how it wouldn’t.

    For me, feminism is just a perfectly natural extention of my skepticism and dedication to looking at things rationally and weighing the evidence. The evidence supports a feminist outlook. Feminism is largely about combating biases, assumption, pseudoscience and other woo within our culture. It’s about education and awareness. Feminism, in a sense, can even be regarded as a subset of skepticism. A consequence of thinking critically about sex, gender and sexuality (of which things like trans-feminism, gay rights, acceptance of kink and polyamory and so forth are also extensions).

    I’ve never heard a single compelling argument why skepticism should focus strictly on STEM, theism, cryptids, pseudoscience, psychics, aliens, conspiracy theories, ghosts and alt-med. Skepticism can and should be applied to absolutely anything and everything. Including sex, gender and sexuality. Including race and disability. Including class and economics and drug policy and harm reduction and everything under the sun. We should ALWAYS apply critical thought.

    Is there room? Of course there’s room. I can’t imagine how there would really be any limits to how much stuff we can include within skepticism… at least not without those limits being arbitrary, and what is and isn’t included also being arbitrary.

  13. says

    @MarkNS

    as I read the comments I see pedophilia thrown into the mix as something that is and should be “taboo”. This is another kettle of fish altogether. Unlike Ophelia’s example, sexual abuse of children is a violent act done to someone who cannot give consent….sure, this must be taboo but it goes far beyond that into the criminal which justifies the use of force (and government force at that) to prevent it.

    If it wasn’t clear, I did not mean “sexual abuse of children”; instead, I was talking about “pedophilia” apart from the legal conviction. They are not the same thing though they are often linked.

    I guess I think of taboos the way SallyStrange does in #10. How do taboos differ from that part of your words that she quoted?

    Regarding that, the taboo is on pedophilia. It isn’t something the vast majority of people are going to welcome. Yet there is no law saying you can’t be a pedophile and it isn’t a crime to loudly declare onself a pedophile in the town square. The same goes for unfriendly usage of the n-word in contrast to the unfriendly usage of the c-word which seems to be thought A-OK by a frightening portion of atheists.

  14. says

    There is absolutely NO idea you can convey with terms like “cunt”, “shemale” or “faggot” that you can’t convey with less hateful terms like “vagina”, “trans woman” or “gay man”. None at all. Period.

    Not disagreeing at all with Natalie’s point, but it is interesting to note that the objection to “cunt” is that it is being used as a term of insult on its own, not for being a hateful word for “vagina” in the same way “shemale” is for “trans woman” or “faggot” for “gay man”. Although, I can see the advantage in telling someone that if they are tempted to use “cunt” as an insult they should use the more reasonable “vagina” (or “vulva”) instead. That might make the insult-hurler *think* about what s/he is actually saying.

  15. says

    Seeing as many dispositions to treat person X differently to person Y (on the basis of gender, race, etc.) would be premised on faulty thinking of one form or another, it’s impossible to me to imagine free inquiry not being concerned with equality. Part of what free inquiry is for – perhaps most of what it’s for – is getting more H.Sapiens to make judgements based on reason and principle, rather than biases and prejudices.

    However, as Ophelia was saying in the previous post, the triggers that set off these train-wrecks can be compensated for. Because of the frequent invisibility of privilege, for example, someone who says something offensive might sometimes be genuinely unaware of it (this is obviously less likely for frequent offenders). But if this privileged person immediately has various forms of thunder descend on them, they will be incentivised to respond aggressively, and the comment war starts up.

    It’s often a difficult judgement to make, but sometimes, I think a commitment to equality (or any political stance) can make us a little too impatient to get our point across, thereby coming across as less thoughtful than we actually might be.

  16. Natalie says

    Seeing as many dispositions to treat person X differently to person Y (on the basis of gender, race, etc.) would be premised on faulty thinking of one form or another, it’s impossible to me to imagine free inquiry not being concerned with equality. Part of what free inquiry is for – perhaps most of what it’s for – is getting more H.Sapiens to make judgements based on reason and principle, rather than biases and prejudices.

