Facebook Idiocy and Willful Ignorance: The ‘Slut isn’t Offensive’ Edition

I can’t always deal with facebook. I can’t always deal with normal, un-evil people who say things that they probably believe but don’t much care about, and when they’re unthinkingly attacking that which I hold very dear, I have a hard time staying calm. An acquaintance of mine shared the status update of a friend of his, and it went something like this:
‎”Slut-bashing is a cheap and easy way to feel powerful. If you feel insecure or ashamed about your own sexual desires, all you have to do is call a girl a ‘slut’ and suddenly you’re the one who is ‘good’ and on top of the social pecking order.” Societies shame individuals who express their sexuality in ways that do not conform to their society’s traditional values. I do not condone the shaming of deviant sexuality (as long as the deviant behavior does not involve some kind of coercion). Particularly because I don’t conform to them myself.”

To which someone (male) commented:

“The definition of slut: A slovenly or promiscuous woman. Whether people choose to be offended by it or not is up to them.”

I commented in response, and I’ll include the full text of that comment at the end, but I want to expand on it, because everything is wrong with this comment. I will make an effort to be as charitable as possible, but I make no promises.

1. The Copy-Pasting a Definition Thing: I get it; I do. Other people are using a word which they seem to be very comfortable with. You’re either not sure what it means, or you want to be certain you’re using it right, so you bring the dictionary definition into the conversation. This gets everyone on the same page, ensures that people aren’t talking past each other just because they have different referents in mind for the same word, and you get to be clear about where you’re coming from. Except that this does none of those things. It’s an excuse to reframe the conversation by appealing to an authoritative source which you think takes precedence over how people actually use language. It’s demeaning, it’s ignorant and it’s irrelevant. If no one else seems to be using the definition you’re using, you’re probably doing it wrong. Go watch this TED Talk and then come back. Or take a linguistics class.

Even if the definition is the same, there’s something called connotation. Also context. So it’s possible that by using your oh-so-clever powers of ctrl-c and -v, you might just be missing something. Your banal, pseudo-intellectual citation of a dictionary isn’t going to make your point for you, it’s not going to tell you about the history of the word, the politicization of that word. If you’re in a conversation and people are using a word you don’t understand, perhaps you should ask them, not consult an external static source that by its nature is glacially slow to respond to the way that people communicate in real life.

The Feminism: All the above about context and connotation and the possibility of you being wrong when you consult an inadequate or problematic source is made all the greater if women are talking about feminism and in particular, a word that concerns them and is used to apply to them, and you are a man claiming that they shouldn’t be offended. There is a history of this. It is a history of shutting women up. It is telling women and feminists that their definitions are wrong, their understand of the world is wrong, and your perception as a man is more important. I’m not even talking about content, though we’ll get to that later. I’m talking about rejecting a five decade history of consciousness raising and the personal becoming the political, and women coming to understand that their own experiences are part of a broader culture of oppression. Women coming to use words and ideas in different ways because no one had ever bothered to think of a language for talking about gender-specific oppression and women’s experiences. Now we have words, and you are telling us they are wrong. Stop. Now.

2. The Decision to be Offended: People occasionally say things. Other people occasionally become offended by these things. These are true fact about the world. It is also true that some words are more likely to provoke anger than others, and that such a thing can be known in advance. Everyone knows these things, and yet this commenter, along with so many others is being willfully ignorant. As a certain youtuber has it, “that means being dumb on purpose.” The appeal of the concept is clear. There are things you believe, and you want to say them. Other people get offended, seemingly out of nowhere, and you clearly didn’t mean to offend them, so they’re clearly just choosing to be to give you a hard time. And all the people on your side who are getting offended are making you look bad. They should choose to stop getting offended.

And so you get to speak the truth, stand up for something, and blame everyone else for the effects of your actions. I’ve never heard anything sound more childish. What a way to shirk responsibility. What a way to pretend that the world is conspiring against you. What a way to frame yourself as the only reasonable person in a room.

Words have context, history and meaning, which sometimes is hurtful, painful, dismissive, sexist or oppressive. People who are hurt or pained by the use of such words will be offended. People who spend their time fighting against sexism and oppression will be offended. Sometimes it will be worth it to inflict pain and anger in pursuit of a higher goal, or of making a very important point. Fine. Sometimes those who are offended will be wrong about the context, history and meaning of a word. Fine. But acknowledge that that’s what’s going on and argue for it, making sure to realize that the burden of proof is on you.

The Feminism: Telling women not to be offended by a word sounds suspiciously like asking them to be less crazy, less emotional, less hysterical. It sounds suspiciously like someone who’s never been on the agonizingly painful end of slut-shaming telling women that they just all need to calm down. It sounds like more silencing, more dismissiveness, more ignorance. And this guy never bothered think about why the others in the conversation might be offended, so add arrogance to that list.

3. Finally, the word: Slut. The word might technically refer to a promiscuous woman, but it is so much more than that. It is about women who are too sexual in any way. Women who wore makeup used to be thought up as prostitutes, since prostitutes were the first ones who broke social convention in wearing it. It’s used to shame women for having sex before marriage, after marriage, without marriage. It’s used to make women feel bad about wanting sex, having lots of sex, expressing their identity as sexual beings. It’s used to shame women who are insufficiently modest in religious communities. It’s used to privilege male sexuality, which is strengthened and validated by sexual behavior, over female sexuality, which must occupy the invisible line or virginal sex kittenry between madonna and whore. It’s used to blame women for being victims of sexual assault and rape. It’s used to encourage women to compete with each other, to shame each other in a hideous pecking order of who can be the purest. Most of all, it’s used to pretend that personal tastes in dress and behavior are objective moral standards that ought to be imposed on everyone. It’s an insulting word. It’s in the process of being reclaimed, but it hasn’t been yet, and not everyone agrees that it should be. So don’t tell people not to be offended.

—————————————————————————————-

TL;DR: My Original Comment:

I don’t think I will ever understand the extraordinary petulance required to, in regard to the concept of offensiveness, throw up your hands, go to merriamwebster.com, ignore the effects of your actions and blame everyone else for not being as ‘cool’ and ‘chill’ as you.

Slut is a word historically used to unfairly shame women for defying social norms of behavior. It was used to shame women for wearing makeup, and now to shame women for having sex. It has been used to shut down sexual agency, to make women feel about about their own bodies and their own desires. It is used to privilege male sexuality over female sexuality. It is used to control what women wear, how they look. It is used to pit women against each other, encouraging them to fight for the position of least ‘slutty.’ It is used to demean women who dare to like sex, and women who simply show more skin than someone else finds tasteful. It is used to make personal preference into a moral standard. Such use is vile and disgusting.

Whether people choose to willingly ignore the facts and pretend they are not complicit in a culture that oppresses women’s sexuality is up to them

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2 thoughts on “Facebook Idiocy and Willful Ignorance: The ‘Slut isn’t Offensive’ Edition

  1. The question of reclaiming the slut label really shows how poisonous the word is. The possibility of using the term in a value-neutral sense is, as you’ve described, dubious at best. To use it in a value-positive sense concedes that it is a valid way to identify a person, which just seems to reinforce the madonna/whore dilemma (women are defined by their sexuality). And yet to allow it to continue to have an exclusively negative semantic range almost doesn’t seem like an option. If feminism cannot or will not reclaim the label, or at least neutralize it, it will continue to be used to normalize hatred of women’s sexuality.

  2. Emmy says:

    I hate it when people are dumb on purpose, especially when they’re dumb on accident too.

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