January 16, 2012

Reclaiming Words. ~ Adele Wilde-Blavatsky.

  Nobody’s n*gger, but somebody’s b*tch?


 “Words have power to destroy or heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”

~The Buddha








Since the 20th century, members of marginalized and oppressed groups have tried to ‘take the power back’ by reclaiming offensive and oppressive words such as f*g, n*gger, b*tch and slut and so on. Personally, I like the idea of reclaiming words and taking the power back.

(Photo: David_Shankbone)

What people consensually say and call each other in the privacy of their own bedrooms can be part of the thrill and arousal, as sexily demonstrated in the movie Secretary. Who would want to interfere with that kind of fun? Not me.

However, there are non-consensual contexts where the use of such words are clearly intended to degrade, humiliate and harm. One response to such words is to reclaim the meaning of these words. Reclaiming words is not without its own problems though, as was recently demonstrated in the sharply divided debate over the Slutwalk protests 

This week in the UK, the reclaiming of the word ‘n*gger’ came back into the public eye, when spoken word poet Dean Atta wrote a poem I Am Nobody’s N*gger, and took the internet by storm. In five days, his poem had received in excess of 15,000 hits and gained him an extra 1,000 followers on Twitter. Atta’s poem was reported in the UK media and he explained that:

….it was a reaction to “the injustice of the death of Stephen Lawrence”, and to the loose usage of the N-word. “Watching Panorama, where they reconstructed his murder, and hearing that the N-word was the last thing they said when they stabbed him really struck a chord with me.” The poem began as an update on Facebook and post on Twitter, saying: “Rappers, when you use the word ‘n*gger’ remember that’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard, so don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word.”

Atta’s poem is powerful and moving, yet it also reveals a double standard in the debate about the use and abuse of ‘offensive’ words. Some people might argue that we should be allowed to use whatever words we want. Others might argue that we have to distinguish between the use of the word when it is ‘intended’ to be insulting and when it is being reclaimed or used in a different, empowering context. Others, like Atta appear to argue that offensive words cannot be used or reclaimed in any context. So which is the correct and most beneficial view to take?

Are some words inherently more ‘offensive’ than others or are there double standards?

There is a massive double standard present in our culture when it comes to the public condemnation and vilification of racist versus sexist derogatory words. A clear example of this double standards arose recently when a young British woman was caught on video shouting racist abuse at other passengers.

The video itself went viral and was widely reported in the UK mainstream press and social media. The reporting was excessively emotional and hysterical and the woman was vilified and ultimately remanded into custody for her relatively minor offense.

‘So what?’ Many might say, she deserved that reaction and punishment because what she did is horrendous. Banning people from personally expressing their ‘racism’ and frustration will not make it go away, however much people might like to think it will.

My main concern with the public hysteria that was whipped up about the ‘racist on a tram’ story was not only did it very quickly degenerate into yet another ‘woman/mother-bashing exercise’ but also it demonstrated the serious double standards when it comes to the public and media reaction to sexist and racist abuse.

For example, I’ve heard drunk men say far worse things to myself and other lone women on public transport on a Friday and Saturday night but have never seen any viral videos about that. Nor have I ever seen any men arrested or publicly vilified for verbally harassing women on the streets, which is also a daily occurrence.  And what about the extraordinary levels of abusive language used about women in popular music?  I think we’ve all become immune to the amount of times we hear rappers singing about ‘b*tches’ and ‘ho’s’. However, I haven’t seen any of these individuals being arrested or ‘named and shamed’ in the mass media either? Is that because they’re men, because they’re wealthy of because they make huge profits for multinational corporations? Either way it’s unfair, particularly considering the fact that sexist abuse and language is far more publicly prevalent and accepted now than racist abuse.

The levels of sexist speech and misogyny present in the mainstream press and men’s magazines has also reached epidemic proportions. A recent UK study revealed that the public find it hard to differentiate between the language used by convicted sex offenders and very popular men’s magazines.

“In a group study, we distributed quotes on bits of card to 20 men and women and asked them to rank how degrading they were to women, then we revealed some were from rapists and some were from lads’ mags, and asked them to attribute those quotes to either group,” explained Dr Miranda Horvath, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Middlesex University who specializes in researching sexual violence. “The group guessed correctly 50% of the time. They clearly had considerable difficulty making quick decisions about where these quotes came from.”

Quotes for the study were taken from The Rapist Files: Interviews With Convicted Rapists by Sussman & Bordwell and four titles: Zoo, Nuts, Loaded and FHM. In an additional study by the same researchers, a group of 92 men aged 18-46 were asked to participate in a similar exercise, but were also asked to say which of the quotes they identified with. The results revealed that overall, more of the men agreed with the rapists, only changing their minds when the source of the quote was revealed.

Although these stories have received media attention and disapproval, they certainly did not generate the same level of vitriol or anger as the racist abuse on the tram incident. In fact, the responses of men, in particular are strangely silent on these issues or they give the common ‘yes, but…..’ response, citing misandry and abusive speech or actions against men as some kind of excuse or equalizer. This is not an adequate or acceptable response though for various reasons.

