Ashleigh Hill: Uncontainable Words

Before we start, I want to let you know that this post contains language that some (myself included) are quite sensitive to. I would not use this particular language in a blog post in other circumstances, but in order to discuss a problem, one must address the problem.

Over the past few months, I noticed quite a few instances of women (in particular, bloggers) using the word "bitch" to refer to other women. I've seen it in comments on posts and on twitter. Generally, the intention has been to dismiss an argument made by another woman.

I've been surprised to see this and so I asked my friend Ashleigh Hill (of The Continuously Fractured Life fame) if she would write some thoughts on the subject and the use of language as means of dismissal.

She sent me the following:

Uncontainable Words
When Isaac Newton first started explaining gravity, he would talk about cannonballs, how they were shot from mountains. He said no matter how fast a cannonball shot into the air, gravity would eventually pull it down to earth. Later, Geoffrey Canada argued that if the cannonball shot fast and high enough, it could escape gravity and reach orbit, and achieve what’s called escape velocity. He used this to describe his views on inner-city youth and education –if you pack students with enough support and hope of a foreseeable future; it provides the possibility for them to break free of the foggy atmospheres of poverty and interfamilial violence.

I think the same theory is true for language. If a word gets enough support it can break away from the power connected to it. It can also break away from the person using it. The context in which a word is used and the person using the word is always what matters most. Reclaiming language is the act of taking a word that has been misused and choosing to use it in your own way. And it sure is a tricky thing. You can reclaim a word for yourself and still have no control over how it is heard by another person. If the history behind a word is negative, it will always, in some place, be negative. I know it’s easy to suggest someone be less sensitive to language. It’s also easy to not understand violence perpetuated by language, if you’ve never experienced it before. 

This idea comes up when people ask for my opinion on using the word “bitch” on social media. It’s apparently a huge issue. That is, women calling other women "bitch," and the promotion of sexism that goes along with it. There are several valid arguments about this.

- It has been used by men in power to blatantly reduce women to unhinged or angry stereotypes; that history is now attached to it.
- In recent history, bitch has been reclaimed by some women and people in LGBTQ communities as an empowering, or even joyous and laughable, label.
- In part of my circle of friends, bitch is used in a joking, communal manner; in another part, it’s not used at all.

Knowing the relationship a person has with a word is important, especially if that word has been used to harm them. Using certain, gendered language in a joking manner signals that a word like “bitch” has broken away from the power it might have had over you. It may also suggest you’re utilizing it for the power it might have over someone else. The problem isn’t in the word itself. The problem lies in the intent behind its use – to cut women off. When women use “bitch” in this way – to dismiss other women – they participate in, and further promote, sexist power plays. 

This is evident in the language used when debating other people via social media. I know. Social media. It’s my favorite and least favorite thing and it’s here to stay forever. The culture of being right has always been more important than understanding another person's argument and this is especially present in online forums. In fact, the fight to be taken seriously has been at the base of women’s movements all over the world. When someone asks my opinion on this topic, they’re helping to bolster a movement. When someone calls me a “bitch” in order to end a conversation, they’re working against it. I don’t have a brilliant answer for how to deal with words that have sexist undertones. But I do know this – in the same way that hiring more women won’t end sexism in the work place (addressing the reasons women weren’t qualified or hired in the first place might), and Affirmative Action hasn’t ousted racism in professional settings, (but addressing why it needed to be implemented in the first place might), rerouting your language won’t allow all women the chance to share their opinions. But it might help those who can.


Thank you so much to Ashleigh for taking the time to write her thoughts on the subject! I think she was absolutely spot on with the idea that "if the history behind a word is negative, in some place, it will always be negative. I know it's easy to suggest that someone be less sensitive to language. It's also easy to not understand violence perpetuated by language, if you've never experienced it before." So very true. We have got to take responsibility for the power of our words.

(Just as I was set to publish this, I came across this fantastically heartfelt article about the use of the word "retarded". If you have a moment, it is certainly worth the read.)

Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts respectfully!

4 comments:

  1. "We have got to take responsibility for the power of our words."

    I think you just hit the nail on the head.

    This is a brilliant post about a subject I both care about tonnes, but also feel I need to be so much more aware of in my day-to-day life. While I think that context, speaker, and audience are so vital in assigning meaning (offensive or not) to any word, there are some words which it will never be right for me, for example, to say. There are other words, maybe less offensive but enforcing of stereotypes, which I just allow to be part of my general vocabulary, and that really needs to change.

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  2. I like cursing just as much as the next person when joking, but you know what? There is a time and a place. That time and place for me is usually when I'm at home with my husband. Other than that, no one needs to hear it.

    More than "bitch," the substitutions of "retarded" and "gay" for lame or stupid DRIVE MY FLIPPIN' CRAZY. Both are completely disrespectful and classless. I have one cousin who is Autistic and another who has Downs Syndrome, and being that I grew up in theatre, I've been around and built beautiful friendships with people who happen to be homosexual. No matter what a person's views are on nature vs. nurture and no matter if someone with a mental disability is in the room or not, it is never OK to to say "that's so retarded/gay." Get a thesaurus, get some tact, and figure out a different way to state your opinion.

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  3. "Knowing the relationship a person has with a word is important, especially if that word has been used to harm them."

    I try to explain this to people all of the time. I don't think it really makes a difference if you aren't offended by a word or if your opinion is that a word should not be offensive to others. It's not about you. You are negatively affecting another human being and it's not right.

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  4. These are exactly the issues we used to discuss in my old job. One of the statistics that really brought it home for me was that 3 out of 4 women who are raped are called a bitch while it's happening. Imagine that every time you heard that word, you remembered that horrific thing that happened to you. Just like Renee said, I think that people need to realize that it's not about them. But imagine people in our generation being told that...

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