    This is, for me, EXACTLY why I feel that things like feminism, human rights, social justice, race issues, trans-feminism, queer issues, etc. are completely and totally in keeping with the spirit and mission of skepticism & free thought. At least as it exists for me.

    I mean…. are we practicing skepticism just for its own sake? Or because we know the damage that can be wrought by a lack of critical thinking, by biases, assumptions, cognitive distortions, misinformation, myths, superstition, etc? And using skepticism therefore as a means of preventing that damage and creating a better world?

    This is what it’s all about for me, at least. And things like sexism, misogyny, cissexism, racism, homophobia and so forth are PERFECT examples of the danger of bias, assumption, lack of critical thought and so forth. And PERFECT examples of the kinds of awfulness that religion, misinformation, pseudoscience, superstition and so forth are used to justify: witch trials, the uncleanliness of menstruation, god hates fags, black people are “less evolved” and genetically “predisposed” to crime, trans people should be treated with electro-shock because changing the sex of the body is unnatural, etc.

    Like… who gives a smeg about Bigfoot when we have people who still believe THAT stuff?

  17. Torquil Macneil says

    “I mean…. are we practicing skepticism just for its own sake? Or because we know the damage that can be wrought by a lack of critical thinking, by biases, assumptions, cognitive distortions, misinformation, myths, superstition, etc? ”

    Surely for its own sake, otherwise you would find yourself committed to abandoning skepticism if it could be proven that the non-skeptical position was, on the whole, more beneficial or (if it is different) made people happier (which there is some evidence to support in some circumstances).

    By the way, is there a distinction in concept behind the alternative spellings of ‘skepticism/scepticism’ or is this just another Atlantic divide? I like it, but the ‘k’ looks quaint to me, a touch of Dr Johnson in it.

  18. says

    I mean…. are we practicing skepticism just for its own sake? Or because we know the damage that can be wrought by a lack of critical thinking, by biases, assumptions, cognitive distortions, misinformation, myths, superstition, etc? And using skepticism therefore as a means of preventing that damage and creating a better world?

    Clearly, some people do. And they often exclude those areas where skepticism and politics overlap. Some people declare openly that they only have an interested in “knowing”, not in changing, like knowing how vaccines work and that they don’t cause autism, but for whom there is no logical next step towards doing something because of the obvious harm that shit does.
    Probably we’re talking about two sets of people here:
    One is interested in science, discussion, debunking and, to be a bit derogative here, intellectual masturbation.
    The other set is composed of people who actually think that this world needs to be a better place, because it is obviously shitty for most people, and who think that skepticism and science are tools that help us to figure out the reasons and answers to those problems.

    What I perceive from those who cry out “lack of skepticism” when confronted with things like feminism and LGBT-issues is that, while they’re often screaming their heads blue about skepticism (you know, we need to treat every claim every woman ever makes about sexism she experienced with extreme skepticism), they don’t actually practice it: they treat those issues not as something where science, skepticism and politics overlap, but as a sole matter of opinion as if we didn’t have decades of science behind us.
    Also, as opposed to not believing in Bigfoot and Alien Abductions, applying skepticism to gender roles and such might actually require them to change, if not the world, then at least themselves.

    Jaques Rousseau

    But if this privileged person immediately has various forms of thunder descend on them, they will be incentivised to respond aggressively, and the comment war starts up.

    It’s a fine line to tread, and I don’t claim that I always make it myself.
    That’s why things like a three strike rule are helpfull. But on the other hand, if somebody accused me of being something that goes so totally against my image of myself as being an egalitarian, feminist, anti-racist, LGTB-ally and so on, I stop to think wher I fucked up that big.
    What could I have done that merits such a treatment. Maybe I expressed myself badly, in which case I can reformulate my thoughts and try to become clear.
    Or maybe I really said something stupid, in which case I can apologize and learn.

