Posted by Joysheel Shrivastava
It’s the IPL finals; you’ve got cricket fanatics squabbling over who’s the better team that’s going to take the coveted cup; Royal Challengers Bangalore loses to Chennai Super Kings…; “Arre broo, CSK raped RCB”.
We’re at a university; it’s exam time, the professor isn’t being lenient with her grading; you’re close to failing; you’re anxious and angry; “Dude, kya r*ndi hai bro”.
Despite your repeated pokes at his ‘masculinity’, your friend won’t ask out the girl he likes out of a fear of rejection, “It’s time to man up, have the balls to ask her out, bro!” Your colleague has shown up at work, looking quite shoddy; “Kya bhangi jaise kapde pehen ke aaya hai, dude?”
Sounds familiar? In all probability, the answer is in the affirmative, and that is because, we live in a world that is consumed and shaped by a language, where we constantly hear such words/ phrases (or their equivalents in other languages) being hurled around as abuses. Therefore, when one hears these abuses, it isn’t all that unusual to think that it’s all in ‘fun or jest’. And for the times, these abuses are actually flung around in anger, its convenient to excuse it by hiding behind the defence of, “Oh, its just a word”, where the words are present in a vacuum – devoid of any links to, and in abstraction from, any literal and etymological understanding.
It is in response to precisely this cavalier attitude and ignorance towards the power of language, that this piece arises. The purpose is to help the reader spend a few minutes ponder over these abuses – to wonder where they came from, what they represent, and what their consequences are.
Breaking Down The Argument
The crux of the argument is that such language of abuses is inherently violent when viewed through the lens of pre-existing social constructs, for instance, of gender and caste hierarchies. In order to understand and align with the argument being put forth, it is imperative that we broaden our definition of violence. It does not suffice to take a primitive view that violence is restricted to brawn only. It is essential to take cognizance of the fact that violence is present, and very strongly so, in speech/ language as well.
This expanded understanding of what all constitutes violence, is the point of origination of this piece. A language with a sprinkle of such abuses is intricately linked to power hierarchies, all of which goes to the very roots of how our society is arranged. It is this link that gives such a language its violent characteristic. The ‘culture’ of using this violent language causes two parallel harms, i.e., the society at large, and the individual uttering these abuses.
Understanding the Violence
The First Harm
There is an obvious relationship between society and language. When people use language to communicate, unknown to them, they end up slipping in words/ phrases that reflect various biases, prejudices and pre-conceived notions.
Given that we have been born and brought up in a society where such power hierarchies are deeply entrenched, regardless of whether or not we intend on demonstrating patriarchal or casteist ideas in speech, we do so. For instance, when we say, “Hey, don’t be a sissy, man!”, the underpinning idea is that the masculine is superior to the feminine; when we accost someone by saying, “Don’t be pussy!”, we are implying that a woman is frail and fragile (given the association of ‘pussy’ with her genital region); when we say, “Man up!”, we are suggesting that a man is brave, courageous, and one with guts; when we say, “Dude, why are you taking this so personally, stop crying like a girl!”), we are reaffirming that masculinity and femininity are very firmly defined and guarded by a very specific set of characteristics/ qualities, and any deviation from the set norms can be used as a shaming tool.
Some of the most frequently used abuses rest on a patriarchal imagination of a woman’s sexuality – one could slander a woman by calling her a whore; abuse a man by insinuating that he has incestuous relations with his sister or mother; by invoking obscenities in relation to the man’s mother’s genitalia; or by declaring perverse intentions of violating the man’s mother’s bodily autonomy.
Let’s deconstruct this a little – patriarchal notions mandate that a woman’s body be seen as the repository of the community’s dignity. A woman’s sexual relations, whether voluntary or not, become one of the metrics of gauging the honour of the community. For instance, the discourse around the rape of a woman focuses more on the shame, disrepute and loss of dignity for the survivor and her family, rather than condemnation for the perpetrator. The sentiment runs along the lines of “hamari izzat humare aurat ke haanth mein hai”. After all, the woman is seen as the torchbearer of the community’s dignity; and by attacking the woman’s sexuality, one finds a plethora of abuses.
