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Ubiquitous? Actually, no.

PZ has a post on The Cunt Question (that’s where I saw Maki Naro’s tweet, and there are more there).

The defenses are hilarious, irrational, and indignant. It’s incredibly common to see people protest that it’s a perfectly acceptable word; everyone says it in England; it doesn’t have any sexual connotations at all, because apparently, people in the UK are so stupid that they don’t remember that it’s a word that refers to the female genitalia. The Argument from Regional Ubiquity simply doesn’t work — would we accept that Southerners get a free pass on calling people “nigger” because everyone down there is rednecked cracker, so it’s OK?

I must remember to call it that, because I have this argument over and over again. It’s The Argument from Regional Ubiquity and it is bullshit.

There are a lot of good comments.

The first, for instance, by aziraphale:

I’m a Brit and I have never, in my whole life, called anyone a cunt. Possibly because if I did, my female friends (mostly also Brits) would never speak to me again.

But but but The Argument from Regional Ubiquity!

Bad argument. Next?

thetalkingstove @ 28 is another useful datum:

I’m British and I can’t remember the last time I actually heard someone say the word.

Perhaps I have a sheltered existence, and I’m positive that there *are* people and groups where it’s thrown around all the time, but this idea that everyone in the UK is going around saying it in every other sentence is ludicrous.

carlie @ 32 on two ways the conversation can go:

Exchange from a reasonable person who has no INTENT to use a slur in its sexist/racist/etc way:

Person 1: *slur*
Person 2: Hey, that’s a *** slur that is really demeaning towards *** people. Don’t do that.
Person 1:
Option A) Oh no, I had no idea! I certainly did not mean to do that. I won’t use that word in the future, then!
Option B) Oh, I didn’t realize that group interpreted that word in that way. I certainly did not mean to do that. I won’t use that word in the future, then!

Unreasonable person exchange:

Person 1: *slur*
Person 2: Hey, that’s a *** slur that is really demeaning towards *** people. Don’t do that.
Person 1: But I didn’t mean it that way!
Person 2: I’m sure you didn’t, which is why I’m letting you know. I know that you wouldn’t want to be seen as a bigoted person when you aren’t, so I’m giving you the advice that using that word makes you look that way.
Person 1: You can’t tell me what to do! I’ll use it if I want! Everyone should magically understand that I don’t mean it that way so it’s ok if I say it! Because people in Borneo don’t mean it that way when they say it! I’m not a bad person! You’re the bad person!

Gregory Greenwood @ 38, which was the one that made me decide to collect several, because these comments are filling in the picture:

As a Brit, I would just like to say that PZ is right on the money here. The oblivious misogynist idiot contingent within the UK knows full well that the term is misogynist – they are relying on the likely unfamiliarity of a majority US audience with UK cultural norms to try to get away with it, that’s all.

We have our share of priviliged, oblivious and outright bigoted arsehats over here, just as you colonials Americans do over there. It is the curse of the human condition. Their moaning may amuse you, but it amuses me rather less given that I have to live among people like this every day.

If you think trying to impress upopn them that the term ‘cunt’ is misogynistic is difficult, just try to convey the notion that ‘fag’ is homophobic. They will stubbornly claim it is just slang for cigarette, and ignore all popints to the contrary about its connotations in other cultures.

PZ @ 86 in response to one of those “But context!!” retorts:

We understand the context. We see how it’s part of a long tradition of treating women as inferior. You’re the one refusing to recognize history, context, and meaning to pretend it’s just a one-syllable expletive, a meaning-free insult. That is such total nonsense — and of course everyone uses it a strong insult, because it has such patent connections to female sexuality.

When random women explain to you that it is a shotgun insult — that it causes a lot of splash damage when you use it — and yet you persist in claiming your noble calling as an Englishman to continue to use it whenever you damn well want to, then your claim that you aren’t really sexist is pretty well demolished.

