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.