“Bitch” and “Fag”: Always Wrong to Use

Written by February 21, 2012 6:36 am 37 comments

This article was prompted by a discussion on Nirmukta Facebook group on the usage of the word “bitch”. It examines the historical contexts under which these words originated and their current usage. It tries to build an argument from hypothetical scenarios, thought experiments and contemporary feminist thought on sexist and misogynistic language. The article also suggests alternative words to be used and popularized in order to prevent avoidable discomfort to marginalized groups.

When it comes to the usage of word “bitch”, many people agree that it is derogatory when used against a woman – damning and vilifying her person; it’s even wrong to use against a man by trying to portray him as a woman, or a subordinate. Traditionally, “bitch” is also used to refer to a female dog. But usage of “bitch” in its original context – to refer to a female dog – is widely acceptable. I shall primarily present my arguments against the usage of word “bitch” under any context and circumstance. I shall try to draw analogy from hypothetical scenarios and from usage of other similar offensive words like “fag”.

Merriam Webster gives us the following meaning of the word “bitch”:

1: the female of the dog or some other carnivorous mammals

2a: a lewd or immoral woman b: a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman —sometimes used as a generalized term of abuse

3: something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant

Note that the second and third meaning are already explained in the summary section of this post; and most people agree that it is a derogatory and offensive word to use against a woman and even against a man. There is not shred of doubt that it should be abhorred under all circumstances. However, when we consider the first meaning conveyed by the word, the unanimity seems blurry and unclear. In simple terms, most people find it acceptable (or rather, not offensive nor objectionable) to use when referring to a female dog. Are they right? Perhaps they are. After all a female dog can’t take offense and won’t know in any case what does the word mean? Is it oversensitive when somebody takes offense?

However, I shall argue why it can be wrong to use “bitch” even in such cases, through hypothetical scenarios and thought experiments. Consider the following scenario:

Scenario – 1

You are jogging in a lawn and you encounter one of your female friends, jogging with her pet dog. Incidentally, the pet dog she carried her with is a female dog. You greet your friend, “Hello, good morning”. And, after exchange of greetings, you also ask her about her pet dog, “How is that bitch doing?” Your friend gives you a puzzled expression hearing the word “bitch”.

From the above scenario, though hypothetical, but not highly unlikely, we get to learn that usage of word “bitch” even while referring to a female dog can distract one’s attention, and disturb the audience present, especially if there are women present among them. The word is often used in a derogatory and offensive manner, and has a history of negative connotations and derogatory baggage, which can affect the sensibilities of your audience even if you don’t mean it. It reminds them of the discrimination and oppression they are still subjected to. It can be demeaning, alienating and infuriating to a woman. The point I want to stress is, words have different meanings and contexts, and even when one uses a word which has a history of bigotry without such intention or context, it can disturb the target audience.

I will further explain the disturbing nature of such words using another example using the word “fag”.

Now, the word “fag” too has different meaning. “Fag” can mean:

1:  Cigarette

2:  A derogatory and offensive slang to denigrate homosexuals. Fags were often identified with a bundle of stick used to burn heretics and sexually “deviant” persons in medieval Europe.

Now, considering the following scenario illustrating the usage of word “fag”:

Scenario – 2

You are having a good time in a coffee shop with your friends. One of them is gay and you are aware of that. You feel the urge to smoke and you express it to your friends: ‘Guys, Let’s smoke some fags! ‘   After hearing this, your gay friend gives you a concerned and puzzled expression as if to express his displeasure.

In these above scenarios , the words “bitch” and “fag” were used in an innocuous manner with no derogatory intent. Yet, they had the unintended effect of disturbing the target audience present. The negative history and associated oppression affects and reminds people of the continued discrimination they still face. This shows that sometimes, not only intention, even mere usage of those heavily loaded words can be misleading and offending. The point that I want to stress is, why use words which have fallen into misuse and can be which misleading and offending even when used in seemingly innocuous manner as illustrated above? Surely we can use alternative words that are both civilized and acceptable?  The alternatives to these words are more popular and readily accessible than these specific words. Please think about it.

Some people might object– “It’s difficult to keep track of so many words that have fallen into misuse and it won’t be practical to keep eliminating them”. However, as facts from history suggest, many such derogatory and offensive words with racist, sexist and ablist connotations have become obsolete. As society changes with time, its values and language evolve alongside. It’s a slow gradual change. I don’t aim to ban words nor encourage maintaining a list of such words and keep referring to them when required. Rather, I ask for introspection and self-censorship whenever required. There are people, less privileged than you, for whom words like “bitch” and “fag” are alienating and infuriating. As Melissa McEwan of Shakesville writes in her post “On ‘Bitch’ and Other Misogynist Language”,

“What I am is more sensitive to how misogynist language affects women, because I am one. People of color are more sensitive to racist language (particularly racist dog whistles, for example) than I am; that doesn’t mean they’re too sensitive. When a reader pointed out to me that my use of the word “lame” to mean “stupid” could be offensive to disabled Shakers, it wasn’t that she was too sensitive; it was that I was not sensitive enough. It means that (duh) I still have… to learn in this world. “

