The press of events last spring together with the summer publishing schedule of The New Criterion did not allow me to get round to discussing in these pages the phenomenon of "slut walking" which blew up at that time in brief demonstrations and in news commentary around the Western world, though for some reason more in the United Kingdom than anywhere else. What set the self-proclaimed but (one supposes) ironic sluts off in their perambulations was the hideous gaffe of a Toronto policeman in suggesting to some young women that, if they wished to avoid the occasion of sexual assault, it might be a good idea for them not to dress like sluts.
He seems not to have realized that he himself was showing a good bit of leg as an invitation to another kind of assault. What would once have seemed nothing more than common sense advice such as generations of mothers have given to their daughters was now officially to be designated as an instance of "blaming the victim" and was strictly verboten - as the Canadian constable found to his cost when he was forced to issue an abject apology, both to his impressionable auditors and to women in general.
Those who had demanded the apology, however, were hardly placated by it. Determined to make even more of an example of the forlorn but now forgotten flat-foot, they embarked on what they called SlutWalks while dressed as they imagined sluts would dress. Some who may have doubted that they were capable of making their intentions clear with nothing but their personal attractiveness or their choice of garments - which, though often revealing, did remarkably little to invite anything like sexual attention from politically uncommitted male observers - were obliged to carry placards advertising what they were supposed to be, together with feminist bromides about sex in the ideal, non-patriarchal world they saw themselves as inhabiting. Taking to the streets of cities around the world, their apparent purpose, if they had any purpose beyond self-publicity, was to stake a claim on behalf of women everywhere to a right to be indiscreet without consequences.
Well, you might as well demonstrate on behalf of a right to eat, drink or smoke too much without consequences. Doubtless it would be lovely if it were so, but it is a right beyond the competence of any conceivable political power to grant. Perhaps in tacit recognition of the unreality of such a demand, the demonstrators' public utterances tended to focus instead on the word "slut" - offensive to many - and what should be done about it. There were basically two schools of thought, both represented in the op ed pages of The Guardian. Gail Dines and Wendy J. Murphy argued against a focus on turning offensive into celebratory language:
The organisers claim that celebrating the word "slut," and promoting sluttishness in general, will help women achieve full autonomy over their sexuality. But the focus on "reclaiming" the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal "madonna/whore" view of women's sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.
Ray Filar, however, found not only a sound rationale in the SlutWalkers' claim to "reclaim" the word but also a historical precedent of sorts:
This move to embrace the word as a term of positive sexuality may currently be traveling across the world to the tune of the marching band, but it harks back to the dawn of the 1990s when musician Kathleen Hanna, unwilling figurehead for the riot grrrl movement and lead singer for Bikini Kill, went on stage with the word "slut" scrawled across her body. In doing this, she made a visceral, powerful statement about her sexuality. Her message was not "yes, I am a slut." It was this: "by reclaiming the derogatory terms that you use to silence my sexual expression, I dilute your power."
This, I fear, cannot be quite right. Even apart from the fact that you would have to be pretty ideologically clued-in to begin with not to read the message as "yes, I am a slut," the most Miss Hanna and Bikini Kill could reasonably be supposed to be asserting was a wish to dilute patriarchal power, not an actual dilution of it - always supposing that any such thing exists. Mr Filar appeared to acknowledge as much himself when he wrote that, "unfortunately, not everybody got the memo."
Indeed. That particular memo is one that everybody is never going to get. The struggle to turn "slut" from dysphemism to euphemism thus seems doomed to the same realms of unreality inhabited by a right to act like a slut without being perceived as a slut. After all, women can hardly hope to "reclaim" the word for good rather than evil so long as they themselves continue to find it so deeply offensive - as they more recently purported to do when Rush Limbaugh characterized as a "slut" (also a "prostitute") a young single woman named Sandra Fluke who had demanded before a congressional committee that government-mandated health insurance should pay for her and her friends' surprisingly high contraceptive bills.
Well, that got the sluts walking again, figuratively if not literally, and Mr Limbaugh, like the Canuck copper, was forced to apologize. Once again, too, protests of one sort or another continued in spite of the apology. These included calls for his show to be forced off the air and even a demand by the feminist ambulance-chaser Gloria Allred that Mr Limbaugh be prosecuted under a Florida statute - his radio show is based in the Sunshine State - of 1883 making it a misdemeanor offense of the first degree to speak of "any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity."
