Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On bitching

The following remarks were delivered at an assembly at my school last week which dealt with the word "bitch" and what place it has, if any, in common discourse.


Though I’ve been known to use such terms for pedagogical purposes – usually to try and capture another person’s point of view – I can’t recall ever calling anyone a bitch. (I call my two dogs bitches all the time, but I don’t think they mind.) It’s an ugly word, almost always used for ugly purposes. But I instinctively resist explicit attempts to limit such terms, in part because trying to silence them sometimes only adds to their totemic power. This is why I dislike the euphemism “n-word,” for example.
I also resist attempts to limit profane language because in some cases, the call comes from people in positions of relative privilege who may not understand its visceral appeal for those who experience themselves as disempowered. Lacking other resources, language – more specifically, the language to offend people who set, if not dictate, standards of appropriate behavior – is one of the ways working-class communities define themselves and establish their own boundaries. I believe anyone familiar with the history of hip-hop knows what I mean.
That doesn’t mean you or I should celebrate those boundaries or observe them in our own lives. But it might mean we should have a sense of humility about how much dignity we demand, and an understanding that outrage, while sometimes a necessity on behalf of others, can also be a luxury for ourselves. I realize that as a middle-aged white man, this is a little too easy for me to say. And I wouldn’t be saying it all if I didn’t believe that a robust critique of the word “bitch” was underway in this assembly. But if I’m more than simply a collection of demographic categories, perhaps there’s merit in the notion that we can tolerate some bitchiness here at Fieldston. Sticks and stones may break our bones; names really can hurt us. But maybe sometimes we’re strong enough to neither give, nor take, offense.