Andy Groves @ 119:

Another British person chiming in here with another data point: The c-word is the vilest single word any British person can say to another. If Ricky Gervais really thinks it isn’t terribly sexist and offensive, he should try saying it on UK TV and seeing what happens to his career.

Yes, some British people might claim to use it as a term of endearment to acquaintances in the same way that a generation or three ago, they might have referred to a friend as a “daft old bugger”. But it’s still incredibly offensive. Maybe manocheese can tell us in exactly which contexts he uses the word. Talking to his mother? His friend’s mother? His doctor? His boss? A policewoman? A nurse? His daughter?

Louis @ 138:

Manocheese, #122,

I’m saying that it’s possible that I can say the word in a culture where nobody takes it as a sexist comment.

Prepare to be inundated with lots of people, myself included, telling you that they DO take it as a sexist comment in UK culture. The meaning (and sadly use) of the word is not completely divorced from either its other meanings or the extant cultural misogyny very much present in the UK.

Do we (typically) see the word as horrendously sexist as the Americans do (where it seems to be directed at women far more than it is here)? No, perhaps not. But that’s a difference of degree, not of nature. Its use is a sexist act, regardless of the user’s intent and regardless of the use of other words. Does that make its user a Global Forever And Ever Super Sexist? Nope. But it does mean that, when considering all the relevant context, its use is sexist and thus it should be used (or rather not used) judiciously.

For a better illustration of context, let’s just say you have a conflict [with] someone who is of “black” African heredity, or Pakistani or Indian heredity, do you call them an “n-word” or a “p-word” (we all know the words I mean)? I’m betting you don’t. The most relevant difference, if indeed you don’t, is that you have a greater awareness of the moral…”dubiousness” (generous term!)…of racism than you do misogyny. The social consequences of naked racism are more apparent to you than the social consequences of naked misogyny.

Tom Slatter @ 139:

Speaking as a ‘Brit’ I’m bemused whenever someone claims the C-word is in common usage here. It isn’t, it really isn’t.

While I get the impression there might not be quite the same level of disgust at hearing it as there might be in the US, it is still definitely not acceptable and definitely one of the most socially unacceptable words someone might use.

It isn’t the most unacceptable language, there is even more disapproval of racist terms which seem to be in a different category – not saying that’s right, but it is the case – but no-one is using it who doesn’t understand it to mean exactly what we all know it means.

‘More tea, you c**t?’ is not a phrase you’re likely to hear over here.

Not only is The Argument from Regional Ubiquity a crap argument, it’s also based on a false premise: the supposed regional ubiquity isn’t.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    It’s one thing to “innocently” use a word (I really doubt manocheese thinks c*nt is a non-sexist word). It’s something else to continue to proclaim its innocence after numerous people say that it’s sexist. That’s why I keep calling manocheese a misogynist because he keeps defending using the word.

  2. quixote says

    Let’s accept that it’s meaning-free. Then saying “You, zkwyzzx” will work just as well.

    If it doesn’t, well, then it’s not meaning-free, is it?

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    From Louis @ 138: “do you call them (dark-skinned foreigners) an “n-word” or a “p-word” (we all know the words I mean)?”

    um…what’s the “p-word”? Piker? I thought that was just some sort of lazy buffoonish person O_O

    Look, if we want some sort of genderless expletive, why can’t we all just use “shit” or “fuck”? Like, “So-and-so is such a shit” or “Don’t be a little shit about it” or “You’re being an absolute fuck about this.” See? Works.

  4. says

    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.

  5. Colin Daniels says

    Blanche, the word he was referring to is Paki. I used to work with a young Pakistani lad that sometimes used the word in jest but in general it is still considered to be unacceptable and the sort of thing you expect from BNP members, skinheads and their ilk.

  6. says

    just try to convey the notion that ‘fag’ is homophobic. They will stubbornly claim it is just slang for cigarette, and ignore all points to the contrary about its connotations in other cultures.