Moreover, the onus is not on the oppressed to not get offended; the onus is on the privileged to not engage in said offense. So, justifying usage of derogatory words by telling someone to get over it, is an unacceptable excuse. When an opportunity is available to prevent such situations from occurring in the first place, it is imprudent and unethical to use such words. Language plays a crucial part in perpetuating prejudice. So, it is essential for  freethinking humanists to use language that can further along their humanistic goals. There are many alternatives to the words in question which are more commonly used: “dog”, “female dog” and “dam” when referring to the female of the species “dog”. As for ‘fag’, there is “cigarette”, “ciggy”, “smoke” etc.  The alternatives are so common that one doesn’t even have to refer to a dictionary to know about them. Using alternative words is both practical and possible, and it doesn’t affect the quality of discourse either. This becomes even more important in social gatherings, both online and real-life - a Facebook group, a workplace, a dinner party, a classroom, a conference – where people in the group do not have the benefit of knowing you well – i.e. they cannot be sure “where you’re coming from” or “what you really meant”. Another thing to note is that using such words in casual language trivializes their context, and creates an environment where people who really do mean them as slurs can do so without fear of criticism.


 

An objection that is often raised whenever self-censoring of derogatory words are being discussed is “reclaiming” of words is more effective than banning or discouraging usage of words. The reasoning given is such a reclaim is empowerment. Examples of  reclaimed words like queer and gay are often cited to support their argument. There is no doubt that people have successfully reclaimed those words to a greater success. However, historically it is also known that reclaiming of words is very difficult , if not impossible. Many ethnic, racial, sexist and homophobic slurs which possibly originated in a totally inoffensive context have never been reclaimed. They are almost always replaced with more acceptable words. However, a few important points need to be remembered concerning reclaiming of words:

  1. Reclaiming is the prerogative of oppressed and marginalized groups, not people of privileged groups.
  2. Reclaiming requires acceptance with an overwhelming majority among the marginalized group. A word can’t be called successfully reclaimed if there is no overwhelming majority on its usage. e.g. feminists have tried to reclaim the word “bitch” with “Bitch Magazine“, “Godless Bitches” and the like, but still there is disagreement amongst feminists whether the word can/should be reclaimed. Here is a blog post  that explores why such a reclaim may not work.
  3. Words reclaimed should only be used for purposes and contexts in which they have positive and assertive power.
  4. A word reclaimed is to be used by the marginalized groups who have reclaimed it. A woman using the word “bitch”, as an compliment, after reclaiming, is not same as a man using it. An LGBTQ person using the word “queer” is not same as a heterosexual man with straight privilege using it.

Some people object that a language check doesn’t address the root cause of such behavior,  i.e. it can’t help reduce homophobia, misogyny, racism and so on. This cannot be further from the truth. Language is the medium of propagation for ideas – both good and bad. Language has played a crucial part in our history and continues to do so. It is both empowering and enriching. However, with such a powerful tool, there often come dangers too. It is the medium through which malicious ideas and prejudices also get propagated. So, it is absolutely essential that language is examined with scrutiny. I understand that this would not solve the world’s problems but it would be a better place to live in. We might even strike at the root of the problems sometimes – e.g. if people feel compelled to hide their homophobia via such language checks, then they are also being denied the opportunity to spread such beliefs.

Freethinking and secular humanism come with certain responsibilities guided by sensitivity and ethical reasoning. We must realize why it is imperative to civilize our vocabulary with self-scrutiny, and adopt a self-questioning, self-correcting attitude. By discouraging the usage of marginalising words, we are not only promoting our cherished humanist values, we are also helping in making the usage of such words obsolete. This post is not to encourage censorship and micro-monitoring in a free and democratic forum. There is a difference between censorship, and civilized, sensitized language, and I hope I have adequately explained that in this article.

(Thanks to Gayathri Iyer, Lalit Mohan Chawla and Sunil D’Monte for their valuable inputs.)

 

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This post was written by:

- who has written 1 posts on Nirmukta.

I am a non-religious person. That is, I don't believe in gods or God of any sort . Now that I have told you about my 'religious' beliefs , let me elaborate further . I don't stop there . Being non-religious doesn't mean I have no other ideological leaning . To tell you , I am a secular humanist as well as a feminist. By shunning supernatural beliefs , I derive my strength and comfort from purely naturalistic explanations. I believe Science and Scientific Evidence is supreme in all spheres of life; and I earnestly pursue for promoting Science , Freethought and Skepticism in India using social networking sites like Facebook. I am an avid nature and wildlife lover . Especially tigers . And I am also a science enthusiast , rationalist and humanist , progressive, pragmatic and optimist , skeptic and naturalist and many other things . I also love photography , long rides on bike. Music , Books are my passion . And I love visiting new places ; both crowded cities and quiet nature , archaeological sites and historical places. I am also a Software Developer by profession. This is a short and honest attempt by me to tell you briefly about me. I hope I was clear enough. Thanks for reading.