Yet here, as in last year's slut walks, the same niggling contradiction lay under the furious protests. On the one hand, the protestors wanted to celebrate the behavior and on the other to damn the language traditionally used to describe it. Miss Allred revealed herself to be a victim of the same contradiction by implicitly claiming that the word "falsely" in the just-mentioned statute was irrelevant - or perhaps that a demand for expensive government-supplied contraception on the part of a single woman could not be construed as implying any admission of a want of chastity on her part. Either way, the feminist line appears to be that any woman's sexual behavior, so long as it is self-chosen, is OK as a corollary to the right to privacy, but also that it should be immune from negative comment from those holding a different point of view even when she herself makes it public. Freedom of speech, like freedom of religion (as noted in this space last month) must take a back seat to the putative freedom of women from any judgment which might be passed by others, particularly on their sexual behavior.
Doesn't such an expectation belong to just as much of a fantasy world as the slut-walkers' belief that acting as sluts will either discourage others from thinking of them as sluts or encourage them to start believing that sluttishness is a good thing - or perhaps both? The argument behind the argument of those engaged in the tug'o'war over the word "slut" was whether insult ought, in the utopian, unpatriarchal future envisaged by the feminists, even to be possible. The actor Albert Brooks, no friend to Mr Limbaugh and his kind, tweeted: "Have to stick up for Rush Limbaugh. He was using 'slut' in the nice way." Of course his intention was to be humorous at Rush's expense, but he also inadvertently pointed us towards the paradox of feminist outrage at the unregenerate use of a word that, although it has never been used in a nice way, they imagine ought only to be used in that way. The outrage really amounted to angry regret that the feminist utopia did not (yet) exist, according to their expectations of it...
Such an exercise in self-delusion is just too big a target for humorists to resist. A couple of years ago in The Sunday Times of London the humor columnist Rod Liddle commented rather profoundly, I thought, on the attempts in the UK at the time to bring forward legislation to outlaw the telling of anti-gay jokes, which he thought a result of inability to see the essentially "transgressive" nature of all humor:
For years I found racist jokes extremely boring - but they became funny when it was apparent that the act of telling them could (a) lose you your job and (b) bring the Old Bill down on you with a charge of inciting racial hatred. Now, as a consequence, I find almost all racist jokes hilarious, especially ones about Muslims and particularly if they are cartoons which feature Allah or Muhammad or fat ladies in burqas saying to one another: "Does my bomb look big in this?". . . Jokes are almost never funny per se, when they are stripped of their social context (if they ever could be). The stuff that makes us laugh is never neutral; it involves poking that part of us which, for most of the time, remains unpoked. The part of us which civilised behaviour insists should remain below the surface.
That's why Ricky Gervais is so funny; he gets this point - he understands the latent humour of social embarrassment, of saying things which you are simply not supposed to say. The mentally handicapped kid in the restaurant, the black actor confronted by a golliwog. It is the breaching of the social convention which is really funny, not the supposed slighting of black, disabled or homosexual people. It is the potential for naughtiness, which exists in all of us. . . Bring on the legislation and bring on those queer jokes.
To him, that is, humor is the revolt of reality against official attempts to suppress it and so is by its very nature politically incorrect. That has often been true in the past when an official culture has been particularly assiduous in keeping the lid on an unruly unofficial culture, and it may be true again, now that the former unofficial culture of sexual license and self-indulgence has become our official culture. But there is another kind of humor directed by those in the know against outsiders, and if the outsiders are inclined to resent their exclusion another kind of offense may be taken.
While Rush Limbaugh was being blasted by the left, for example, some on the right were trying to make a complementary if unpromising counter-attack on the vile sexual innuendo which has been directed at Governor Sarah Palin, and without any such invitation as Miss Fluke's to attend to her sexual behavior, by such left-wing humorists as Bill Maher or someone calling himself Louis C.K., and on the allegedly hypocritical refusal by President Obama, who telephoned Miss Fluke to commiserate with her, to return a million dollar contribution by Mr Maher to his re-election effort. Many of those protesting against the offensiveness of Mr Limbaugh had been silent before or even applauded that of witty fellows such as these, with whom they were in political agreement, since they belonged to the same crowd as the humorists and Mrs Palin did not. Mr Maher offered no apologies of his own for applying to her what we must now tiresomely refer to as "the c-word," nor was the feminist chorus demanding any of him; but he did very graciously request that Mr Limbaugh's apology should be accepted and the attempted boycott of his show's sponsors should be called off.