    In fairness, those making this argument have a way, way better case than for cunt. ‘Fag’ meaning cigarette and ‘fag’ meaning homosexual have, in fact, no etymological relationship whatsoever as far as I can determine. The former is derived from ‘fag end,’ the last bit of rope or cloth, the cut off end, from there was used to mean a cigarette butt, and by extension the whole cigarette was a fag. The anti-gay slur, meanwhile, derives either from a misogynistic term for an old woman, related to faggot meaning a bundle of sticks, stereotypically carried by old peasant women, and/or the British pubic school practice of younger students ‘fagging’ for older students, acting as servants and often as sexual targets. This in turn comes from fagging meaning to work hard, derived from fatigue. I can still see the arguments for reducing the use of fag for smokes in terms of splash damage etc, but the argument that it’s got nothing to do with queers or homophobia is actually a perfectly accurate one.

  7. Anne Marie says

    If I was being berated by a person of color, I wouldn’t think to use a racial slur because (1) I’m not willing to be racist in order to hurt someone and (2) I’m not willing to hurt other people around that person just to get that cheap shot.

    How can someone demonstrate how lowly he sees an entire group of people and then try to claim it’s just to illustrate the point? The point he illustrated was how lowly he thinks of that group. At the very best, he’s fine with throwing them under the bus to make a point that could be made in myriad better ways. Ugh.

  8. sara says

    The blogger at Godlessness in Theory calls himself a “looney left c–t” in his About the Author part on his blog. Most disheartening.

  9. carlie says

    The p-word is actually a good analogy to use, in my case. I’ve never lived somewhere with a large middle eastern ethnic population. When I hear the word “paki”, I can tell that it sounds vaguely derogatory, but that’s about it. It has no more punch to me than, say, “newbie”. Slightly putting someone down, but not really? Because that’s my background.

    But what I do know is that I’ve heard other people say how this word gets used. I believe people of middle eastern descent who tell me that when they hear the word “paki”, that they most often are about to be either treated badly or outright beaten to a pulp. I know in general what extreme hatred of a particular group can lead to, and how language is used to demean and dehumanize a group so that people don’t feel quite so bad about being heinous towards them. I can see that the word “paki” is stuffed full of all of that kind of xenophobic hatred, and that more often than not it’s the tip of a huge ol’ racist iceberg. So no, I would never use it, even though it doesn’t have that connotation to me personally.

    And even if I had never learned what it really meant? Even if I was in a little bubble of not knowing? Then it’s back to the beginning. I can still tell that it’s at least somewhat derogatory, just by the fact that I understand language and how it works and that diminutives are often used to be demeaning, and I wouldn’t ever want to use it just on that basis alone. I understand that slang words almost never start out positive, so most slang that refers to a group of people is probably going to be derogatory – the question is not even how old the term is, it’s how strongly it is ongoing and how badly that group still has it in society. And I’d prefer to err on the side of not using that term, because I try to not be the kind of person who tosses around slurs just because I don’t care what it does to people hearing it or how that contributes negatively to the discourse.

  10. thetalkingstove says

    I think the ‘but in the UK!’ crowd are just displaying the usual lack of empathy and understanding that we see all the time on these topics.

    ‘That doesn’t bother me – so it’s not racist/homophobic/sexist!’

    and in this case I think what they actually mean is not so much that everyone in the UK uses it as:

    ‘*I* use this word with my friends all the time, and we’re not sexist – so what’s the problem?’

    Just an utter inability to look at an issue from any perspective other than their initial, gut reaction. Depressing.

  11. Pen says

    just try to convey the notion that ‘fag’ is homophobic. They will stubbornly claim it is just slang for cigarette, and ignore all points to the contrary about its connotations in other cultures.

    I don’t know who said this, but they have to be joking. Oh yeah, I can see the argument for learning what ‘fag’ means in the US and not using it while visiting, but hey, how about American visitors taking the opposite approach and learning what it means in the country they’re visiting??

