Labels, and How They’re Used to Justify Abuse

The first time someone called me a slut, I was 10 or 11 years old, and a virgin.  I had a school-girl crush on the boy who said it.  His friend, having noticed my affinity for Crush, was telling him that he should ask me to hang out, and I overheard the conversation.

“Nah,” said Crush. “She’s a slut.”

My face flushed hot with shame and disbelief.  What on earth would make him think I was a slut?  Crush destroyed!  After that, I went out of my way to avoid him.

That was just the beginning of a long string of misogynistic epithets and behavior that make my brain spin, which is why I related hard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC’s) recent speech on the House Floor in response to Ted Yoho calling her “disgusting,” “out of [her] freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch.”

For me, the most important part of the speech was when she “said it was important to point out that the issue wasn’t just about one lawmaker’s statements, but also a culture ‘of accepting violence and violent language against women.'” (Chris Walker in Truthout).

The culture of accepting violence and violent language against women is what I want to talk about today.

It bothers me that I feel I need to say this, but it’s probably important before I launch into  some of my own experiences with the type of everyday misogyny that AOC is talking about.  I’m an educated woman–a BA and two MAs.  I tend to be shy in company that I don’t know, I’m a complete failure at flirting, and I’m not a casual dater.  Personality-wise, I tend toward people pleasing, although I’m working on that, and I have depths of empathy and compassion that are yet untested.  I am not promiscuous, stupid, mean, or difficult in any way.

Here are some of the name-calling highlights that led me to the realization that women have not come as far as many people would like to think they have in gaining cultural equality:

  1. Calling women stupid.  Usually this happens when women fail to stroke a man’s ego, laugh at his horrible jokes, or agree with his questionable opinions.  Instead of asking the woman why she isn’t laughing, or requesting her opinion, he assumes that she just doesn’t understand.  A great example of this in my life was when I worked retail at Macy’s.  (FYI, people working retail take an insane amount of abuse.  Be kind to them).  I was minding my own business, ringing up an elderly man’s purchase, when he started telling me terrible, sexist jokes.  They were so insulting that I couldn’t even pretend to laugh at them, and did my best to just finish my task so he would go away.  When I failed to laugh at yet another horrible joke, he said to me, “You’re pretty dim, aren’t you?”  When I gasped, his wife stepped in to cover for him, “Oh, don’t take him seriously,” she said.  “That’s just how he is.”  I felt both sorry for her that she had to live with that man, and angry with her for minimizing his insulting, sexist behavior.
  2. Calling women sluts, whores and bitches.  It’s come to my attention that these insults about a woman’s sexuality have nothing to do with whether or not she’s sexual.  They’re more about cutting a woman down after she’s hurt a man’s ego in some way.  I’ve been called a bitch after telling a man I’m not interested in going out with him so many times that I’ve stopped saying no.  Usually I’ll just give him a wrong number and walk away.  Recently, I broke up with a man who thought that he could tell me what I could and couldn’t post on Facebook, and in response, he launched into a tirade of insults all variations on the theme of bitch.  Not a good look.
  3. Calling women Psycho or Crazy.  After I left an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalked me and broke into my apartment, I found out through the grapevine that he was calling me “Psycho-Bitch.”   I found this ironic given that he was the one who’d behaved like a maniac.

After being called a “psycho-bitch” by this stalker ex-boyfriend I had a revelation about labels, and it is this: Labeling a person is a way for the labeler to justify mistreating the one being labeled.

It’s true.  Stalking Jennifer, the person, and breaking into Jennifer’s house is so much more difficult to justify than stalking Psycho-Bitch.

It might be a “dick move” to ghost a woman after having sex with her, but if she’s a “slut” or a “whore,” well, then, it’s probably happened to her before.  She’ll get over it.

Slapping a woman might be unmanly.  However, slapping “That Bitch?”  Well, she deserved it, right?

As I became aware of this labeling phenomenon as a woman, I began to see all of the different ways that labels are used to dehumanize and enable barbaric behavior toward fellow humans.  Think about the labels that have been placed on people of different ethnicities.  Calling people of Native American descent savages has historically enabled brutalities like stealing Native children from their parents, cutting off their hair, sending them to boarding schools, and physically punishing them for speaking their native language, in order to “kill the Indian, but save the child.”

Think about the labels used against people from Mexico in order to justify stealing their children and putting them in cages, where they languish to this day.

Think about the labels used against Black people in order to justify killing Black teenagers for innocent things like walking down the street in a hoodie.

Bullies use labels like geek and nerd to enable them to feel Ok about their mistreatment of people that are kinder, smarter, or smaller.  I’ll never forget an incident on the school bus in middle school when a group of older boys cornered me, called me “school-girl” and pretended to spit on me.

In today’s news, I read an article about Federal troops occupying Portland and disappearing people from the streets in unmarked vans.  I was horrified that Americans could justify treating other Americans this way until I scanned down to the comments section (always a mistake) and saw what those troops must be thinking.  A man commented that the protesters were “animals” and “thugs” and that they deserved to be taken and detained indefinitely.  Animals.  Thugs.  By dehumanizing the protesters through these labels, the troops rid themselves of any guilt they might feel about what they are doing to the lives of the people that they are taking.  

Words matter.  Words are power.  If you don’t believe me, think about how authoritarian regimes invariably conduct book-burnings.  They fear the spread of ideas that might threaten their power.  The words that we use shape the way that we view reality.  When we label other humans in ways that steal their humanity from them, we are shaping the way that society treats them.  We need to respect this fact, and respect it when people express a preference about the words that we use to describe them.

If someone is labeling you in any way, remember that they’re doing it as a way to justify treating you as a non-human, and act accordingly.

I am now advocating for using these words more often: Human.  Person.  Humankind.  People.

I’ll leave you with this.  When I was a little girl, I used to sit next to my father while he played his guitar.  Sometimes I would put my hand on the instrument in order to feel the vibration of the music.  I loved these times, and I think my father did too.  One of the songs that he used to sing while I sat with him was Puff the Magic Dragon.  As he sang it, I would imagine myself as Jackie Paper playing with Puff, and sailing the seas while Puff intimidated mighty pirates with his roar.

One day it hit me that Jackie was a boy, and that I was a girl.  I immediately felt left out of the song and the adventure.  When I said so, my dad started singing “little boys and girls” so that I would feel included.  I had never heard of non-inclusive language.  I was 7 years old, and didn’t know about feminism, but I already felt excluded because of the preference for male pronouns.  Words matter.  Words have power.

As don Miguel Ruiz would say in his book The Four Agreements, let us be impeccable with our word.  If the urge to dehumanize someone with a label hits, please pause and question the urge.  Let us choose words that embrace the humanity of all people.  I know that it will make the world a kinder and more compassionate place for all of us.

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.