The point is if women did film and broadcast all the sexist comments they get on a daily basis, would the media and public be as interested? Would there be the same level of public lynch mob reaction to that? And what about the amount of times rapists and murderers have used the words ‘b*tch’, ‘slut’ and ‘c*nt’ during their crimes? Perhaps it’s not so noticeable to men or women because such speech is used in the majority of crimes against women? Sexist abuse is much more widely accepted and tolerated.

What about freedom of speech?

Another problem with policing and defining ‘hate speech’ is that what is ‘offensive’ to one person may be seen as harmless, trivial, funny or empowering to another.  For example, last time I checked it isn’t actually a crime to ‘offend’ someone. If it is a crime, then most websites and Facebook pages should be shut down, and male comedians and drunk men making lewd comments out on a Saturday night would be arrested and banned.

We might not like or agree with what a racist or sexist has to say, but the greater principle at stake here  is freedom of speech.  Unless someone is specifically inciting ‘harm’ or violence against individuals because of their race or gender, then I would argue that freedom of speech is a far more important principle to defend.

I don’t want to live in a society where the government tells people what they can say  in public.

(Photo: Jerasue)

Also, have we really become so sensitive and easily offended? It’s not nice or pleasant, but I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to be publicly vilified and arrested for calling me a ‘b*tch’ or a ‘slut’ in public. Isn’t that the natural, adult way to deal with these things on a one to one basis, unless violence is actually being threatened? I just don’t like the idea of ‘speech-police’. I mean who decides what’s ‘offensive’? Also, there are different degrees of offense, who decides that? The government and mainstream media? No, thanks. I’ve been to countries where there is no freedom of expression and ‘speech-police’ and they are deeply unhappy places.

There’s even a school of thought which asserts that excessive political correctness and policing of speech further victimizes the very people its supposed to protecting. Because it gives people the impression that they do need to be protected by the state and can’t deal with these issues on a one-to-one, mature adult basis. I think they have a point

Are we empowering the very ‘labels’ we seek to dis-empower?

The Buddhist view of our speech and perception is that ‘words’ and ‘labels’ contribute to our mistakenly solidifying objects, people and experiences by making them appear more real, independent and separate than they actually are. The emphasis on the ‘label’  leads to more anger and hostility.

For example, when we perceive an object, we automatically tend to label it. As soon as our mind puts a label on an object, the label takes the place of the actual reality of the object in our minds. Yet our mental image or label can never represent all the different qualities and characteristics of any object, it is always just a simplified, usually exaggerated, subjective snap-shot. The problem with that is that our mind then reacts on the basis of our own mental label of an object. This is why most people react in simplistic, exaggerated and subjective ways to so many situations; why they see things as either ‘black’ or ‘white.’

Our labeling leads to problems like anger and attachment, but also to the more basic problem that we think we are somehow separate from the outside world. Yet we are not separate from the outside world at all. When we see something – for example a table – it appears to be separate from the rest of the world, just standing there by itself. Yet, how could the table stand there without the ground supporting it? How could the table exist without a carpenter making it from pieces of wood? The pieces of wood came from a tree, which came from a seed, water, soil, air, the sun and so on. Every object needs infinite causes and conditions to exist, just like we need our parents, food, air, clothes and many more things to exist. In addition to that,  our perception of an object is strongly colored by our own senses, mental states and memories. Looked at in this way, it becomes impossible to maintain that ‘I’ am separate from the outside world, however much it feels that way.

What this means is that labels like ‘n*gger’ and ‘b*tch’ cannot ultimately define or dis-empower a person. Words and labels are sounds, fluid, capable of transformation and can have several meanings attached to them. So, I do not agree that ‘labels’ should be banned from use or that they cannot be reclaimed as Atta suggests.  If we do go down that route, then we solidify these ‘labels’ even more and thus further empower them.

In my view, a more preferable route is to fully support and encourage the efforts of groups and individuals who raise awareness about, and condemn, racist and sexist hate speech, whenever and wherever it occurs. In a civilized, respectful society, it should be unacceptable to say certain words with the intention is to harm, degrade, humiliate and incite violence and hatred, taking care not to limit the freedom of speech.




Adele Wilde-Blavatsky (aka Adele Tomlin) has an MA in Philosophy and has worked as a media strategist and analyst for the BBC as well as a Philosophy lecturer. Since taking refuge with the 17th Karmapa in India in 2005, she has spent the last few years living and studying yoga, the Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy in India and Nepal. Adele is also a qualified yoga teacher, freelance writer, translator and a passionate political activist on issues related to gender, sexism, civil liberties and human rights. In 2007, she co-edited a philosophy book Aesthetic Experience with Prof.. Richard Shusterman and is currently working on her first collection of poetry for publication (one of her poems has been chosen for the forthcoming ‘Poetry of Yoga’ anthology in 2012). She currently combines motherhood and working for the campaigning organization, Free Tibet in London, UK.

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