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Profanities & sexism

While expletives remain a core part of our languages, the widespread use of gendered obscenities is a cause for urgent course correction; writes Sheetal Choudhary

Profanities & sexism
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Obscenities, vulgarisms, curses, expletives and profanities are a pervasive part of our language. They have been called an emotional language, used also to build interpersonal relations and draw out humour. Professor Richard Stephens has shown through research that swearing produces a pain lessening (hypoalgesic) effect for many people but in his later work he also states that swear words basically ping the emotional centres of the brain and perk up a listener but when overused, the word shifts from taboo to normal and doesn't have the same effect.

But even a cursory look at the vulgarisms in use, tells us that most of them are sexist torpedoes aimed to perpetuate the stigma that women are mere objects or trophies to be used for sexual access and the thrill of the hunt.

B****d, B****I ke, G***u, the world of profanities revolving around the vagina, are hard and vicious, packing a punch when used to humiliate someone. But what is even more worrying is that usage of these cuss words has become a part of our routine vocabulary so much so that in professional institutions, the freshers are appreciated on the range of profanities they can utter in a single breath during their unofficial ragging sessions. The social media is full of drilling, boring, piercing profanities and words like idiot and stupid that sound tame in comparison. We often hear sentences like, "B***d so and so did such and such", without batting an eyelid. Having become ingrained in everyday communication, sexist cursing has generally desensitised men from the offensiveness that swear words usually elicit. They are a source of stereotyping and misogyny and have passed orally from generation to generation, rooting themselves in the collective mind. The continual circulation of these profanities has transformed them into mindless but still meaningful utterances, according to the moral standards of society as dictated by the patriarchy.

One of the explanations for slurs within the same category, like those referring to the subjugation of women, is that these profanities function as a way to bring a group of men closer together, and create a strong inner group defined by how 'masculine' its members are, in contrast to the outsiders i.e., women, who are the recipient of the slurs. From this perspective, sexual prejudice expressed as sexist insults become a psychological device that accomplishes this need. What is more, even women have taken to mouthing these sexist expletives to cross-over to the dominant masculine identity without considering their etymology.

The semantics of language has evolved in the social context being a product of society and its culture. Androcentric discourse has tinted language as evident in the curses flying around, throughout history. The emergence of negative slurs for women, at least in part, derives from the differentiation between genders, the social roles associated with them and reaffirmation of patriarchal supremacy. Language then is a tool that men (and by extension society) use to reproduce sexist patterns of behaviour.

Can we change society by changing language or will society have to change before stereotype sexist language changes? The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, refers to the proposal that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality which has also been borne out by studies in the field of cognitive psychology. It posits that an individual's thoughts and actions are somewhat determined by the language the individual speaks, meaning that one's world is framed by or built upon the language one uses.

So by changing one of the cultural manifestations of inequality i.e., language, one could radically change women's position in society. Simultaneously, the disappearance of a sexist language that semantically corsets women will only come about when predominant sexist attitudes towards women become socially unacceptable. The beginning though has to be made by working on the dictionary of profanities and removing the bigotry from it.

Children mimic our behaviour and learn our language. If we are convinced about the correctness of usage of sexist vulgarisms, why do we check ourselves in front of our children? One of the first things that infants encounter are words, and if these words contain sexist connotations, would it be strange if their thoughts were those of a sexist? As evolving organisms move towards equality, this is an area we need to focus on. In our country, there are laws against caste-based abuses but sexist slurs go unchecked.

Besides the use of obscene or taboo language or swearing, as it's more commonly known, is often seen as a sign that the speaker lacks vocabulary, cannot express themselves less offensively, or even lacks intelligence. Henry Higgins, the phonetician in GB Shaw's 'Pygmalion' claims that he could reconstruct a speaker's personal history from a mere snippet of speech. How we speak is related to how we are perceived and our social category defined in the listener's mind. Our speech talks about us independent of what we are saying. It is only correct that we refrain from using degrading semantics to avoid being labelled as sexist.

The way to combat the idea of negative categorisation in a language is to take advantage of the nature of language and its constant shaping and evolution to redefine words and create stronger ones that carry gender neutral connotations.

Views expressed are personal

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