  19. dirigible says

    I’d say “axiomatic” rather than “taboo”.

    Aratina Cage – Thank you for the search term. That’s very useful.

    Natalie – Once people believe in Bigfoot they’ll believe anything. Sexist views of women for example.

  20. Torquil Macneil says

    ‘Axiomatic’ is much better than ‘taboo’, I think, not just because it is marginally weaker but because ‘taboo’ inevitably contains quasi-religious connotations.

  21. maureen.brian says

    I’ll stick with ‘taboo’ for as long as we find ourselves in the company of people – possibly men but who knows? – who clearly operate under a taboo against those they believe to be women speaking out forcefully.*

    Until we can persuade such people to turn their sceptical antennae upon this taboo then I’ll stick with the word which has a good overlap between its technical and its common-sense meanings rather than take the risk, at this stage, of descending into a game of either semantics or philosophy.

    I’m not suggesting that was dirigible’s intention. I just see a potential problem.

    – – – – –

    * The best recent example is the discussion on Skepchick in the wake of Greta’s “yes, but …” post.

  22. Torquil Macneil says

    Maureen, I would agree with you that ‘taboo’ is a perfectly useful description of certain negative social rules that should be opposed, but not that any taboo should be promoted as beneficial. Taboo means non-rational, quasi-religious (or just plain religious) prohibition, and what sceptic supports that?

  23. Bruce Gorton says

    I think the nature of free inquiry – is that it is inquiry. It is about seeking answers to questions.

    That means being open to answers being provided and evidence being presented.

    I am not too sure the type sneering at feminism are engaged in inquiry so much as doing the opposite – ‘answering’.

    I put that in quotes because the answers they provide are generally wrong, but it is a distinction that I think gets lost a lot of the time.

  24. karmakin says

    @Natalie I see things a bit differently. Those things should be no-brainers, really. But I don’t see the usage of gendered insults to be the primary argument here.

    I’ve been thinking on how to say this, but if people feel that they’re going to get jumped on (justified or not) for something that’s more debatable, often people think well…in for a penny, in for a pound. This doesn’t just happen in terms of feminism/sexism, this is a quite common response..it’s a human response. Doesn’t make it right of course. Gendered insults are extremely problematic, even outside of the insulted person. The problem with them isn’t that you’re calling someone something bad, it’s that you’re saying that a gender is bad.

    But people acting emotionally often don’t think these things through, of course, and that’s the problem. In this way, a focus on gendered insults becomes a bit of a distraction..even with how damaging they are..from the actual issues that spawned them. I do think that there’s a real danger when one is making moralistic judgements, that one is ratcheting up the conflict level and as such yes, that may very well result in more emotionally charged dialogue. Not that I’m saying that this is always a bad thing…it’s often necessary…just that we shouldn’t let it surprise or distract us.

  25. Simon says

    @karmakin: Methinks that when we see the pervasive use of gendered insults that this is an “actual issue” in itself.

  26. Torquil Macneil says

    ” Gendered insults are extremely problematic, even outside of the insulted person. The problem with them isn’t that you’re calling someone something bad, it’s that you’re saying that a gender is bad.”

    Although not necessarily. You might be saying that someone of a particular sex is bad in a particular way. In fact, I think that is what most gendered insults amount to and it is why I don’t have a problem with them on the whole. There are many more insults gendered male than female let’s not forget. And it is not always obvious t first glance in which direction this goes. In the UK for example (and I realise this is an example tat has been well worked over but it is interesting) the insult ‘cunt’ is gendered male, although that might be shifting slightly according to my young friends.

  27. says

    1) Free inquiry is not only about answering questions, it’s also about questioning answers.*

    2) On a continuum of harm, bigfoot belief is probably near the bottom, eg by comparison to sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, and even in the field of biology/medicine, by comparison to anti-vax, or creationism. But I think it can be useful to have smaller, less controversial, less personally threatening areas such as this to use as “gateway skepticism”. So, someone who finds it trivially obvious and easy to use a critical thinking/skeptical approach to debunk bigfoot can be challenged to apply the same standards to some of the larger issues.