I wondered, however, if this moment of unwonted tolerance of dissenting views on Mr Maher's part was not, at least to some extent, a self-protective attempt to reclaim language considered "sexist" - itself unlikely ever to be known as "the s-word" and shunned or avoided in polite company for its power to shame - for his own use. He might well protest against the growing impoverishment of the language of insult and invective, which has added little that is really new since the days of bustles and bloomers. So we were reminded by Thomas Roberts of MSNBC when he said that in attacking Miss Fluke, Rush Limbaugh had "questioned her virtue." Rush and his like-minded audience got a laugh out of that too, but it was a reminder that the word "slut" is a leftover from the old honor culture which, as honor cultures throughout the world once did - and in many places still do - regarded a woman's honor or virtue as amounting to her chastity before marriage and her fidelity within it.
Equating a woman's virtue with her honor was once a way of protecting her privacy. It made virtue the default position and questioning it unthinkable apart from so gross and careless an indiscretion on her part in making public what was expected to be public that the honor group of which she was a part could not continue to turn a blind eye. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy was one such breach of the expected discretion which the advent of easily obtainable and inexpensive "birth-control" - an increasingly hilarious euphemism itself - once promised to put an end to. Now, however, perhaps in response to the gay movement's imperative that private sexual behavior must be advertised in public, Miss Fluke is thought to be an admirable figure for making her need to take pharmacological steps to avoid becoming pregnant a matter for public comment.
As I noticed in my book Honor, A History, nearly a century after the Western honor culture embarked on its long, slow decline from cultural hegemony to irrelevance, "slut" remained a "fighting word" when applied to a woman as, at least in some social contexts, its equivalent "coward" did when applied to a man. In fact, one of the most common tropes among Rush Limbaugh's many detractors in the public forum was that those conservatives who might otherwise have been supposed to be on his side were cowards for not denouncing him and demanding that he be removed from the airwaves along with everyone else, a venerable inversion of the obvious truth that it is the mob, virtual or otherwise, seeking safety in numbers, who are the cowards - as was memorably exposed by the (guilty) Colonel Sherburn in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn when the lynch mob came for him.
If Bill Maher was dimly aware of the possibility that the talismanic power of words to excite emotion might disappear altogether, he could have had in mind what has happened to that other insulting word which, when applied to anyone entitled to call himself a gentleman, would once inevitably have elicited a challenge to mortal combat. I refer, of course, to the substantive epithet "liar." I am old enough to remember when the question, "Are you calling me a liar?"addressed by one man (or one boy) to another, was universally understood to amount to a challenge to the other either to deny it or to fight with the questioner.
Now, I suppose it would hardly occur to anyone even to ask such a question, since it is virtually certain that every day someone, somewhere is calling one a liar. That may have something to do with the gentlemen's decision to give up fighting about it - or about much of anything else either - but it is also the direct consequence of the decline of face to face dealings of people with their fellow creatures.
All honor cultures depend on the pre-modern, pre-media era assumption that people would naturally find themselves in a position to confront those who might be moved to talk about them and that these inevitable encounters would act as a brake upon our equally inevitable urges to be rude about each other. We might talk about others "behind their backs," but the likelihood of its coming out that we have done so in a face-to-face world made our consequent embarrassment (if not a challenge to fight) a powerful disincentive to gossip and tittle-tattle. As I am very far from having been the first to notice (see "Rise of the Trolls" in The New Criterion of January, 2011), the advent of the Internet and the subsequent explosion in the number of remote, electronic and often anonymous encounters with others whom we do not know and are never likely to meet have removed that disincentive and done more than anything else to produce the sort of incivility now regretted on both left and right and even among many of the uncivil themselves.
For all that he is a big "name," Rush Limbaugh as a radio man in some respects belongs to the same culture of anonymity that is now infecting the media more generally and having such a deleterious effect on the civility of discourse on the web. I imagine he must be familiar, as I am, with the phenomenon of responding with a personal e-mail to someone who has "flamed" one on the web and receiving a gracious and apologetic reply from someone who has suddenly learned to regard one as a human being and even an acquaintance and not as a mere virtual avatar of one's political views. Humor and invective have taken on the edge they have lately because we all now live among such avatars and in our own fantasy worlds, if not to the same extent the slut walking feminists do, where it becomes an excludable offense to hold dissenting political views. Also like the slut walkers, we regularly mistake those worlds for reality.
James Bowman is an author and essayist who writes for The New Criterion and The American Spectator. See his website JamesBowman.net