Image description: Black and white photo of a white woman’s fist coming at the viewer.
Fighting words are usually sexist, racist, ethnic, homophobic, and ableist slurs levelled by a member of a culturally and socially powerful group against a member of a traditionally oppressed group. They are not only beyond the boundaries of polite discourse, they are the kind of words that, when hurled as an insult in certain circumstances, might allow a jury of peers to forgive the insulted person for responding physically.
Some insults have deep and abiding links to violence.1 They are so closely associated with physical danger that I would rather not write them here: their use can be construed as violence, as harm. They are not just hate speech but can be, in and of themselves, hate crimes. Their use when combined with an intensifier (filthy is common) often signals imminent harm to the victim, sometimes fatal. It’s not unreasonable for a member of a traditionally oppressed group who hears the C word, the N word, the R word, and so on, to feel not only dehumanised, but to believe they are in danger. Women, people of colour, disabled people and many others don’t only dislike these words, we fear them, and with good reason.
I don’t have the data but I’d be surprised if detailed reports of hate crimes didn’t show these fighting words thrown by the perpetrators as a warm up to the main event. Certainly every single time men have threatened or attempted to physically assault me, they’ve called me a dyke, a bitch, or a cunt.2 As a result, if a man yells “Cunt!” in my face I might hit him in the throat, hit him hard enough and in just the right place that he could have difficulty breathing. Cunt, from a man to a woman, particularly when no one else is around and so the abuser is less likely to feel constrained by law and custom, is, to me, a fighting word; striking first is self-defence.
As with all slurs, if a member of the same oppressed group is doing the insulting, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s not nice to be called a bitch or cunt by another woman, or filthy dyke by another queer person. And it’s no fun being insulted by a clearly unwilling-to-act man or straight person in a crowded public space. But to me at least it doesn’t signal the same clear and present danger as when those words are used by a member of the dominant group in a dark alley, lonely field, or locked room.
So fighting words are only fighting words in certain circumstances. More often they are firing offences—or should be. But that’s a whole other post.
1 The word insult originates with the Latin insultāre “to leap upon” or “assail.”
2 One of the reasons I studied martial arts, and then studied and taught women’s self-defence, so intensively for so many years is so that, with one rather spectacular exception, the men could not get beyond the threat.
8 thoughts on “Fighting words”
An excellent, insightful, detailed explanation, worth reading. Thank-you.
I wish I could find data linking the fighting words and hate crimes. It’s got to be out there; I didn’t have time to do a proper search.
You hit the nail on the head…so to speak. I worked in a battered women’s shelter and then a hospital for many years. the stories usually began with “fighting words”.
Yes. I taught women’s self-defence, and the stories I heard…
A substantial majority of violence (at least outside the home) is committed by men against other men, most often within their own peer group. That violence is often preceded by fighting words, often including slurs that may or may not apply to the target. Homophobic slurs in particular get hurled at straight men all the time.
If you view violence and fighting words only through the lens of oppression and hate crime, you’re missing most of the picture.
I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of victims of hate crimes, or to dismiss the danger to vulnerable communities (trans women of color suffer horrific rates of violence, for example). And if you’re a member of a vulnerable community and that’s where your focus is, the big picture probably isn’t your primary concern anyway. Certainly not when you’re walking (or wheeling) down an unfamiliar street in a sketchy neighborhood at night.
But this post is entitled ‘Fighting Words’, not ‘Hate Crime’, though your opening paragraph conflates the two. That’s a bigger topic than you’ve considered here.
My opening paragraph is my definition of ‘fighting words’ for the purposes of this blog: sexist, racist, ethnic, homophobic, and ableist slurs levelled by a member of a culturally and socially powerful group against a member of a traditionally oppressed group. My definition therefore excludes male-on-male in-group violence.
Fair enough. If your purpose was limited to describing your experience as an LGBTQ* disabled woman, fine.
But it’s worth noting that violence is one of the great equalizers, like disease and natural disaster. It can take down anyone. That fear you experience when hateful, angry words are directed at you, the fear that they might be backed by something more – that’s a universal human experience. Certain groups may be (or perceive themselves to be) more vulnerable than others, but nobody is immune. Some men – usually young, big, strong, and dumb – may think themselves invulnerable, but there’s always somebody bigger and stronger and dumber out there.
My point is that by limiting your perspective to minority victims of violence, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with your fellow humans. Rhetorically, that makes your argument easier to dismiss, because, in the mind of a casual reader, you’re just another minority banging on about minority problems. Doesn’t apply to them. And personally, as a writer and a human, you’re setting yourself apart, making yourself Other, in a way that’s not necessary.
There are plenty of aspects of life as a disabled LGBTQ* woman that a non-disabled / non-LGBTQ* / non-woman doesn’t experience, and when you explore those through your blog and your writing, you do everyone a service. Your experience with fighting words, violence, and fear may be specific to your identity, but it’s also universal. We are all afraid.
You are explaining to me how to communicate with readers. Think about that.
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