    * CFIers in my area like to (perhaps at the risk of trademark infringement) reverse the old Radio Shack motto to say, “You’ve got answers? We’ve got questions.”

  28. says

    @Torquil, are you saying that a “gendered male” insult is one that is generally aimed at males? If so, I think you are missing the point about what’s wrong with such insults. It’s obvious (to me at least) that to use a term as an insult says that (at least in the mind of the insulter and/or insulted) there is something inherently negative about the epithet. To insult something/someone by calling it/them “gay”, says that there is something wrong with being gay. Similarly to insult a man by calling him a girl says that there is something wrong with being a girl.

  29. Torquil Macneil says

    “@Torquil, are you saying that a “gendered male” insult is one that is generally aimed at males?”

    No, not quite. Rather a gendered insult is one which can only be applied to one or other sex. So you can call a man a ‘dickhesd’ but not a woman because the insult is gendered, it means something like ‘a stupid or unpleasant man’. But it needn’t be applicable only to one sex, that is a purely social condition. There is no reason in principle why we shouldn’t also call women ‘dickheads’. In the UK the same is true of ‘cunt’, it means an unpleasant man. But ‘moron’ or (in the UK) ‘twat’ is not gendered, it can be applied to either sex.

    I do agree with you that some terms can be used in the way you describe, to insult someone by associating the with something that is considered intrinsically disgusting and that this can be dangerous and damaging (your example of ‘gay’ is a good one)but in general, I don’t think that is how insults operate even if that is how they originate.

  30. says

    Oh, gawd, Torquil, please don’t start all over from the beginning with “cunt isn’t insulting to women because it’s applied to men [where I live].” We’ve had that discussion 50 times, it’s stupid, it’s a waste of time. Read up on it instead of trying to argue it. Or just think about it.

  31. Simon says

    @Torquil: Calling women ‘cunts’, ‘twats’, ‘bitches’, etc. is exactly how sexist insults operate. It happens in the UK and it happens in the US. The reverse is simply not the case. Why? Because sexism is not merely the realization that a statement is anti-woman (after all, there are are anti-man statements one could make), but also that these statements are incorporated into a context of male supremacy.

    In the real world in the US and the UK, there is no such thing as “female supremacy” and so sexist by definition cannot be applied toward men. Likewise, this is why “reverse sexism” is a misnomer.

  32. Torquil Macneil says

    Ophelia, I am thinking about it and I do recognise that it has different significance in the US but that is part of my point. We thoughtlessly assume that words that are derived from sexual characteristics must relate to sex, but actually language doesn’t work that way and he fact that ‘cunt’ is gendered male in the UK as an insult highlights that. I think this discussion exposes your lack of thought and reading rather than mine.

    But we can forget all about that particular example, it just happens to be one that you brought up hat’s all.

  33. Simon says

    Argh, meant to say:

    In the real world in the US and the UK, there is no such thing as “female supremacy” and so sexist insults by definition cannot be applied toward men. Likewise, this is why “reverse sexism” is a misnomer.

  34. Torquil Macneil says

    Simon, I am not claiming that sexist insults do not exist, just that many of the apparently gendered insults are not sexist in the way that is often assumed. I don’t see how broader power relations apply here because I think this is just a plain misunderstanding about what words do. It clarifies to look at other languages, I think. ‘Cunt’ in Spanish is not something tat can be applied to men or women, for example, although it can be used to express dismay (in the manner of ‘bollocks’ in the UK). But if you call a man a ‘goat’ you had better be ready for a punch up. But I doubt anyone would want to claim that hispanic cultures are less sexist tan anglo ones.

