“Slut”

Snips (Being1732.com) points to what it sees as inconsistency between condemnations of Rush Limbaugh for calling Sandra Fluke a slut (see, e.g., here) and a Harvard “Sex-Positivity and Slut-Pride” event:

Harvard University kicks off Sex Week this Monday, coordinated by the student-run organization Sexual Health Education & Advocacy throughout Harvard College (SHEATH)…. One of the event’s sponsors is the Harvard chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice(LSRJ). The Harvard LSRJ will sponsor and lead several events during the week, including co-hosting Monday’s “Sex-Positivity and Slut-Pride: Sex Tips for a Modern World from Good Vibrations.” …

A notable LSRJ member is Sandra Fluke of the organization’s chapter at Georgetown Law. As Fluke became a national figure following her testimony before a congressional committee regarding contraception costs and her opinion on the mandate controversy, LSRJ released a statement supporting Fluke as outcry grew against radio-host Rush Limbaugh following his comments about the law student.

“Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) is proud of our member Sandra Fluke for her courage and commitment in the face of cruelty. Fluke is the Georgetown law student whose contraceptive access advocacy has been called into question with language that falls, as Fluke said in her press statement, ‘far beyond the acceptable bounds of civil discourse.’ Such personal attacks are intended to shame women out of advocacy and into silence, but Fluke refuses to back down, ‘No woman deserves to be disrespected in this manner. This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices.’”

But do events hosted by LSRJ’s Harvard chapter that use language like “Slut-Pride” follow the same standards advocated by the LSRJ national organization and Fluke in rejection to her critics? …

What do you think of the LSRJ national organization should do? Support the event or condemn language that some may perceive as ”an attack on all women.”

I don’t find this argument persuasive. The problem with Rush Limbaugh’s criticism of Sandra Fluke was (among other things) that he used “slut” as a pejorative to attack someone. This attack was, I argued, illogical and factually unfounded — there was no reason to think that Fluke was indeed having sex with a large number of men — but beyond that it would be rude even if it were factually sound: Whatever one might think of the moral propriety of having sex with more than some number of people, you should make these arguments substantively rather than using vulgar insults.

But not all uses of “slut” are pejorative. Sometimes they might involve humorous banter among friends. Sometimes, as here, they could be used in a context where the speaker clearly means them positively, to convey the message that there’s nothing wrong with promiscuity. (Consider the Retail Slut store.) Sometimes they can have other meanings. In those situations, the criticisms aimed at using “slut” as an insult don’t apply. Perhaps one might still criticize the use of “slut” for other reasons; but the analogy to Rush Limbaugh’s tirade strikes me as quite inapt. The problem with insults is that they’re insulting. There’s nothing inconsistent about treating the same word differently depending on whether or not it’s insulting.

And this is of course true for a vast range of other words. Using “nigger” to insult and using it to quote what someone is saying (or in a hypothetical such as this) are vastly different. Insulting someone whose parents weren’t married to each other by calling him a “bastard” is different from using “bastard” in lots of other contexts, even when it does mean illegitimacy.

Using “yid” as an insult against Jews is different than when a Jew labels his Web site Dixie Yid. (Conversely, even the word “Jew,” used as a noun, could be an insult if used in a particular context or with a particular tone, as can many other words.) The same is true for other terms that are often used as ethnic and religious pejoratives — not because members of some groups should get a free pass from the rules of civility, but because whether a term is rightly perceived as insulting understandably turns on the context in which it’s used.

The notion that a word is either always bad to use or always fine to use strikes me as inconsistent with the way language operates, whether the notion comes from those on the left or those on the right (or elsewhere). “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” That’s not “political correctness” or “relativism” (in any properly pejorative sense): It is simply a reality of how humans use language, and of what words mean in context.

UPDATE: Some commenters suggest that the Harvard panel shows that many feminists don’t think there’s anything wrong with promiscuity, and therefore “slut” is not really an insult to them.

That can’t be right, I think, precisely because whether a word is insulting depends on whether we think the speaker intends to use the term as a pejorative. That’s why saying that Eugene Volokh is a Jew might be perfectly descriptive in one situation, and quite insulting in another (e.g., “Volokh is a Jew” said with a particular tone, or “Volokh is such a Jew” used in a context which suggests that I have bad character traits that the speaker associates with Jews). The insulting quality would stem not from my thinking that there’s anything wrong with being a Jew, but from the fact that a word used by a speaker as a pejorative is rightly understood by listeners as a pejorative precisely because of how the speaker visibly intended to use it.