For the person who plays audience to these abuses and insults, such speech acts as a reaffirmation of their own patriarchal ideas. And from there starts the domino effect of sorts – this audience/ listener then goes and talks to a third person, and so on and so forth. This subtle mechanism is peculiar one, which works in a dual and contrasting manner. It operates on a macroscopic level given the scale (i.e., the number of people it involves); and simultaneously in a microscopic manner, by monitoring something as minute, albeit significant, as language.
This ‘genre’ of abuses came up in the context of social hierarchical structures. They are thriving in the form of prevalent use in everyday conversation because of these structures, and such use then goes on to sustain the very same structures. In essence, this violent language has the immense power (in conjunction with other mechanisms) to further perpetuate the prejudices and biases that birthed it in the first place; and assist in the sustenance of socially constructed power dynamics.
The Second Harm
When we grow up in an environment where notions relating to social structures are all pervasive, we imbibe them without questioning. Consequently, we absorb such language, and use it without sparing it a second thought. And it is here that we understand the second harm, which is caused to the person who speaks this language. Such abuses enable the speaker to engage in violence, without them even realizing it.
The use of such language has been vastly normalized and popularized. In order to gain social capital, not only is it difficult to fight the use of this language, but to become one with the crowd, one also starts engaging in this language. One cannot afford to question such language; if one does, not only will the words fall on deaf ears, but one will also be labeled a ‘spoilt-sport’ who cannot take a joke. Accepting such language, and letting is ‘slide’ is a learned behavior. No one wants to be the outcast who ‘ruins the fun’ and tries to question the norm. As a result, one feels that they have no choice; the peer pressure of blending in forces one to accept and/ or exhibit this form of violence.
For instance, the use of such abuses (with a patriarchal genesis) has become so commonplace, that despite the obvious violence against women in the words itself, women to use it against others, with no regard for sisterhood, which was the bedrock of the origins of the feminist movement.
The Common Excuse
The most common defense/ excuse falls along the lines of: “I didn’t mean it yaar”, “It’s just a joke, lighten up”, or “It wasn’t meant literally, it’s just a manner of speaking”. But then, a reassessment of the etymology of what is being said is required – where is the word coming from? What biases are they representing and what hierarchies of social powers are they perpetuating?
We should not permit the reduction of the heinous act of rape as an analogy for a cricket match (even though it may be a landslide victory!). We should not be using ‘r*ndi’ as an abuse in the flow of conversation, as it rests entirely on patriarchal ideas of a woman’s sexuality which has be controlled to the maximum extent possible, and any deviation on part of the woman is an invitation for her to be reprimanded and humiliated. We cannot call a person a ‘chakka’ in jest, because the very premise of the so-called ‘joke’ here is that the identity of particular group of people is in itself a pejorative term (simply because this particular group of people don’t abide by the binary, and this reality is too harsh and unpalatable to the patriarchal mindset). It is intolerable to use ‘bhangi’ or ‘chamar’, as derogatory terms, given that these are actual names of castes, which carry with them (till date) immense baggage of historical discrimination and humiliation.
The violence that underlies all of these utterances is obnoxious and in the face. However, to realize this violence, we need to open our eyes and become more cognizant of the words coming out of our mouths. It does not do to say that these are words/slang intend to have no consequences. The very fact that these abuses came about, and that we have been ignorant/ tolerant for so long, is evidence that these abuses are the result of deeply entrenched social hierarchies; they further help in maintaining those skewed power dynamics. Further, given the subliminal manner in which they reaffirm existing prejudices and biases, goes a long way in reaffirming the already existing social hierarchy.
The experiences, principles, values, ideas and notions that we have accumulated till date have shaped our entire being. Therefore, it is obvious that there will be elements of social hierarchies, such as sexism, misogyny, casteism, ableism, etc., creeping into our speech ever so often. The only way with respect to not inflicting further violence via language would be to become more mindful of our speech.
Joysheel is a practicing lawyer, based out of Mumbai. She has a keen interest in gender studies and human rights.
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