  35. says

    Sigh. I posted that before I even saw 32. Torquil that’s just such a crock, plus we’ve been over it and over it in the past. Learn more about it or drop it. You don’t know what you’re talking about (and the purport of what you’re saying is temperature-raising in exactly the way these posts are talking about, which is ironic).

    Or just take my word for it. Calling a man a cunt is insulting to women.

  36. karmakin says

    Yeah that doesn’t pass the smell test. At all.

    @Simon: I’m not saying it’s not an issue in the larger context. What I am saying is that in terms of these…fights…that people using gendered insults are doing it, either consciously or subconsciously, because that’s what gets the strongest response out of people. It’s basically trolling. The intention is to disrupt, to distract.

  37. Torquil Macneil says

    Ophelia, it is unlike you to avoid an argument and to demand that your word is simply taken as law. I think it demonstrates a bit of inscurity. I am happy to drop it if you are bored but I am telling you that you are wrong, to call man a cunt is not insulting to women and if you are unable to grasp that I advise you to do bit more reading or even try to think.

  38. karmakin says

    Also, I don’t think the power imbalances are really what make gendered insults bad. Even in a much more egalitarian society, it wouldn’t make said insults less bad…the same meaning is behind them.

    The difference is that in terms of calling someone a “dick” it’s a lowering of a couple of pegs which probably can stand to happen. However, yes, as we move towards egalitarianism, male gendered insults will have to go as well.

    But not yet.

  39. says

    Torquil Macneil is doing something along the lines of what my first post was complaining about: taking words that have context and emotional baggage and dishonestly divorcing them from all of that, and acting as though those words can be discussed as an abstract concept.

  40. says

    Torquil, I told you – we’ve had this conversation before, more than once. I don’t want to have it all over again just because you’re unaware of the previous ones. Use the search box here and at the old B&W to find them.

    Obviously I don’t normally demand that my word be taken as law. Obviously I’m aware of the irony of invoking a taboo in a discussion about taboo. I’m demanding it in this particular case because you’re ignoring what I’m telling you and that’s irritating.

  41. says

    If there is no sexual/sexist connotation, why is it insulting to call someone (male or female) a uniquely female body part – eg “cunt” or a uniquely male body part – eg “dick” ( ? Let’s move a few cm over, and use the gender-free epithet “femur” instead. If that’s not sufficiently insulting, why not?

  42. says

    And it’s not “insecurity.” It’s deep exhausted irritation with men who insist on telling women that the word “cunt” is not insulting to women.

  43. Torquil Macneil says

    Ophelia, I a not ignoring what you are telling me, I have heard it, thought about it, and continued to disagree with it. I know that can be irritating when you feel strongly about something, but we all suffer that irritation all the time.

  44. Torquil Macneil says

    “Let’s move a few cm over, and use the gender-free epithet “femur” instead. If that’s not sufficiently insulting, why not?”

    Or we could stick to real-world examples such as ‘shit’ or ‘shithead’. It seems that ll words associated with copulation or bodily functions are used as insults. And I guess that that is because they have traditionally been taboo words. How they are applied depends on the local linguistic culture and is pretty much arbitrary, having, as far as I can see, little or nothing to do with broader political differences between the sexes.

  45. Simon says

    @karmakin: Again, I disagree. Use of these insults is both a cause and a symptom for a particular mindset that women are inferior. Yes on the one hand structural inequalities create an attitude that it’s OK to call women names as a put-down (symptom). However on the other it also perpetuates the same way of thinking (cause).

    Not saying that it’s the only cause or only symptom but a part of the problem.

    Part of empowering people is rejecting these nasty habits as sexist and derogatory.

    So for example if you watch Mad Men, it portrays the very real history that once upon a time in America it was OK for male staff to call female staff “sweetheart”. Today this is to quote Ophelia a “taboo” in the workplace even though the term “sweetheart” taken literally is not a bad thing in most contexts.

