Ally Fogg on the other hand has an interesting (as opposed to familiar and deadly-boring) post on the meanings and resonances of “cunt” in the UK, with an emphasis on the class aspect.
In my last blog, I noted in passing that I am prone to using very offensive language, including the word ‘cunt.’ I think it was coincidence, but around the same time Ophelia blogged on that very topic, and inadvertently created a perfect case study of the phenomenon I was discussing.
It was entirely coincidence; I hadn’t seen Ally’s post when I wrote mine. I wrote mine because of the inspiration of Ricky Gervais’s Facebook post.
As PZ noted in a follow-up called ‘How to drive a Brit crazy’, anyone objecting to the use of that word is likely to reap a torrent of comments saying “it’s a perfectly acceptable word; everyone says it in England.”
I’ll return to the question of whether ‘everyone says it in England’ in a minute, but first let me observe that what PZ describes is a classic example of the “you shouldn’t be offended by that” fallacy. Irrespective of how the word is used in other cultures, to many people – and especially to most Americans – ‘cunt’ is a deeply offensive, sexist and misogynistic word. In truth I use it very rarely on the internet / social media, because I know there will be people reading who will be upset by it and I have no wish to hurt them. I quite consciously modify my language out of respect for the sensibilities of some people who might read my words. That just seems like the decent thing to do.
Well that’s it, isn’t it. Why wouldn’t that be what you do?
Mind you, you need at least one additional adjective along with (or, perhaps better, instead of) “offensive.” Some people (though certainly far fewer than when I grew up swearing like a sailor) find mere swearing offensive as such, and I don’t defer to that when I’m writing. I don’t give a flying fuck about swearing; it’s epithets I care about; I think some are vicious and should be avoided. It’s perfectly possible to use the word “cunt” not as an epithet, obviously, and I have no problem with that – in fact, the more the better, because maybe eventually that would destroy its utility as The Worst Epithet Of All and then maybe there could be one that doesn’t denigrate women. That would be nice.
Occasionally I will weigh up that risk of offence against whatever point I wish to express by using it, and jump in with both feet. If someone objects, I may or may not apologise or regret my choice of word, but never would I tell someone that s/he is wrong to be offended. That would be outrageously presumptuous. The “But in England…” defence is indeed a pile of cack.
That said, the debate raises (or more accurately, misses) a point about the c-word that I find fascinating. In my experience, whenever foreigners, and especially Americans, fail to grasp a nuance of British habits, it is because they are almost entirely oblivious to the function and history of our class system, which runs like deep scars into every aspect of our society, our politics and – above all – our culture. The c-word is a quite splendid example of this in action.
It is simply not true that everyone in England says “cunt” all the time. It is not commonly considered sexist or misogynistic (note, I’m not saying it isn’t – I’m saying that’s not how it is considered) however it is undoubtedly considered exceptionally vulgar. Vulgarity in British culture is inextricably wrapped up with the performativity of class status.
Ah yes…he’s right, I have been neglecting or overlooking that aspect. I am at least somewhat aware of it, but naturally I don’t get all the nuances.
That’s what Dave was saying in his amusing comment on Saturday –
I think it is rather more “argument getting carried away after skimming a few pages of an Irvine Welsh novel”. Not even everybody from Glasgow calls everyone they meet a c**t; and the notion we should set our threshold of social acceptability at “drunken teenager looking for a fight” is so absurd as to require no further comment.
It’s a fine line, innit – between performing not being a posh git and being the epitome of a drunken teenager looking for a fight. That’s the case here, too, you know – we do class performativity, it’s just not so clearly labeled. Look at George Bush – one extended example of bizarro-world performativity of class status.
Read Ally’s post for erudition about Chaucer and Shakespeare and Burns, and a lot more.
Where I grew up in Eastern Scotland, the word cunt is used prolifically. I once heard two elderly women in Dundee talk about their grandchildren, including the memorable phrase “och, the pair wee cunt’s got the maist affy colic” (translation: “Oh, the poor little soul has the most terriblestomach pains.”). Such usage serves a social and political function. It states, very forcefully, that the speaker resides proudly among the vulgar, not the refined. It is used in full knowledge that it will cause upset and offence to those of a delicate disposition. It is a statement of political identity, and I have no doubt that largely explains why it is so much more prevalent in the further flung homelands of Scotland and Ireland – not to mention Australia – than it is in England. Even within England, it is used more commonly the further you get (both geographically and sociopolitically) from the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.
This is not a justification or a defence. I could be entirely correct about the above and it could remain true that when used as a slur, the word is deeply misogynistic, positioning women’s bodies and sexuality as something dirty and negative. It can also be true that words change, gather or lose layers of meaning over time. Even if it was once used without intrinsic misogyny does not mean it remains free of those semantics today.
So in that sense, I am not seeking to shift the debate as to the acceptability of the word in either direction. However I am convinced that there is a profound difference between British and American usage. In Britain the word is mostly used for the performative power of its vulgarity, and its misogyny is unnoticed and incidental. In the US, the word is mostly used for its performative misogyny and it is the vulgarity, in terms of social class, which goes unnoticed and incidental.
There have long been – and continue to be – debates amongst British people as to the c-word’s function and acceptability. Even amongst women and within British feminism there is no kind of consensus on either side, and anyone who claims there is must be disingenuous or mistaken. I do not seek to persuade anyone that the word should be considered harmless or benign, but I would call on everyone to understand that to British people, the politics of cunt are perhaps much more profound, complex and encumbered with historical baggage than you could possibly imagine.
I believe it.
Fortunately I don’t have the power to meddle with what people in the UK say to each other in person, or even to remark on it (unless people tell me stories about it, which they mostly don’t). But on international social media like Facebook and Twitter? Different story.