37 Comments

  • In a recent comment trail on the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra incident (which itself is a prime example of why words like “negro” need to be weeded out of our vocabulary), I saw that one commenter had written something like “We should all just calm down”, and as an example, he mentioned “The word ‘paki’ is not racist in Australia, therefore it shouldn’t matter if someone uses it there”. (To those who don’t know, ‘paki’ is a racist slur used against people of South Asian ethnicity in the UK.) I’m someone who has been called a “fucking paki” by a cab driver in London. I wonder, if I’m with a couple of Australians, and one of them says “paki”, how am I supposed to know what he really meant? Even if I know that “paki” is not a racist slur in Australia, how am I supposed to know that the Australian really meant it in it’s non-racist context, and not in its British context? (After all, I’m pretty sure all Australians know the meaning of the word in the UK.) Am I supposed to just give him the benefit of doubt, and grin and bear it? Am I supposed to ask him? When he knows that the word does have racist contexts, why has he used it at all? Why not just pick another word? It’s these kinds of situations that we can avoid by being mindful of langauge. I think this article makes a good ethical case for it.

  • I met a good friend of mine while he was smoking and by the end of the conversation, I signed off saying “OK I’ll leave you to your fag now”
    It was bloody awkward when he didn’t know the meaning of it and that’s probably because he was European. But I explained it to him and got off.
    Thankfully it hasn’t caused any rift in our friendship but I’ll never use ambiguous words again.

    However, asking for the word bitch/negro to be removed from the dictionary et al is silly. Would you want to remove all swear words from the dictionary? Then new ones will come up- that’s all.

    Good people won’t use them. Stupid people will always find ways to use. And if you feel someone calling you a negro or paki is not acceptable to you- then protest right there and he’ll stop using it to you.
    To file court cases because someone calls you racial terms is outright childish!

    • The point of this post is to introspect, and gradually move away , voluntarily , from using these words , to prevent *avoidable* discomfort to marginalized groups. Again , let me bring it to notice that , there is a huge difference between common swear words like ‘fuck’ ,’shit’,’a$$hole’ etc and sexist,racist,ablist,casteist slurs. The former , though considered impolite , but are not marginalizing or denigrating a group of people – they affect only one person and are localized ; while , for the latter , words like ‘bitch’ ‘fag’ ‘nigger’ etc are grossly marginalizing and dehumanizing a whole group of people.

      You also might have noticed that many such words which probably originated in an inoffensive context, but later fell into misuse to abuse certain group of people, have become obsolete. They are no longer used . As for new words coming up to replace these dehumanizing slurs , that is very difficult in today’s highly enlightened world. Our values are no longer the same that used to be, say , two hundred years ago , which allowed at first place the degeneration of these words. Still , if you notice some new word coming up to replace , wouldn’t it be prudent and ethical to prevent that happening ? Is this justifiable to continue using these words just because new words may come up to replace these words ?

      The point is , there is no benefit or use of these swear words, apart from insulting / abusing women , gays etc. There are more popular and acceptable words like ‘dog’ , ‘dam’ ,’female dog’ instead of ‘bitch’ and ‘cigarette’ , ‘smoke’ , ‘ciggy’ etc instead of ‘fag’ . Why not use them ? I know this is not going to happen overnight , but it has to start somewhere right ? Efforts such as these are one of many such attempts to slowly and gradually move away from these words.

      While protesting against usage of these words is good , however , if you are made aware beforehand of the damaging effects of these words and voluntarily refrain from using them, such situation would not arise at all where you have to protest .

      I am not sure where filing law suits came here ! That is not the point or intention of this article. Probably you are talking about efforts to ban certain words legislatively in some countries ? Anyway , that is an altogether different issue and out of scope of this article.

  • Hmm.. so we are not supposed to use the term ‘bitch’ to describe a female dog, which is its original meaning. But I am sure Indian freethinkers would vociferously oppose any form of censorship should a foreign author use the same word to describe Sita or Goddess Parvati, in the name of freedom of speech. Of course, any mention of hurt sentiments would be trivialized in such cases, and those offended would be told to ‘act mature’.

    To cite another example, when some Muslims denounced the usage of the word ‘Mecca’ as in ‘Vegas is a gambling mecca’, it was the freethinking community which criticized their stand.

    You guys cannot have it both ways.

    • I am afraid that you may not have gotten the point of this post at all. The idea is to gradually and consciously move away from using words which have been used to dehumanize and humiliate a certain group of human beings through history. Let me repeat: these odious words have been used in the context of abuse of human beings.

      Hope you get that idea: human beings. See? Nothing to do with mythical characters like Sita or Parvati. And even if a ‘foreign author’ uses it, the same admonition given in the post still applies – when this word is used to denigrate a or a group of human beings.

      And by bringing in Mecca, you are engaging in a logical fallacy called False Equivalence. The word ‘Mecca’ has not been used to abuse, debase, devalue or denigrate any human being or a group of people. Use of this word, therefore, doesn’t count.

      • Dehumanizing and humiliating someone or some groups can be carried out by insulting or mocking values/cultural symbols held in high regard by those groups.

        For example, US troops burning the Koran (intentionally or otherwise) is now causing riots in Afghanistan. This action is less tolerated than even civilians getting killed.

        Many people don’t mind an insult hurled at them as much as anything mocking their communal or religious identity. That’s a fact.

        If sensitivity and not offending others is the main criterion, then it should cover every form of it, not just personal insults. Otherwise there is a dichotomy which needs to be explained by secular humanists.

        Would you guys have approved of any effort to get MF Husain enrolled in a religious sensitivity course? If the answer is “no”, then you guys are not being consistent here, I’m sorry.

