February 23, 2009

Think Before You (Injuriously) Speak...

Judith Butler and countless others problematise forms of expression commonly referred to as offensive or even as hate speech by telling us we can reread, reinterpret and reclaim such texts, words or statements and thereby empower ourselves. While I think that's true, one must also be weary of such endeavors.

For a long time, I have been engaged in a reclaiming of the word "bitch." I use it as a pet name to refer to friends of mine I consider strong and intelligent women all the time, in fact. I can regularly be heard shouting, "Hey, bitch! I missed you!" in the halls of the LSE. Lately, however, I have been rethinking this.

Sure, it's cool to reclaim a word, but it's hard at the same time. My friends with backgrounds in gender studies, who have read Judith Butler and thought about "injurious speech acts" know what I'm doing. They know I'm being subversive and not trying to be offensive. They know I'm not being complicit in patriarchy by using one of its offensive terms to refer to my friends, but actually embracing the label as something positive instead. I'm taunting patriarchy. I'm saying, "Before you try to discipline my fabulous and opinionated friends with labels like "bitch" I'll slap on the label first as a compliment. You can't hurt ME with that word anymore." It's true, you CAN'T hurt me with "bitch." But, as I discovered, a lot of people can still be hurt by it.

If I don't judge my audience well, and apply the "bitch" label to someone who doesn't know what I'm doing, I can injure them with this term. They might think I'm branding them mean, insensitive or ugly. They might be shocked or angered by me. I might burn a bridge forever. I once ironically referred to a tall, blonde, wealthy, male varsity athlete friend of mine as a "bitch", to what I thought was great comic effect and constituted a fabulous reclaiming and opening up of the word; however, a 45 year old woman in the room whose engagement with feminism happened primarily during the second wave, before this idea of reclaiming words took off, was deeply offended and immediately interpreted the environment we were in as hostile to women. She interpreted me as complicit sexism by using what she termed "offensive language."

Of course, it's often hard to guess who will be acquainted with one's mission of reclaiming words and who will not. It would be ageist of me to assume all middle-aged women are unacquainted with this concept, as the people who invented it are middle-aged now themselves. It would, however, be equally ridiculous of me to assume that everyone I meet knows I'm using the word "bitch" as a progressive tool to de-stigmatize smart, successful and opinionated women. So, ladies, reclaim all you want, but make sure the people you interpellate in this reclaiming by using potentially offensive terms around them are aware of this mission first, otherwise you could alienate, hurt and offend them.

The mission is to make words stop hurting, right? Well, in that case, let's not hurt people in the process of trying to achieve this outcome. In short, if you're a feminist, do what your mother told you years ago, and think before you speak....

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