  46. Torquil Macneil says

    What you have got there Simon (and it is a good example) is a socially imposed power difference that has nothing to do with the gendered content of the word (‘sweetheart’ isn’t gendered after all) and that is an explicitly sexist practice. But I think that is making my point.

  47. says

    Torquil @47 – no, you are ignoring me; you’re ignoring what I’ve said about having had this discussion before. It’s not the disagreement by itself that’s irritating, it’s the insistence on repeating old conversations instead of looking them up to see how old they are. You are not the first (or second, or third) person to say here that “cuntisnotsexistbecauseit’saddressedtomen.”

    And then solemnly pointing out the problems with taboos as if that weren’t my whole point in the post is also irritating.

    I don’t know what it is about you, exactly, but whatever it is, it is.

  48. karmakin says

    I see what you’re saying, yes, I agree with that. However, I still do state that in a mostly egalitarian society (let’s be honest. We’re never going to get to perfection. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be always worked towards however), the causes/effects of those terms still would apply, I think in terms of patternizing a specific gender as being a negative trait.

    And regarding “sweetheart” it depends on the context. It can be meant in a patronizing way, dismissing the individual or in a way that really could be a form of harassment. Or it could just be a neutral term. (As in high-school sweethearts).

    But it’s not strictly positive.

  49. Torquil Macneil says

    “You are not the first (or second, or third) person to say here that “cuntisnotsexistbecauseit’saddressedtomen.””

    Ophelia I have not made this argument at all, so you have mixed me up with someone else. Likewise the thing about taboos. I said ‘cunt’ (used as an insult) was gendered male in the UK which is something altogether different and verifiably true.

  50. Simon says

    @karmakin: That’s exactly what I’m saying: context matters. Nobody would argue that calling your partner “sweetheart” is a foul. However at the same time calling your female co-worker that is generally frowned upon.

    Likewise, I’m sure if we think long and hard enough we can place every swear word in the English language into a sentence that is harmless, but the basic idea that calling a woman certain words is hate speech can also be the case notwithstanding.

  51. karmakin says

    *sigh*.

    The reason it’s only used against men is because it’s calling them women. That’s the insult. That’s why it’s a bad thing.

    This is not difficult to grasp.

    That said, do I think everybody who uses that term intends to mean it that way? No I do not. However, patterns are very powerful, and using terms like that really does reinforce negative patterns to where female traits are bad things and “valid” ways to insult people.

  52. Torquil Macneil says

    Simon, it could be, it is conceivable, but the evidence doesn’t back it up. Calling a woman a ‘twat’ (and I am being UK-centric ere) is no more hate speech than calling man a ‘twat’ it is simply an attempt to denigrate her or him (and a fairly mild one this side of the sea). You an see the point more clearly if you look at derivatives of ‘twat’ like ‘twit’. If there was a situation where a person in power called underling women ‘twat’ that would be an abuse and if it was institutionalised so that the power imbalance was men over women that would be a sexist abuse.

  53. Torquil Macneil says

    “The reason it’s only used against men is because it’s calling them women. That’s the insult. That’s why it’s a bad thing.”

    That seems implausible because it is arbitrary, not accounting for the non-gendered ‘twat’ or the gendered ‘dick/cock/nob/ballbag etc etc’, or for the fact that it can be used between men with no derogatory content at all (‘hello you old cunt’ are you coming to the pub) which is quite common in the UK.

  54. karmakin says

    Oh it’s definitely hate speech. I’d actually take it a step further and call it terroristic speech, in some cases, to be honest. Because I really do think that can be the intention at times. It really all does depend on context.

    I’m not trying to defend people who use those terms..exactly the opposite. I just happen to think that at least in some of these cases the language used is way past exaggerated, into a sad twisted self-parody warped by rage and anger.

  55. maureen.brian says

    Torquil,

    Shut up and think, will you.

    You are not the only person who lives in the UK. Several of us from the other 60 million turn up here quite often and can confirm that you are talking bollocks.