        • “If sensitivity and not offending others is the main criterion”
          Preventing further marginalization/reducing marginalisation of marginalized groups is the main concern.
          Now review the article,your comments and the case studies (MF hussain,religious mocking,sexist slurs) etc. with this.

        • Dehumanizing and humiliating someone or some groups can be carried out by insulting or mocking values/cultural symbols held in high regard by those groups.

          GAAH! Gender- and/or sexual-orientation based insults are NOT the same as making fun of or pointing out inconsistencies in someone’s ‘values’ or cultural symbols. Values, symbols or opinions are fluid, often transient, entities; they are not immutable – they may change with situation, perception, and they should change with time. Gender and sexual-orientation are intrinsic to a human being. Why and how is that so difficult to understand?

          For example, US troops burning the Koran (intentionally or otherwise) is now causing riots in Afghanistan. This action is less tolerated than even civilians getting killed… Many people don’t mind an insult hurled at them as much as anything mocking their communal or religious identity. That’s a fact.

          Burning of a book is a violent, intolerant act, and I would never support it, no matter who does it – whether it be a few US soldiers inadvertently burning copies of the Qur’an, or a group of religious zealots burning copies of ‘Satanic Verses’. But those who value their religious identities more than human lives and conditions are reprehensible.

          I have pointed out the main purpose of this article to you in two separate posts, and so has Lalit now, who succinctly indicated that “Preventing further marginalization/reducing marginalisation of marginalized groups is the main concern.” There is no dichotomy here except the one you are trying to manufacture. There is no need for a/any religious sensitivity ‘course’, because religions and religious ideas are not sacrosanct.

          The fact that you continue to grab on to the same unreasoned and spurious talking points tells me that you are being intentionally obtuse, in which case there is no point for me to continue to engage you.

  • To all those reading who think that the author of the post and the group admins are being overly sanctimonious and interventionist, here is a point to ponder:

    Which of these situations would you have rather have prevail?
    (a) one in which you can’t say some words like ‘b*tch’, in voluntary restraint to maintain inclusiveness
    (b) one in which some members can’t say anything since they don’t even feel like staying in a group whose conduct excludes them by inadvertent speech patterns that are hurtful all the same

    In which of these situations are the affected members more disadvantaged? Which of these situations causes greater net disadvantage to the community? Should community organizers be considered unreasonable for treating this question to be a no-brainer and letting irreverence for the heck of it be trumped by the imperative of inclusiveness?

  • While I have nothing against the underlying theme of the article, which is about not offending others unnecessarily, what I find disturbing is
    the fact that freethinkers are guilty of hijacking and claiming this precept to be exclusively theirs, and do an one-upmanship over believers, as though the latter are all nasty and thoughtless. Even if they don’t
    imply the latter, by tagging their own central theme (of unbelief in God) with other passable (and generally noble) themes such as humanism in an effort to prop up their main agenda is a bit disingeneous at best. Sort
    of like Hell’s Angels conducting blood drives regularly to increase their appeal to the general public.

    Please note that atheism does not imply humanism, or vice versa. One can be politically incorrect and be a believer or atheist. Similarly one can be politically correct and again be either.

    In Chennai, where the people are by and large socially conservative (and religious), I find that gyms and coffee shops play rap music replete with the words bitch and f**k, which would surely make traditional women a bit
    uncomfortable). Now don’t even start telling me that the BJP and Hindutva groups wanted this city to embrace this culture.

    Not only that, this culture is being thrust upon the conservative masses in the name of globalization. The NRI office boss drags his female subordinates to a pub and chides them to order ‘Wild sex on the beach’ or
    ‘slippery nipple’, which are offensive enough to the latter even if virgin (I mean the drinks).

    Ironically, when some conservative groups oppose this sub-culture, it is the global yuppie types (which most freethinkers are) who loudly protest those actions and organize ‘slut walks’. What they conveniently forget is the fact that shutting down all pubs will also bring down date rapes and drunken driving accidents, which are a scourge in Western countries.

    In Tamil Nadu, it should be remembered that it was the women’s wings of atheist groups such as Dravida Kazhagam which rallied against the pub culture and other symbols of globalization such as beauty pageants. And these were done for exactly the same reasons as outlined in this article. We Indians have long used a term for this- “outraging the modesty of a female”.

    And, what could be rightly called a cat-fight, it was countered by another group of women who also call themselves progressives, namely the slutwalkers.

    The battle between the sexes (or rather, within the sex) couldn’t get more interesting than this!

    • Good grief!

      Okay, let’s see.

      While I have nothing against the underlying theme of the article, which is about not offending others unnecessarily…

      That is not the what the underlying theme is. The underlying theme is to make an effort to gradually and consciously move away from using certain words that have historically been used to undermine, devalue, debase and dehumanize a certain section of humanity. There, is that a little clear now?

      what I find disturbing is the fact that freethinkers are guilty of hijacking and claiming this precept to be exclusively theirs, and do an one-upmanship over believers, as though the latter are all nasty and thoughtless.

      Do you make your own strawmen or do you buy them en bulk? Where exactly have freethinkers claimed this exclusivity? And you are being either naive or intellectually dishonest, because you know this as you reveal in your next comment:

      Even if they don’t imply the latter…

      Come now, Sir. Surely you can do better than that?

