Love living in a polarized world? Keep insulting “The Other”

When Samantha Bee tweeted that she “crossed a line” by calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt,” she didn’t mention that the line was not installed by the thought police or the religious right. The line she crossed was her own. 

In the apology aired on Full Frontal, she reminded viewers that she has used the C-word many times on her show — all part of a mission to reclaim it. Like some feminists, she wants to recast cunt as a synonym for something like “powerful woman who won’t take shit.” An approach worthy of discussion. But you can’t have it both ways. Ms. Bee effectively torpedoed her own position by using the word as an epithet against another woman, inadvertently aligning herself with those who believe a woman can be reduced to her genitalia which is, BTW, repugnant. She did so, presumably, out of rage, force of habit, and the internalized misogyny that is the inheritance of everyone who grew up in a woman-hating culture.

So, okay, she apologized and, one hopes, won’t ever again deploy cunt as an insult. But we can’t un-hear feckless cunt. And there are plenty of people in positions of power, and their legions of followers, who don’t want to un-hear it. They seized the moment to highlight the alleged hypocrisy of the left: how we condemned Roseanne Barr for calling Valerie Jarrett an ape, then rushed to defend Ms. Bee. In under a minute Ms. Bee had succeeded in providing fresh fuel for the right even as she pulled focus on from the very cause she was trying to highlight—ICE tearing immigrant children away from their families— for which she also apologized.

She went on to mock civility itself as just “nice words,” and admonished viewers to worry more about the “niceness of our actions.” She excused her behavior on account of being a comedian who honed her chops being heckled in basement bars. That was then. Now she has a massive platform on the world stage and her hecklers include POTUS.

So is she a comedian or an advocate for the disenfranchised?  If she aspires to be both, she owes it to those suffering children to take responsibility for what comes out of her mouth. Such a brilliant woman can surely find a way to call out Ms. Trump’s hypocrisy and obliviousness without calling her names. When you are speaking to — and inciting — untold numbers of people, your words are actions. And the words don’t have to be on the FCC’s most wanted list. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton unwisely chose to describe Trump followers as “a basket of deplorables.” What mileage the right got of that!

In a world where all public utterances — and many private — are subject to being amplified, distorted, and twisted into spiteful memes, it behooves all of us to be more circumspect in our use of language. Nobody likes ad hominem attacks. Are we not appalled when the president and his crew malign everyone from heads of state to refugees? Do we really want to emulate that behavior by using profanity against people we disagree with? Wouldn’t it be radical if, instead, we treated even our adversaries with respect?

Case in point: I never imagined I’d have one good word to say about Donald Trump but I will give credit where it’s due. When he switched from name-calling (rocket man) and braggadocio (my button is bigger) to actual diplomacy, praise, and even admitting that he’s been “provocative,” the President deescalated a situation (that he escalated in the first place), and, in concert with Kim Jong-un, eased us off the fast-track to nuclear war, if only temporarily. No telling how this will play out. Trump could flip-flop again and return to the land of inflammatory bombast. But the current opening is an object lesson in what’s possible when we turn down the heat, shake hands, and take turns listening and speaking.

Nuclear bombs are on a continuum with F-bombs, each an act of violence that demonstrates the bomber’s lack of imagination. The same can be said of the weaponization of cunt. Though Ms. Bee has apologized, many of her defenders aren’t having it. In the New York Daily News, Christine Estima argues that if a “woman is complicit in the subjugation and oppression of women” she deserves to be called a cunt. Really? Now we’re in territory that gives license to evil —as long as we believe we are on the side of righteousness. It’s the rationalization used to justify everything from torture to genocide.

Even if you replace cunt with some gender-neutral word like asshole, you have still devolved into name-calling. My social media feeds are brimming with anti-Trump invective, from the viciously hateful to juvenalia like “Cheeto-head.” Feminists understandably took issue with those who belittled Ms. Clinton for being “shrill,” which is code for angry woman or, perhaps, feckless cunt. And yet we waste our time, energy, and social capital mocking Trump for his tiny hands (code for tiny penis), when we should be spending our precious resources exposing and fighting his destructive policies. When we resort to name-calling we reveal our lack of maturity and self-control—and our arguments suffer for the company they keep. When was the last time you paused to consider the world-view of someone screaming obscenities at you?

By all means, give full expression to your fury: vent and curse and spew, but do it in private, with like-minded friends. Get the poison out of your system. Then calm down, go out into the world, and speak from the top of your intelligence, not the gutter. Enraged people — of any political stripe — are not good listeners, but they excel at reacting.

Let’s consider the use of unfettered vitriol from a purely utilitarian perspective. Is there any universe in which calling Ms. Trump a cunt is likely to make her receptive to what you have to say? Is it more likely to soften or harden the positions of those who lean ever so slightly towards Trump’s immigration policies?  Will smirking over Trump’s tiny hands inspire people who are on the fence about supporting him take a moment to ponder your well-founded political arguments?  

Many Trump supporters will never be reached, but what of those at the margins, those who can be swayed, the 10% who voted for Obama in 2012? More than enough to swing an election. Do we want to alienate them further or invite them into our camp?  As our nation lurches toward fascism, people who believe in democracy can’t afford to write off anyone.

In Jon Stewart’s defense of Samantha Bee he seems to argue that since the right will manipulate anything we say, we should speak our minds with no thought as to how our words will be received. “Don’t get caught in a trap of thinking you can live up to a code of integrity that will be enough for the propagandist right. There isn’t.” I agree that those who voted for an avowed pussy-grabber are in no position to define much less police the moral high ground. But it doesn’t absolve the rest of us from conducting ourselves in a civil — but no less fierce and challenging — manner. If everyone keeps marching down the current path, this eye for an eye mentality will leave the whole world not only blind but incapable of reasoned debate.

Mr. Stewart advises us to “create your own moral code to live by, but don’t be fooled into trying to make concessions that you think will mollify them.” I propose civility not to mollify the right but to outflank them. They have more money and far more weapons, but we can deny them ammunition.