  56. Rrr says

    Well, torquil, then i guess you simply cannot see or hear so well. Best advice in such positions: refrain from speaking until you understand what of. (Applied Wittgenstein?) Or, you could try to learn, as already instructed. Repeatedly.

  57. Torquil Macneil says

    Maureen, feel free to point out how and where if you can stop dribbling on the keyboard for long enough.

  58. Rrr says

    Sorry, I don’t mean to crush anybody. It’s just that most of us have already seen this particular trainwreck far too many times. Your unique input to that discussion is not so much so, and not really needed. To the contrary, it seems to some of us that your own exposure has been insufficient.

  59. Torquil Macneil says

    Rrr, if you know me better you would be less inclined to urge greater exposure, but never mind, at least you are here to keep score and to let everyone know what needs to be said and what doesn’t. Imagine the anarchy otherwise!

  60. Rrr says

    It feels like we have enough of bores for a while, so I’ll just go and boil some fat for dinner:

    Slowly boil 150 ml olive oil, 6 coarsely chopped garlic cloves, some finely chopped shallot and a bit of chili. After 20 min add 50 g butter and juice of one lime. Serve with scampi, quickly roasted in hot pan with a little cayenne, rice, veg and bread.

    Not exactly Kosher, but we weren’t fans of taboos anyway, were we? :-)

  61. says

    Oh fark. Torquil just stop commenting for awhile, please. You’re re-arguing the ABCs as if no one had ever argued them before and you’re getting them wrong to boot. You’re derailing the thread and making it all about you. You’re not interesting enough to compensate for that. Just stop.

  62. Torquil Macneil says

    OK Ophelia, I will push off although I don’t think I was derailing the thread, just politely disagreeing with one or two points. If some of your other commentators hadn’t waded in with the insults it wouldn’t have been about me (or them) at all. But hey ho, different stokes and all that. Perhaps I was getting it wrong or even being dull but it would have been nice if someone had attempted to explain or argue what and how instead of just stamping their feet, clutching their pearls and shouting ‘stop!’

    Good luck rooting out an idea that nobody has been over before. I will look forward to that thread!

  63. Svlad Cjelli says

    The priority of Primum Non Nocere or Primum Succurrere is tricky.

    Old Hip himself said it fine, “to do good or to do no harm”.

  64. Lyanna says

    One cannot have a free, open, skeptical discussion if the right of all persons to participate in it fully (without being able to dismiss someone’s views simply because they’re a kike or a nigger or a cunt) is not respected. Or if the obligation to respond to ideas, rather than to genitalia or skin color, is not respected.

    Dismissing some participants, or would-be participants, as cunts or bitches is inimical to skeptical discussion.

    Skeptical discussion is not a neutral, norm-free kind of thing. It is heavily dependent on egalitarian norms.

  65. says

    For the record – no, Torquil, actually what would have been nice would have been you not deciding (starting @29) to set everyone straight on the basics of sexist epithets, and doing that by minimizing them, saying when they aren’t, and the like.

  66. says

    Oh damn, that had to happen, didn’t it?
    I had a bad feeling when Torqil walked in and I’m sad I wasn’t disappointed.

    Desperately trying to get back on topic

    On a continuum of harm, bigfoot belief is probably near the bottom, eg by comparison to sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, and even in the field of biology/medicine, by comparison to anti-vax, or creationism. But I think it can be useful to have smaller, less controversial, less personally threatening areas such as this to use as “gateway skepticism”.

    I definetly agree with you here, the problem I have is with people who want to stop with Bigfoot

  67. says

    Giliell, it didn’t really have to happen – Torquil could have just decided not to set everyone straight about sexist epithets. He could have figured out that the subject had been under discussion a lot for a long time and therefore it’s most unlikely that anyone here needs a (thoroughly mistaken) explanation of the ABCs. But noooooooo.