      … tagging their own central theme (of unbelief in God) with other passable (and generally noble) themes such as humanism in an effort to prop up their main agenda is a bit disingeneous [sic] at best.

      So… humanism to you is merely a ‘passable theme’, is it? To many atheists, it is the central theme; they understand that all we have is this single life, and they wish to spend this precious time in advocating for qualities that the best of humanity are endowed with, such as compassion for fellow human beings.

      Please note that atheism does not imply humanism, or vice versa. One can be politically incorrect and be a believer or atheist. Similarly one can be politically correct and again be either.

      What has political correctness, a flawed human construct, got to with either atheism and/or humanism? You, sir, seem to have some very weird ideas about atheism/humanism. Perhaps you should educate yourself a bit about what these terms really encompass?

      In Chennai, where the people are by and large socially conservative (and religious), I find that gyms and coffee shops play rap music replete with the words bitch and f**k, which would surely make traditional women a bit uncomfortable). Now don’t even start telling me that the BJP and Hindutva groups wanted this city to embrace this culture.

      And, your point is?

      Not only that, this culture is being thrust upon the conservative masses in the name of globalization.

      Ah, the favorite flogging horse of the ignorant, “globalization”. If you want Bhajans to be played in your local gyms and coffee shops, why don’t you tell them, or patronize some other gym/coffee shop that belts out numbers more suitable for your sentiments? Again, the conscious decision to stay away from certain loaded words with derogatory baggage is one’s own. It is independent of religious affiliation. Why, if you are religious, you are welcome to protest against the use of these words, so long as you understand what it is that you are protesting and why.

      The NRI office boss drags his female subordinates to a pub and chides them to order ‘Wild sex on the beach’ or ‘slippery nipple’, which are offensive enough to the latter even if virgin (I mean the drinks).

      Projection much? If you don’t wish to have ‘Wild sex on the beach’, don’t have it – actually, metaphorically or libationally. Why project your own distastes and fear of sex onto other individuals? Is there even any truth in this anecdote you served about an “NRI” boss? Again, you have missed the point of this post by a mile. Naming a cocktail ‘Wild sex on the beach’ is NOT the same as cussing a person out as ‘bitch’ or ‘fag’.

      Ironically, when some conservative groups oppose this sub-culture, it is the global yuppie types (which most freethinkers are) who loudly protest those actions and organize ‘slut walks’…

      Ah, so we are now down to ad hominems. Pray continue…

      What they conveniently forget is the fact that shutting down all pubs will also bring down date rapes and drunken driving accidents, which are a scourge in Western countries.

      Hahahaha! Your idea about ‘Western countries’ is even more laughable. Date rapes don’t occur because of pubs. Rape occurs because of rapists, who are overwhelmingly men, if you didn’t notice. Have you heard of something called ‘Prohibition’? Read up on it. It didn’t significantly impact drunk driving incidents. You may not like drinking, but why must you begrudge someone else who may want to sit down and relax with a drink – responsibly – at the end of the day?

      In Tamil Nadu, it should be remembered that it was the women’s wings of atheist groups such as Dravida Kazhagam which rallied against the pub culture and other symbols of globalization such as beauty pageants. And these were done for exactly the same reasons as outlined in this article.

      And what reasons were those, pray tell? I think you know (or perhaps you don’t, in which case you should read up) that by designating Dravida Kazhagham as an ‘atheist party’ you are bending the scope and definition of their mission. Even their mission has changed several times from the time of Periyar. The DK activists have protested against various things. Which ones of those would you chalk up to an atheist ideology?

      We Indians have long used a term for this- “outraging the modesty of a female”.

      Even the Supreme Court now recognizes that that is a woefully inadequate substitute for rape and sexual violence. Are you equating beauty pageants with rape? Really? ‘False equivalence’ is not your friend.

      And, what could be rightly called a cat-fight, it was countered by another group of women who also call themselves progressives, namely the slutwalkers.

      Instead of displaying your intellectual laziness, perhaps you could inform yourself a little bit about what the ‘slutwalks’ are, and what exactly the people who organize or participate in slutwalks are trying to protest against? I’ll give you a hint: it’s an entrenched sentiment in a patriarchal society that views women as chattel and possession that can be controlled at will. You can do that much before engaging in a serious debate, can’t you?

    • “freethinkers are guilty of hijacking and claiming this precept to be exclusively theirs, and do an one-upmanship over believers, as though the latter are all nasty and thoughtless. Even if they don’t
      imply the latter, by tagging their own central theme (of unbelief in God) with other passable (and generally noble) themes such as humanism in an effort to prop up their main agenda is a bit disingeneous at best. Sort
      of like Hell’s Angels conducting blood drives regularly to increase their appeal to the general public.”

