On controversial words and the implied privilege of language

So a little while back I put up this post outlining our rules of writing. These “rules” are things we’ve said to each other repeatedly as workshop advice over the last 2-ish years we’ve been meeting, and I didn’t think anything of putting them up on the intranets. It’ll be a fun post, I thought. Good helpful content, that isn’t just a reading announcement. Bam.

Until the most recent workshop night, when another Rahnd Table member brought up the fact that “pussy” is, at its root, a sexist term. It could offend people, and perhaps rightfully so, and shouldn’t we maybe try to find a different wording for that rule? “Don’t be a coward” was suggested, or “Look into the abyss,” both of which are fine collections of words, and neither of which packs the same punch as the original.

For the record: The author of the original post is female; the culturally sensitive member is male. I do not believe this should matter, but am aware that it probably does, so.

In any case, a debate was sparked (much to the chagrin of the Nico’s dart league members who were standing near our table). Many valid points were made on both sides. To be clear, we’re not concerned with general offensiveness. None of us have hopes to be considered family friendly. What the debate concerned was specifically words based on the denigration of underprivileged or historically downtrodden groups like gay, tranny–and, of course, pussy.

There were a lot of people involved in the debate (and did I mention we were at a bar?) so the exact words of the points made has escaped me. But the gist of it went something like this:

Writer 1: We should change the wording because it’s sexist.

Writer 2: We’re not using the term to refer to women. It’s a word with multiple meanings.

Writer 1: But the fact that it’s a slang term for vagina means it’s short-hand for women, and by using it to mean a kind of synonym for “weak” or “cowardly” is reinforcing that view of women.

Writer 2: How is it different than calling someone a dick? Isn’t that implying an equally awful stereotype about men?

Writer 1: Men have more cultural privilege than women. Men haven’t been objectified or oppressed the way women have.

Writer 2: It seems more offensive to me that level of privilege matters. Dick means a rude guy, and it’s a slang term for a penis, and those two meanings can be separate. Equating the two meanings of “pussy” is sexist because it’s implying women can be directly represented by their sexual organs.

(Here followed a lengthy tangent on words. That “pussy” originally referred to cats; comparison to how “gay” originally referred to happy, but the new meaning has supplanted the old one; discussion of other terms that are varying levels of degrading, to various groups of people.)

Writer 1: I’m not saying the use of the word should be banned. Only that our use of it might alienate writers who are offended by the term.

Writer 2: It feels disingenuous to change it, especially if the word we change to doesn’t mean quite the same thing. Pussy means something that can’t be summed up by “weak” or “coward” or “sissy.” It invokes not only a certain meaning but a certain attitude.

Writer 1: Is that distinction important enough to justify the offense it could cause?

…and this discussion continued well into the night, eventually losing coherence and fading into another.

Whether we decide to alter the rules or not, it’s a conversation worth having. Should some words be avoided because of their attachment to negative stereotypes? If so, how far do we take it, and where do we draw that line?

Maybe more importantly: why do we draw that line?




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