Slur against women should not be used

November 17, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

A few days ago, a young man of my acquaintance flew into a rage, over something trivial like being asked to do his chores, and called his mother a foul name (the b-word). As serious as this sounds, essentially it's a family matter, and the family has dealt with it. I know that the young man, who has only just entered adolescence, is sorry about what he said. I am confident he won't say it again.

I raise the issue here because both the word and the attitude toward women that it expresses are far too common in our society. Young people are surrounded by negative and stereotypical images of women; images that demean and degrade, that depict them as trophies to be won; objects of challenge, competition and conquest. Some of those messages are overt: the violence directed toward women in movies, or the language employed by some rap artists. Other messages are subtle -- the role of cheerleaders at professional sporting events, for example.

Women have become very conscious of the effect of those negative images on the psyches of young girls. But, it is time men realized that those images are equally harmful to the psyches of little boys. These days, girls are not raised merely to be cheerleaders -- to stand on the sidelines in Spandex and root while the men perform heroically. What happens to little boys when they come face to face with this reality? They may become frustrated and angry and confused. Sometimes they may even become violent.

And so, some of the things that were said to the young man might be worth repeating.

In fairness, I should first acknowledge that he is normally a well-mannered fellow, studious and obedient. And I can attest that he comes from a good home. I know that no man in either his immediate or extended family habitually uses the term.

So where did he pick it up?

No mystery. He could have acquired it anywhere. Some men describe all women in a derogatory way. Other men make a big show of exempting those women who are close to them, as though holding only half of womankind in contempt is somehow all right.

Both those attitudes say more about the character of the man who holds them than about women, the young man was told. He also was reminded that the first order of self-respect is to respect others.

And the young man was told that women react to the word he used in the same way that blacks react to the racial slur -- the n-word -- too often applied to them. Both terms carry an implication of the user's superiority combined with a deliberate attempt to demean. Both terms are loaded with the emotional baggage of centuries of subjugation.

Some may argue that this is reading too much into a mere word. After I wrote a column on the racial tensions between police officers in Baltimore County, several white officers called to complain that their black colleagues were too sensitive about ethnic slurs. The callers said that occasional use of a racial slur doesn't imply disrespect for blacks. Similarly, some men claim that despite their crude language, they still respect women as equals. But there are few words that can be divorced from their social context. And that is particularly true of profanity.

The young man was told that he, too, was making an assertion of superiority when he cursed his mother. Since this was his first use of the word, he was given the benefit of the doubt -- that he had not thought through the implications of his language. But he was warned that he could no longer claim ignorance.

I can no longer claim ignorance either. The uproar over the young man's outburst heightened my own awareness of women's sensitivity to the term. Most men, myself included, seem to view it as meaningless profanity. But women attach far more significance to its usage.

From now on, I intend to equate the term with an ethnic slur. Not only will I not use it, but I will also not permit its usage in my presence -- no more than I allow people to make derogatory remarks about any ethnic group. The young man was invited to behave similarly. I invite other men to join us.

I plan to send the young man a copy of this column. I suspect he will accuse me of overkill; of trying to make him feel guilty. He's right!

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