Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Importance of Intent and Context in Language

(Or: Why I'm Not Very "PC" For An Egalitarian.)

Insults are an intrinsic part of human discourse. We use them aggressively, to enhance communication of our feelings, we use them humorously or ironically, to highlight the ridiculousness of the concepts behind them and we use them amicably, as stress relief and status indicators within social groups. 

The subjects we insult each other upon also fall mainly into three categories.

1) physical or mental prowess, common sense and rationality

2)behaviour, conduct and interpersonal skills

3) personal characteristics

Now, as I said in my previous post, I am a firm believer that offence is taken rather than given and often the problem lies with the misinterpretation of the intended subject of the insult.

A great example of this comes from a conversation I was part of with a self proclaimed feminist and anti-sexism campaigner, a man who self identifies as a liberal and critical thinker and a blatant misogynist troll on twitter. I won't go too much into the background of the debate but the main crux of my point comes from two insults, traded between the feminist and the critical thinker.

He, in the course of questioning the helpfulness of the language and attitude she displayed in response to a misogynistic comment, referred to her as a "hormonal cow"

She, in response to his point about foul language and irrational displays of anger being unhelpful in any fight against bigotry, called him a "chauvinist" and inferred that all men are incapable of fighting against sexism unless led by a woman. 

Personally, given the context and intent behind both insults I found hers to be the more sexist.

His was a reflection on her conduct, it was simply a play on the well known and documented effects of female hormones to highlight the irrational levels of anger and aggression she was displaying.
 It was in no way intended as a reflection on her gender, as an attack on womankind or as a comparison between women and livestock. This was blatantly self evident from the context it had been used in.

Hers was based on a misinterpretation of his insult, purely because of his gender which then went on to become a sweeping generalisation of all men.

When I stated my point and the reasoning behind it, she couldn't seem to understand why I, as a woman, didn't find the term "hormonal cow" intrinsically sexist and a limit of 140 characters makes explaining myself rather difficult. But, who knows, maybe one day she'll stumble across this blog post and maybe understand my perspective, even if she continues to disagree.

My point is, words themselves have no real intrinsic value in and of themselves, hell, even the very meaning of words is subject to change and evolution over time. The level of insult they carry is determined by the context they're used in and the intent behind them.

So, this is why I'm not very "PC" for somebody who is strongly pro equality and anti bigotry. I don't believe that making words that have been misappropriated by bigots taboo does anything to protect people from bigotry. If anything to makes matters worse as it prevents the meaning of the words from evolving and just emphasises the bigoted connotations making the words themselves seem shocking regardless of the context they're used in.

Hence, I will say gay, and retarded and hormonal and coloured and pansy and all the "incorrect" words that we're not supposed to say. Just never with the intent, or within the context of, bigotry.


  1. Its funny actually that you mention "hormonal cow" after all where I grew up calling someone a "cow" was not an insult. I actually still call my sister cow from time to time, and she is not offended in the least.

    I suppose it all comes down to context like you pointed out.

  2. " was simply a play on the well known and documented effects of female hormones."

    What might those be? Are you from the 19th century and think hysteria is a real thing!?

    Very nice of you to use the word "gay" a an insult when it is the identity of other human beings. Now tell me, as a skeptic, how are those other human beings supposed to know you are not homophobic? How are homophobes supposed to know your intent is not "the bigoted kind" when you are insulting people as gay?

  3. 1) No, I'm a woman who lives every month with ovulation and menstruation and has experienced pregnancy, I know firsthand the effects of hormones on mood and behaviour. That said, there are numerous critically robust, peer reviewed studies on the subject both for male and female participants, Google is your friend ;)

    2) I would hope that they would judge me on all my behaviour, not just my choice in language. I have many homosexual and trans friends, family and acquaintances, I raise my children to be tolerant and open minded of all, and I constantly and consistently campaign for equality for everybody, not just those who share my demographics.
    If they chose not to, then I respect that and move on. I have enough self confidence to not require affirmation from everybody on earth :)