Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Quick Sociology Lesson For Those Whom it May Concern

Pay attention, Marty -- this one's for you

One of the interesting subthemes to emerge out of the recent Mike Brock/Don Beemer chronicles is the revelation of creeping homophobia within the Manitoba wing of the Liberal party of Canada.

After all, when a party's vice president feels comfortable going online and making homophobic comments on a political opponent's blog, it suggests that maybe the party that as recently as two years ago was promoting itself on a gay rights agenda vis a vis same sex marriage isn't as much about equality as it would like us to believe.

Of course, Martin Rayner doesn't seem to understand how the comment "One wonders how Brock can bear to seperate Harper's dick from his mouth long enough to eat" could be construed as homophobic.

Apparently, Mr Rayner needs to have it spelled out for him.

So I'm going to share with my reading public -- however broad or narrow that may be -- an exercise shared with me by Byrad Yyelland, who currently serves as the chair of sociology at Lloydminster's Lakeland College. (In 1996/97 Yyelland won an Experience in Excellence award from the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union. Needless to say, he knows his shit, so to speak.)

Think about this for a few moments: write down a list of all the swearwords you can think of. Focus, in particular, on insults -- both in terms of shallow name-calling, and general insulting comments.


Done yet? Good.

Here's just a brief list of the numerous words you've probably just gone ahead and listed.

Looking down the list, an observant pupil may notice a few things -- namely that most of the insults on the list largely have to do with bodily functions. In particular, excrement (numbers one and two), sexual functions (of wide variety), body parts and various conditions of birth account for nearly all of these insults. An expanded list would also include various racial slurs.

To the uninitiated, one supposes that perhaps, sometimes, a word is just a word, and don't carry meanings any deeper than the idea they signify.

In this particular case, they would be wrong.

As Sally Raskoff shares with us, swear words and insults carry meanings much deeper than their semiotic meanings. They carry deeper social meanings. In particular, swear words and insults tend to convey the preferred societal hierarchy of their utterer.

Racial slurs are an obvious case. But consider the numerous swear words that deal with body parts. Then consider how many of them deal specifically with female bodyparts.

Many people will find that a majority of body part-related insults deal with parts of the female anatomy -- particularly vaginas.

There is deeper meaning in this. Let's let Raskoff explain.

"let’s consider curse words. Some are gender neutral, such as referring to one’s posterior. Some are specifically reserved for women, such as the short b-word indicating a crabby female (as opposed to a female dog) and the c-word or the p-word, which are references to women’s genitals. Even if the words are aimed at men or women, these terms often refer to women negatively.

Perhaps one’s mother is the target of the insult, whether through having a child outside marriage, another b-word, or as a willing or unwilling intercourse participant, as in “mother” f-word as an active verb. Or, as the f-word itself does, the word invokes the act of intercourse and ties the act of penetration as a potentially violent action.

By this particular line of thinking, the curse words and insults we use often denote a particularly misogynistic undertone of our society that has crept into one of our most basic -- even if into one of our most uncouth -- pervasities of language.

But there's more.

"The f-word in particular has many uses—both as a noun and a verb—however it does connects sex and violence, not just as a threat against women but also against gay men. Gay men have other words directed at them, many of which refer to them as feminine (or even female) or suggest violence.

Sociology helps explain these word choices. Rather than anomalies or coincidences, they reflect our society’s power structure.

Of course, as Raskoff explains, perhaps sometimes we don't really mean them as insults at all.

"Of course, curse words aren’t always intended as insults, since many people use them for fun or for teasing their friends. Some women use some of them as a term of empowerment (the c-word or the first b-word mentioned above).

But this only applies if they utter them, not if they are labeled with them by others (especially men). This is similar to the n-word and our current social debate over who (and if anyone) can use it; most recognize that when African Americans say it, it means something wholly different than when others, especially whites say it.

And even if they are used teasingly, or as a form of protest, they still reflect cognizance of society's hierarchical structures. Even if they aren't necessarily meant to demonstrate approval of it (such is surely not the case for those "taking a word back" in protest) it still implies a tacit acceptance of it.

"Why do curse words refer to body parts and pejorative references to women? Because in a society characterized by male power, one doesn’t insult a male directly, one must refer to inferior things, such as crude references to body parts considered “dirty” and to people who are less than masculine according to that society’s norms.

In dominant American culture, masculinity is defined as being assertive, aggressive, strong, a leader, and heterosexual. This is what Bob Connell refers to as "hegemonic masculinity" in his classic book, Gender and Power. Hegemonic masculinity insists that men be dominant over others in society to prove that they are “real men.”

“Emphasized femininity,” Connell’s counterpart to hegemonic masculinity, encourages women to be passive, nurturing, caring, mothering, and otherwise subordinate. Yes, our definitions of masculine and feminine change over time and place yet these ideals are primary in our media and in how we socialize children. Note also how gay men are equated with women thus they are set aside from the more powerful group of heterosexual men.

As such, not only does Don Beemer's man-on-man-fellatio-related epithet suggest that homosexuals rank lower on his internalized sense of the social hierarchy, but women do, as well.

"Our language reflects our society--the words I have discussed here all distinguish between men and women—all to reinforce and maintain the gendered hierarchy of power."

Words such as "bitch", "pussy", "cunt", and (the word that served as the genesis for this particular discussion) "cocksucker" certainly do help serve this function, regardless of whether or not those who speak such words intend to, or even bother to stop and think about it.

Curse words and insults that refer back to excrement also tend to take on deeper meanings, particularly when dealing with racial minorities (just consider typical skin colour of said minorities, refer it back to the colour of the aforementioned excrement, and this one becomes crystal clear).

So Martin Rayner may think that "dirty cocksucker" is just a word that he can carelessly fling at another person. He may think that it doesn't carry any deeper meanings that he should stop to think about it before he utters it.

But sociologists such as Byrad Yyelland, Sally Raskoff (and myself) know better. And it actually says a lot about Mr Rayner -- things he may not be entirely comfortable with admitting.

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