  68. says

    Why is it impossible for people like Torquil Macneil to get the point? It’s a kind of emotional blindness, the stupid male inability to empathise with women, because they are, let’s face it misogynistic. Anyone who can’t see that using the “cunt” of a man is insulting to women is beyond redemption in this respect, I’m afraid. When someone says, “Words — not ideas, words — like that are a conversation stopper. I can’t get beyond your trash talk to what you are trying to say,” it should be obvious that, where ideas can be expressed without using such words, those words should be taboo. It’s just callous insensitivity to think otherwise, and a bit tiresome too. Who really wants to stand up for their right to continue to use language like that when others are saying, “I can’t hear what you want to say if you use words like that to express them”?

    However, having said that, I have to add a question. When, say, Muslims say that, if we speak of their religion is such and such ways, they simply get angry and can’t see our point, what response do we give? For that’s what so many people have been saying about the new atheism. They’ve been calling it strident and shrill and things like that, and we’ve been accused of writing about religion in ways that simply offend the religious instead of engaging with them. Is there are clear way to make the distinction between the first point about taboo words, and the second about ways of expressing our distaste for, or our criticism of, certain ideas?

  69. Josh Slocum says

    Ophelia, I apologize if this sounds out of place, but I’m tired of people like Torquil derailing conversations by going back to square one. It’s pointless and he’s not an honest interlocutor. If I were you I’d be much more ready to back up your polite requests to not go there with a quick placement in moderation. He’s made conversation on the original post impossible, and he doesn’t deserve to do that.

  70. says

    Josh – I know. I’m tired of it too. I should have placed him in moderation, but (like a chump) I kept assuming he would be polite and stop going back to square one.

    Will try to do better. :- )

  71. maureen.brian says

    You’re doing fine, Ophelia!

    If I may respectfully disagree about the point at which silencing of a certain party became a good idea it would be at comment 25, where I found him mansplaining to me something I was learning at uni about 1961! And not doing it terribly well, either.

    His further ramblings confirm my original thought – that was several decades before his birth.

  72. says

    I definetly agree with you here, the problem I have is with people who want to stop with Bigfoot

    Yes, so how do we get people who have demonstrated by their approach to Bigfoot that they are clearly capable of rational thought to extend that rational approach to areas where they are being less than rational?

  73. mouthyb says

    Making everyone go back to basics over and over seems to be a standard tactic for people who want to disappear social justice. And then, when they aren’t allowed to derail, inevitably claim they were ‘silenced,’ despite the fact that they are too lazy to be arsed to do their own research.

    I don’t blame people for getting aggravated/exasperated/frustrated/etc. It’s annoying to have people be so disingenuous. And it’s so fucking consistent.

  74. says

    Yes, so how do we get people who have demonstrated by their approach to Bigfoot that they are clearly capable of rational thought to extend that rational approach to areas where they are being less than rational?

    Hmmm, there are a lot of maybes in my answer now.
    Maybe we can’t get them further. Maybe they have to want to progress by themselves. Somebody who thinks that the world is Ok as it is will probably not be interested in applying the tools of skepticism and science towards its change.
    Maybe we have to show them that their perceived idea of themselves as good skeptical people is at odds with reality.
    Maybe at some time we have to face the fact that the umbrella of skepticism as well as that of atheism is so incredibly large that there are people under it who belong there, because they are atheists, but with whom you’d rather not share a table in a restaurant.

  75. says

    maureen – true, that comment would have been a good place to start fingering the “moderation” button. It was so casual about flatly ignoring everything I said in the post.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Eric asked, on the last thread, When, say, Muslims say that, if we speak of their religion is such and such ways, they simply get angry and can’t see our point, what response do we give? For that’s what so many people have been saying about the new atheism. They’ve been calling it strident and shrill and things like that, and we’ve been accused of writing about religion in ways that simply offend the religious instead of engaging with them. Is there are clear way to make the distinction between the first point about taboo words, and the second about ways of expressing our distaste for, or our criticism of, certain ideas? […]

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