    As for ‘cunt’, I agree that it’s pretty strong language in the UK, not used in polite or formal circumstances, but I’ve had the errrm, dubious privilege of moving in circles where it is used. It’s invariably a strong insult, usually aimed at men, with no intent to feminise them. That’s where Maki Naro’s argument is completely messed up. It doesn’t make the slightest difference what a word means literally, or whether people remember it on some level or not. Just as ‘bastard’ no longer implies anything about the marital status of anyone’s parents. And ‘nigger’, the example he/she used, once simply meant ‘black’ – a literal meaning which has got nothing to do with what it means now. Connotation and purpose are everything, and they certainly do vary with region. What we’re seeing are battles for cultural dominance of the language across lines of gender, race, religion, class and region. Intersectionality is very relevant here.

  12. says

    As far as “using it on UK TV” goes, actually I’ve heard it used many times on panel shows… not just shows like Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You, but even by people like Alan Davies and, yes, Stephen Fry, on QI.

    Repeatedly.

    Alan Davies I can see as being clueless… but Stephen Fry – that’s a disappointment.

  13. Pen says

    @ Carlie # 12

    But what I do know is that I’ve heard other people say how this word gets used. I believe people of middle eastern descent who tell me that when they hear the word “paki” that they most often are about to be either treated badly or outright beaten to a pulp.

    I’m a bit confused because I’ve never heard of the word ‘paki’ being applied to people of middle eastern descent, nor do they form a very large group in Britain. I probably live in one of the areas with the largest middle eastern population and they’re still a very small minority. ‘Paki’ is usually applied to south asians, probably indiscriminately, though in theory meaning ‘Pakistani’.

  14. carlie says

    Pen – my guess is that the kind of people who use the term don’t bother to notice the difference between the groups.

  15. kbplayer says

    I live in Scotland and people will refer to others as “cunts”, mostly insultingly but sometimes as a synonym for “bloke”. It’s always used for men, not women. However the people are tough low-life, not yer average person, who would find it fairly gross. . A well-brought up young person might text, “My boss is a cnut [sic]” however that would be seen as fairly daring. I can see it becoming as common as “fuck” is which was pretty taboo about 30 odd years ago and now even senior professionals will say it very informally where once they would have said “bloody”. “Cunt” is still extremely insulting.

  16. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    The other problem with “it’s-ok-in-the-UK” is that Gervais posted this on Facebook and Twitter which are not in any way confined to the UK borders. So he knows that a whole lot of people who DO find the c-word offensive are also in his audience.

  17. says

    Rosie, well I hope it doesn’t become as common as “fuck” (or as common as fuck, either). I’ve been saying “fuck” my whole fucking life, and once I was an adult, nobody cared. “Fuck” isn’t political. “Cunt” is sooooo political, and not in a good way.

  18. says

    And ‘nigger’, the example he/she used, once simply meant ‘black’ – a literal meaning which has got nothing to do with what it means now.

    No it didn’t. It was derogatory English-language slang for “Negro” which of course did and does mean “black” in Spanish. But “nigger” has never simply meant “black” in English.

  19. Stacy says

    No it didn’t. It was derogatory English-language slang for “Negro” which of course did and does mean “black” in Spanish. But “nigger” has never simply meant “black” in English.

    No, it may not always have been used derogatorily. It’s been a long time since I read Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange History of a Troublesome Word, but I remember he goes into the etymology and points out that nobody knows exactly when it became a slur.

    The linguist Robin Lakoff speculates that nigger became a slur when users of the term became aware that it was a mispronunciation of Negro and decided to continue using the mispronunciation as a signal of contempt–much as individuals sometimes choose to insult others by deliberately mispronouncing their names. Precisely when the term became a slur is unknown. We do know, however, that by the first third of the nineteenth century nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult.

    http://rocket.csusb.edu/~tmoody/whocansaynigger.pdf

  20. says

    Another thing I find annoying is people saying that it’s OK because you use it affectionately with your mates. Well, fine, go you, I also insult my mates. We’re more likely to call each other ratbags and dags and daft buggers, but whatevs.

