Yglesias responds to Michael Wolff’s ruminations on Chuck Schumer calling a flight attendant a bitch:
…by eliding the term “bitch” he manages to completely avoid the subject of sexism, which I think is at the core of the complaint here. But the term is a pure contentless gender-slur. It’s like you’re saying “I disagree with what you’re doing and also you’re a woman which is a bad thing to be!!!!!!!!”
Even if a woman is doing something legitimately bad, it’s no more appropriate to insult her with that term than it is to break out a racial slur just because a guy you have a legitimate beef with happens to be black. That’s the issue here.
Disclaimer: “bitch” is not a term I like nor one that I use. When I hear other people use it, I think less of them.
But I’m not sure that what Yglesias says above is correct. I wrote something about this years ago, but it came out hopelessly muddled, so let’s try again.
The difficulty here is in figuring out what we find objectionable about the word. It’s easy to become confused by the fact that pejorative language is reserved for unpleasant situations, and give in to the temptation to think that wishing away the word will also make those situations disappear. Yglesias understands that this is stupid way of thinking: people will continue to get upset with one another. And although it’s obvious that we should all strive to be pleasant human beings, there’s nothing necessarily unjust about expressing your strong dislike for someone. Rather, it’s the act of denigration-via-classification embodied by these terms that makes them so odious. This is also correct, I think.
But the comparison to racist language is problematic. It seems to me that as a society we’ve pretty much decided that acknowledging racial differences is inappropriate except in very specific circumstances. It sounds a little weird when you put it that way, but I think it’s essentially what we’ve done and that it’s basically a good idea — a custom that pushes human behavior in positive directions.
It’s not clear to me that a similar societal decision has been made with respect to gender differences. I say this primarily because most people continue to think it’s fine to use gendered pronouns. And if that’s all right, I don’t necessarily see an inherent problem with gendered pejoratives (though certainly there can be circumstances surrounding their use that are profoundly problematic — the practical case against the word “bitch” is quite strong, I think). Heroine/hero, she/he, bitch/dick. There’s a low-resolution take on the continuum. The fact that only the last pair would strike most people as objectionable makes me think that we’re facing the situation I talked about above: wishing that people wouldn’t get angry with one another and use harsh language. That’s a fine thing to wish for, but I don’t think it’s got much to do with social justice.
The other possibility, of course, is that we should be objecting to gendered pronouns with positive or neutral affect (e.g. heroine, she) as well, just the same as we don’t use different words for valorous people of different races. I think this is probably correct, but I also think it’s probably not a position that most of the people engaging in this debate would find appealing enough on an intuitive level to embrace. Come to think of it, resistance to the social project of eliminating gendered pronouns could easily be the thing that eventually earns the “cultural conservative” trophy for my generation (take heart, though, future young people: we’ll be dead before you know it).