      Freethought allows you to be humanist if you wish to, religion prevents you even if you wish to in many cases,forces you to be (but not well enough)even when you don’t wish to with threats of eternal damnation, freethought allows you to base your decisions on logic and reason , not on dogma or authority,freethought is just a tool , it in itself has no objectives, humanism does,freethought only allows you to achieve your objectives,whatever they are, in best way possible, by minimizing biases.
      Freethought does not hijack humanism, there are a lot of freethinkers who are capable of finding injustice but would rather remain apatheist, there are a lot of humanists who are infected by their religion or dogmas to only be selectively rational and cannot find injustice when there exists, and find injustice when it doesn’t exist.Freethought does not have a monopoly on humanism,it is just the best way to get it done right,it is the best way to get anything done right,by minimizing the “noise” of biases,

      • Freethought is a double edged sword. It works well if you are a humanist by nature. But not all humans are created that way. Many have evil streaks in them and religion seeks to restrain those influences. I can confidently say that many do not commit crimes because of fear of some sort of supernatural reprisal (call it dharma or whatever). I have many a times heard many people say that if you commit so and so crimes, there will be divine retribution or they will suffer the wrath of the victim. In many cases, it is only this fear that restrains them from committing such crimes.

        Conversely, many guilty of gross human rights violations, including mass murders, had been avowed atheists. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Fidel Castro come to mind. Many eugenicists (who think people less advanced out to be sterilized or even killed) such as Francis Galton were freethinkers.

        It makes perfect sense, if you come to think of it. After all, if humans are nothing more than assemblages of atoms, why should it be morally wrong to knock them down and re-assemble them into different configurations, like a Lego set? It should be super cool to do so, right? That’s the eugenicist’s freethinking rationale, if you still haven’t got it.

  • This article has been at the receiving end of scorching criticism by those who are reacting as though its very publication constitutes some sort of an infringement of Free Speech. Any serious participant in the freethought community in India would be aware of the fledgling nature of the movement. It is bizarre indeed if those who count themselves as sympathizers of this fledgling movement act as though an article critiquing the adverse effects of certain verbal behaviours is some kind of binding and threatening diktat to be opposed with a vehemence that is scarcely on display even in the face of the more gross iniquities the movement is pitted against.

    Even doctrinaire libertarians acknowledge that Free Speech is circumscribed by the Harm Principle. In the case in point, the casual and wanton use of sexist and other supremacist slurs, sometimes ostensibly as wordplay and at other times licentiously using indignation as an excuse, causes harm in the form of alienating members of already marginalized groups, whose representation in freethought communities is an urgent-enough concern for administrators of such communities to consider the sacrifice of a few opportunities of bawdy punning and wordplay warranted. For those operating under the misconception that the mantle of a ‘defender of Free Speech’ can be claimed by making of oneself an egregious spectacle of mangling political correctness with bawdy humour, a firm reminder is due that this is in fact a great disservice to Free Speech because it ignores the Harm Principle and ends up causing harm by reinforcing the sort of continued marginalization which attempts at political correctness are intended to challenge.

    Some critics seem to believe that attempts at inclusive language are somehow a distraction from the business of genuine reform and education. One wonders how those who are loath to even acknowledge that some words thanks to their inescapable historical connotation by their very sound end up reinforcing marginalization, can claim to be adequately sensitive and sufficiently committed to what is a progressive and inclusive movement. One also wonders how those whose skewed sense of priorities compels them to defend their rights to bawdy humour at the expense of ongoing marginalization to some others, to the extent of bandying around accusations of totalitarianism about those who call out these behaviours, and are unwilling to make even this minuscule investment to self-examine, can expect to be taken seriously when they make grand promises of investing in reform and education to address deep-seated prejudice.

    • Yup. There is also a consequentialist ethical argument in its favour. One can change one’s words at little to no personal cost, compared to the cost incurred on marginalised groups when such words are used.

      Also, here is a accurate description of what actually lies behind complaints of “political correctness”:


      Disdain for “political correctness” is often positioned as a concern that some important truth is not being spoken for fear of offending someone. But that concern is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To invoke “political correctness” is really to be concerned about loss of power and privilege. It is about disappointment that some “ism” that was ingrained in our society, so much that citizens of privilege could express the bias through word and deed without fear of reprisal, has been shaken loose. Charging “political correctness” generally means this: “I am comfortable with my privilege. I don’t want to have to question it. I don’t want to have to think before I speak or act. I certainly don’t wish to inconvenience myself for the comfort of lesser people (whoever those people may be—women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)

  • Let me reiterate the gist of what I wanted to say. I completely agree with the point conveyed by this article, namely avoid such words with dubious double meanings which can unintentionally hurt others.

    The point is, this is a very sensible dictum to go by, by all people, and not just freethinkers or humanists. This is all about basic decency and diplomacy. I am sure this is something even those believing in God or supernatural stuff, such as Swami Vivekananda or Deepak Chopra will agree with. Even if you are not a humanist, and you want to conduct business, you still follow sensitivity rules, if for nothing else other than to be successful. At the end of the day, it is just a mundane rule of thumb that I abide by in this game called life.

    I seek no reason to connect this guiding principle to “freethinking” or any other high sounding philosophy.

    • If only this were a ‘mundane rule of thumb’ that was so routinely adhered to by all interlocutors one runs into online! It is blatantly obvious that such codes of conduct are yet to become second nature to most interlocutors, which is why some consciousness-raising of the sort attempted by this article is in order. As for the question of why freethinkers must care about anything at all, here is a detailed response to an earlier question : Is adherence to an ideology compatible with free-thought and humanism?