    BUT that doesn’t mean I can call strangers by insulting terms. As soon as they’re not my personal friends, it’s no longer affectionate, it’s just a direct insult.

  21. says

    “The Argument from Regional Ubiquity” — very nice, I like it. Of course, what it really is, is a fallacy by anecdotal evidence. If all the people you associate with think that it’s perfectly fine to say, then that just means you associate with a shitty crowd, it doesn’t mean that the word isn’t sexist. The fact that plenty of British folks are chiming in to say “no, even over here in the UK it’s NOT okay to say” demonstrates that those shitty crowds and friend-circles are are merely insular pools of ignoramuses.

    Speaking of the word “nigger”, as well, I would add another point. There was a time in US history when people thought it was perfectly fine to say, and would even argue the same argument from regional ubiquity for it, as many have already pointed out. Joseph Conrad even wrote a novel, “The Nigger of the Narcissus”, which implicitly assumed that very thing. I would posit, however, that the black people at which the word was directed didn’t see it as a neutral, non-racist term, especially as the decades progressed into the 1960’s and beyond, and just like the casual racism of the past is now widely considered to be bad, the casual sexism of previous eras is becoming more noticed and distasteful. Anyone who disputes that only needs to see what happened in our own once-somewhat-united atheism movement, which is now separated by the rifts caused by sexism. And rightly so.

  22. Deepak Shetty says

    @pen
    I’m a bit confused because I’ve never heard of the word ‘paki’ being applied to people of middle eastern descent, nor do they form a very large group in Britain.
    I believe if you goto Bradford or Leeds you might see this – anyone with a brownish skin can be called that. As an Indian our first reaction would be Hey! Indians and Pakistani are politically sworn enemies – why are you lumping us together? And then you realise you’d rather have the Pakistani folks as allies over the racist scum…

  23. jefrir says

    Blanche Quizno,

    um…what’s the “p-word”? Piker? I thought that was just some sort of lazy buffoonish person O_O

    You may want to be careful about “piker”, too, especially in the UK. It appears to be related to “pikey”, which is a derogatory term for Romany and other travellers (and more recently a class-based slur, along the same lines as “chav”).

  24. yahweh says

    From wikipedia:

    “Cunt is also used as a derogatory epithet referring to people of either sex. This usage is relatively recent, dating from the late nineteenth century. Reflecting different national usages, cunt is described as “an unpleasant or stupid person” in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, whereas Merriam-Webster has a usage of the term as “usually disparaging and obscene: woman”, noting that it is used in the U.S. as “an offensive way to refer to a woman”; and the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English states that it is “a despicable man”. When used with a positive qualifier (good, funny, clever, etc.) in Britain, New Zealand and Australia, it can convey a positive sense of the object or person referred to.”

  25. M'thew says

    @Jafafa Hots #15:

    As far as “using it on UK TV” goes, actually I’ve heard it used many times on panel shows… not just shows like Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You, but even by people like Alan Davies and, yes, Stephen Fry, on QI.

    Repeatedly.

    Alan Davies I can see as being clueless… but Stephen Fry – that’s a disappointment.

    Oh, Stephen Fry… the expert on women.

    I watch QI every now and then, but I do have some problems with the sexist undertones in this mixed bag of funny people (Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson is drafted as a Bantermeister sometimes, so I think I should not call them a “mixed bag of progressives”, even if some people might see the show as another data point for godless, materialistic librulism in the mass media).

  26. says

    I can still see the arguments for reducing the use of fag for smokes in terms of splash damage etc, but the argument that it’s got nothing to do with queers or homophobia is actually a perfectly accurate one.

    I rather doubt that people are routinely complaining about the word’s use for talking about a cigarette; I also very much doubt that when the word is used to refer to a person that they are meaning to refer to the person as a cigarette.

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