September 18, 2013

Policing What Others Say on the Internet

Wikimedia Womens Namecalling
Wikimedia Womens Namecalling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the issues that often seems to come up on social media these days is whether individuals have any business attempting to police the sort of language used by others. I have seen countless people ask others to stop using certain words and then block them or label them as misogynists because they refuse to do so. Those on the receiving end of this often complain of "censorship" even though this term rarely seems to apply. I can understand how both sides in these disputes feel, and I hate to see them escalate to the point where communication ends. But this was not always true. In this post, I aim to explain how I came to be able to see both sides and what I learned about myself in the process.

As I have written previously, I tend to avoid profanity and gendered slurs in my writing here. I do so not because I am easily offended or overly prudish but because I find that such language adds little value. I will use two potentially offensive words frequently in this post as examples to illustrate what I have learned about how our experience informs the meaning we assign to words and the emotional reactions we have to certain words. These two words are "bitch" and "cunt." If either of both of these words bothers you to the point where you cannot tolerate seeing them on the page, you have been warned.

Bitch

When I was growing up, "bitch" was a word you would hear quite frequently in my circle of friends. You would hear it with equal frequency from girls and boys; however, if you listened closely, you would note that it often had a somewhat different meaning depending on the gender of the person using it.

When boys used "bitch" to describe a girl, they were expressing a particular sort of dissatisfaction with her behavior. It was more common to hear a boy label a girl's behavior as "bitchy" or to claim that she was "being a bitch" than it was to hear him call her "a bitch." In essence, "bitch" was used when a girl did not do something the boy wanted her to do. It wasn't as much of an insult as it was an expression of frustration.

"Bitch" meant something very different when boys and girls used it to describe boys. It communicated weakness and insignificance. "He's just a bitch" was a disparaging statement of a particular sort. It communicated that the target was beneath us and was not strong enough to worry about. A boy who could kick your ass would not be called a bitch. Girls used "bitch" to describe boys with whom they were unimpressed and regarded as not worth an investment of time or attention (e.g., "Nah, he's just a bitch." Surprisingly, "bitch" in this context had nothing to do with sexual orientation. I cannot remember hearing any of my friends call another boy "a bitch" because he was suspected of being gay. There were other words that would be used in such a case.

While boys and girls used "bitch" in the same way when referring to boys, girls had a different meaning when they used the word to describe other girls. Between girls, "bitch" simply meant "I don't like her" or "She's hard to get along with." It did not communicate weakness and was not that much of an insult. I rarely saw it lead to fights or ruin friendships. I even remember girls using it to describe their friends when they were upset over something fairly minor.

I grew up hearing "bitch" quite often. Based on my experiences with its use and meaning among my peer group, I regarded it as no big deal until I was well into college. I mistakenly assumed that my experience of the word's use and meaning was typical and that it was no big deal for others either. I would eventually learn that I was wrong about this, but it would take me awhile to do so.

Cunt

In sharp contrast to the popularity of "bitch" in my circle of friends while growing up, "cunt" was a word you would rarely have heard. It was considered a far more extreme word and was only rolled out in certain situations. To this day, I sometimes have a nails-on-a-chalkboard sort of reaction when I hear it.

Both boys and girls used, aimed it almost exclusively at girls, and there did not seem to be much of a difference in how they would mean it. "Cunt" was the single worst insult that could be lobbed at a girl, and it was nearly always used out of significant anger toward the target. It was used when "bitch" was deemed insufficient to capture the anger the speaker felt toward the target. It was intended to upset, humiliate, and degrade the target. It was used to communicate something along the lines of "You are a worthless piece of shit, and I feel nothing for you but contempt." It was not a word that was tossed around casually. A boy who called a girl "cunt" in front of her boyfriend was going to get hit. A girl who called another girl "cunt" was almost certainly signaling that they would be enemies for quite some time.

Based on my experiences with "cunt" and its meaning among my peer group, I assigned it to the same category as many racial slurs in that it was a highly inflammatory conversation stopper. Once again, I mistakenly assumed that my experience was typical and that others would have similar reactions to the word as I did. And once again, it would take me awhile to recognize my error.

Learning From Others

College provided me with the opportunity to get to know people not only from different parts of the U.S. but from several other countries. I would discover that other people had vastly different experiences with these words, assigned different meanings to them, and had quite different emotional reactions to their use.

I discovered that "bitch" was interpreted as sexist and even somewhat misogynistic by some women. The first few times I encountered this, I was puzzled because this seemed quite a distance from how I saw the word used. Upon reflection, I realized that they had a valid point about how "bitch" was sometimes used by men to describe women. There was often an aspect of social control (i.e., conform to my wishes or risk being labeled as a bitch). I also learned what was meant by gendered slurs and how they differed from other sorts of insults. These new experiences showed me that I was mistaken to assume everyone understood "bitch" as I did. The result was that I quickly stopped using the word. Why? Because I learned that its use could easily lead to miscommunication and hurt feelings. While I recognize that I am not responsible for others' feelings, I would prefer to avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding where possible.

When it comes to "cunt," I would have a very different sort of experience. I soon discovered that some people from certain countries (I'm looking at you here, Britain) seemed to use "cunt" frequently as an expression of mild displeasure with someone. The first few times I encountered this, I thought I had wondered into a den of misogynists. And yet, the women were using "cunt" as often as the men. I wasn't sure what to make of it initially, but it turned out that these individuals had grown up with a very different meaning of the word than anything I had experienced. At the same time, I would find that many others - especially women from the U.S. I met in college - had experiences that were very similar to my own. So while many shared the meaning and emotional connotations to the term with which I was familiar, many others did not.

With "cunt," I didn't have to give up using it because I was not using it in the first place. What I did give up was the urge to correct or condemn those who were using it. Why? I recognized that we had vastly different experiences with the word, meant different things by the word, and had different emotional reactions to the word. I had no reason to believe that mine was somehow more accurate or more right than theirs.

Implications for Social Media

I have no problem with someone who decides to unfollow or unfriend someone on social media for repeatedly using language with which that person objects (although blocking them and/or reporting them seems a bit excessive). If I run across someone on Twitter who seems to need to include "cunt" in every tweet, I'm unlikely to follow them either. I realize that I may miss out on some worthwhile content by doing so, but if it bothers me enough, I'll take that chance.

I do take issue with those who repeatedly attack others for using language they do not like by calling them names. I find this hypocritical, counterproductive, and myopic. Doing so seems to be based on the mistaken assumption that others have shared one's experiences with these words and are using them with the same meaning. It also communicates the belief that others should conform their behavior to fit with one's expectations. Talk about privilege! I also take issue with efforts to preemptively block anyone who might disagree with one's viewpoint and label those one is preemptively blocking as "abusers" or "harassers" without cause.

Finally, I take issue with those who claim that being asked to refrain from calling people names on the Internet is censorship. It is not. Similarly, being unfollowed, unfriended, or even blocked by someone who has had a different experience with the words you use is not censorship. Perhaps the argument could be made that automated preemptive blocking comes close to censorship if it results in one's account being suspended, but most individual efforts to shape the sort of experience one has online fall far short of censorship.

This post originally appeared on Atheist Revolution. If you are not reading this via email or RSS feed from Atheist Revolution, it may have been stolen.

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