  • Somehow the anecdotal situations (and the article) do not seem convincing enough to avoid the usage of a particular word like bitch. It seems unfair to me, that I must not use a particular word because people other than me have given other meanings to it. In a conversation, if a particular member of the marginalized group feels offended and tells it to me, then I will not use that word in front of them or any context surrounding them. For instance, I only use bitch in the context of 3. I would gladly clarify when the it is not clear from context. However, if I am asked to universally refrain from using it, I feel constrained. Perhaps my reasons are based on my comfort and therefore irrational. I am not sure.

    • Have you considered that your feeling of ‘constraint’ is coming from a position of privilege? That you would never be at the receiving end of a word like ‘bitch’ with all its intent of causing hurt and insulting? As the article points out, it is better to find alternatives to loaded words/expressions that are/have been used to marginalize human beings globally. Words, I am sure you realize, are not mere concatenation of sounds and syllables given certain contexts; they may have a lot of power.

      • Let me assure you that it has nothing to do with a position of privilege. If I am at the receiving end, I would not judge a persons intention selectively based on the usage of a particular word and not give importance to context. To do so would be irrational. Is it *better* to find alternatives depends a whole lot on what better means here. For instance, you might think that I have a small price to pay to consciously change from one word to another, every time I use it. But the price is not always small for me. If I want to vent my frustration, certain words come naturally to me and use them in an impersonal manner. However on other occasions, suppose I am talking to a stranger and I am really interested in the conversation, I do not use slurs consciously. It is a personal choice that depends on the context. Now is my method worse than the one outlined? I dont think so!

    • Q: Why refrain from using words which have been accorded unsavoury meanings by ‘other people’?
      A: It is disingenuous to suggest that all our utterances must be judged only by our unobserved intent and not by the inescapable connotations of the words we use. The prevalent meanings of words are fait accompli thanks to generations of usage by ‘other people’, which pervade even seemingly extraneous contexts.

      Q: Why refrain from using potentially offensive words unless someone complains?
      A: How is this different from asking the following?
      It’s a bad idea to click photographs of strangers without permission but why not keep going until someone complains? It’s a bad idea to turn up the sound too high but why not keep going till the neighbours complain?
      Exercising a degree of caution to prevent avoidable misunderstandings, especially when a potential for the same is recognized, doesn’t seem too much to ask for.

      Q: Why taboo a word whose use is second nature to me thanks to force of habit and whose stoppage will make me uncomfortable?
      A: That the supposed ‘discomfort’ in forswearing slurs one was used to is a small price to pay in the interest of preventing ongoing marginalization and exclusion, is explained at length in these previous comments. (1 and 2)

      • Q1: It is as disingenuous to suggest that one can infer a persons intent from an outlier word in a sentence and ignore context.

        Q2: This nails the point home. I have neighbors who turn up the sound high all the time, and I have no problem with it. If I had a problem and requested him to reduce the volume, then reducing the volume would be the correct thing to do. I do not see a need for preemptive actions, since I am open to changing my stand. There seems to be an implicit understanding that marginalized do not speak their mind or raise objections. It is truly sad if that were the case!

        Q3: Who decides the price? Given a well defined price, one can decide the most rational course of action. However, is it established that there is only one metric to decide? All of them seem to think it is ‘obviously’ a small price to pay. I ask why? Can one establish that?

        Thank you

        • A1: The limited context assumed by someone casually choosing an unconventional use of an ambiguous word, is always overlaid by a larger context which cannot be wished away, in which such a casual choice maybe viewed as ill-advised. It is not malicious intent that can be referred from such usage, as insensitivity and indifference to potential misunderstanding can.

          A2: The fact that your neighbours are far from from model neighbours, is not a compelling reason to emulate their conduct.

          A3: That the degree of inhibition caused to someone insisting on unconventional uses of a recognized slur is much less than the degree of inhibition inflicted upon a slurred-against group for no fault of theirs in a slur-infested environment, as examined here, is quite manifest, even pending an elaborate metric for quantifying.

          • A1. I am afraid I do not understand the first line :(

            A2. I did not imply that either. I wanted to say preemptive action can be unwarranted since the neighbors did not have a problem with it.

            A3. Please understand that in a context of a forum, it makes a perfect sense (to me) to advise people not to use such slurs. I say this because I have seen such privilege being misused by sexists on forums and then they hide behind other meanings. I understand that. However asking someone to avoid using it in a contextually clear usage of bitch (like the one in the article) seems unwarranted. Though I must admit I do not call a female dog a bitch, I use it occasionally to mean something unpleasant.

            Finally the idea that it is unconventional is quite cultural and has no universal basis.

            To be clear, let us exercise slur usage with caution. I wish that the fellow human beings can distinguish between our actions and our words. Finally, every one should voice their dissent if they feel hurt by certain words.

          • The first line was meant to say this: However harmless you may consider your usage of a controversial word,you need to be mindful of the fact that the impressions the word creates will largely be dictated by the more prevalent usages of the word than by the exception you claim. This is especially true for words carrying pejorative connotations.

            Doesn’t it seem an exercise of privilege to suggest that those who use slurs ostensibly casually ought to be absolved of the supposedly unintended consequences this may have, and that the onus of inspection and objection is squarely on the affected marginalized groups as if they didn’t have enough problems already?

