By Marie Diemand
In the last month, the Massachusetts legislature has heard the proposal of a bill which in part seeks to legally ban the use of the use of the word “bitch” in our state. The Boston Herald articulately defined the B-word as, “the term for a female dog that is commonly used to slander women.” Many would agree that such legislation is a straightforward violation of our First Amendment rights as Americans. There is no legal precedent in the United States for outright banning a certain word; as many know, even hate speech–words far more dangerous and provocative than the B-word–is widely considered protected by the Constitution. If passed, this bill entitled, “An Act regarding the use of offensive words” would mandate fines and even prison time for people who degrade others using the B-word. The bill is receiving intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, and it seems unlikely that it will pass the Massachusetts legislature.
Even though usage of the B-word should not be legislated, it does not mean that, ethically, anyone should be able to use it. In fact, I believe there should be a significant change in how the word is used in our society. That change cannot be mandated by the government; it must be a cultural shift. The B-word, when coming from the mouths of men, is routinely used to degrade, dehumanize, and belittle women. Even when used to describe an object or task rather than an actual woman, the word is derogatory, implying that the object of the slur is too feminine or is reminiscent of the annoyances that females cause. This, of course, is extremely offensive.
To rectify this situation, it has been proposed that the B-word should belong to women only (or people who identify as women). Cultural word ownership and reclamation of language can be an important tool in the empowerment of oppressed groups. To take away certain language from the oppressors and make it the property of the oppressed only is, in itself, a shift in the balance of power. For example, the N-word for centuries was used by white people to degrade and dehumanize people of color. However, as we have evolved socially and people of color have gained more rights in our country, there has been a clear and significant shift in the usage of this word. The N-word has become socially–not legally, but indeed culturally–untouchable to white people. It is the specific and sole property of African Americans. A white person can still legally use the N-word, but not without significant social condemnation and ramifications. To be able to use language that others cannot is to have a certain power, a certain privilege and social right; a great win for feminism would be the reclamation of the B-word for women’s use only.
I do not mean to equate the plight of women to the literal enslavement and systematic oppression of African Americans. I do mean, however, to say that both women and African Americans are historically oppressed groups who have borne the burden of degrading words. I mean to say that a similar dynamic to what has occurred in our culture with the N-word could occur with the B-word, and ought to. At the end of the day, we do not need our government to legislate what we can and cannot say; we need only a social conscience so that we can make those good decisions for ourselves.