    • This article uses few hypothetical situations , which are, BTW , not highly unlikely to arise in real life situations ,to drive home a point that sometimes words which have fallen into misuse and are ambiguous in nature , can be misleading and may cause discomfort to already marginalized groups. Please note , these two specific words are almost always used as a slur to abuse women and gay people. ‘Bitch’ is not popular and offensive because it refers to a female dog , rather it is exclusively used against women for abusing. Same is the case with ‘fag’ . The alternatives are far more popular , in professional circles and educational institutions, than these two words even when referring to a female dog or cigarette. So I don’t see any point or ‘benefit’ by sticking to these words , especially when these words have a negative history associated with them.

      And coming to your ‘unfair’ argument . Do you seriously think this is an argument at first place ? Extending your ‘unfair’ logic , almost all social reforms and affirmative action policies can be stalled, because *you*, personally , did not cause any direct harm to marginalized groups or some other people caused harm to some other marginalized group. So , do you realize now ,should we accept this ‘unfair’ argument now ?

      Regarding your proclamation that you will stop using these words only after someone complains it , you sir , are presented with a beforehand knowledge of the explosive nature of these words , and can yourself bring to not use them to *avoid* such a situation to arise at first. Isn’t your logic the same as the classical arrogant saying , ‘Oh , did I hurt you ? I’m so sorry !’ Please think about it , when you know that certain words can be misleading , and may potentially hurt someone , why not *pick another word* ?

      Feeling ‘constrained’ could have been justified to some extent when someone bans these words or forces you to not use them. This article does neither of that. It just asks for plain *introspection and voluntary action*. I would have even understood this provided there were *no alternative words* to use . But , that is not the case here too. There are plenty of alternatives to use instead of these two words. I haven’t heard of any use of these words except being used as slurs against women and gay people. So, please think about it again , why not use ‘dog’ or ‘dam’ or ‘female dog’ instead of ‘bitch’ ; or why not use ‘cigarette’ or ‘ciggy’ or ‘smoke’ instead of ‘fag’ ? What stops us from doing that ?

  • Sunil D'Monte

    Here’s a recent example from a few days ago: ESPN used the headline “Chinks in the Armor” in an article about NBA star Jeremy Lin:

    The headline was apparently taken down after being public for 35 minutes but again, the damage was done — the editors at ESPN apparently had no idea or did not care that the term “chink” is a blatantly racist term against all Asian Americans but particularly and deeply offensive to Chinese Americans. I might expect people outside the U.S., such as Spain’s national basketball team, not to know that the term “chink” is racist, but it is very disappointing to learn that many Americans still think it’s perfectly fine to use in reference to a Chinese American.

    Disappointing, but unfortunately not really surprising.

    That is because many Americans already believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are already a colorblind society. As such, they have been taught, socialized, and desensitized to naively think that all racial groups are equal now, that no racial discrimination ever takes place nowadays, and therefore, it’s fine to casually use terms such as “chink” in everyday conversation.

    • I want to share one of the incidents to which I was a witness, just to show how these loaded words can affect people. I don’t want to project this as some sort of ‘evidence’, but just want to share that how sometimes mere usage of these words, in an apparently unintentional and innocuous manner, can lead to misunderstanding and add to the discomfort of people for whom these words are used mostly used as an abuse.

      This incident happened in my office, some three years, in Hyderabad. It was a casual interaction session among team mates and the manager where team members had the chance to ask managers about their personal lives, hobbies etc. Just a casual chat. Our team had a fair mixture of women and men – comprising of around 10 women employees and about the same number of men employees. Everyone were enjoying till one of the male team members asked the manager, ‘what pet do you have at home?’. The question was absolutely harmless, and the answer to the question would have been obviously equally harmless. Right? But wait, my manager replied, ‘I have a bitch as a pet’. He, no doubt, meant a ‘female dog’. But what followed after that was really awkward and depressing. The instant my manager uttered the word ‘bitch’ , there were giggling , nudges , winks from male members of the team. All the women team members who were cheerful and active till that very moment became silent totally. I mean absolute silence. You could have clearly seen signs of uneasiness, discomfort in their face. My manager probably realized this, and quickly changed the topic, and asked for a cake that was to be cut.

      I haven’t forgotten that day still. Can remember each moment vividly. It is as if that incident happened yesterday.

      Now, it is precisely to avoid these situations to arise in one’s life, language check is essential from time to time. Some would object, and say that this situation became ugly because of indecent behavior from male team members, but not because of the word itself. Now, think honestly, would those men have gotten a chance to act irresponsibly if ‘dog’ or ‘female dog’ were used instead of ‘bitch’? Would the situation have turned ugly in that case? Some would even say since this was an accidental usage; it was not intended to cause harm or discomfort. Agreed, it was accidental. But, think again; are we not mindful and careful about accidental situations for other aspects of our lives? Don’t we take precautions to *avoid* those accidents? Why do we do that? And, what stops us from doing the same when it comes to language. What would you prefer – a situation in which you unconsciously used a word that lead to ugly outcomes and left to explaining, clarifying things or a situation in which you consciously, as a precaution, avoid usage of certain words, with voluntary restraint, where the chance of the situation turning ugly is minimized manifold? Think about it.

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