Stupid woman: sexist? Ableist?
Earlier this week Jeremy Corbyn was widely criticised in the media and on social media for supposedly mouthing “stupid woman” at Theresa May, the prime minister, during a parliamentary debate. Corbyn claims he actually said “stupid people” and there have been experienced lip-readers claiming that they saw him say one thing and others say they saw him say the other, which testifies either to the difficulty of accurate lip-reading or suggests that some people are lying. The criticisms have come both from Tories (predictably) and from online feminist activists who say that the phrase is inherently sexist as we would not say “stupid man”, only “stupid woman”, which implies that in people’s minds the words ‘go together’. I am not so sure and a frequent response is that May is indeed stupid, or at least her behaviour and policies are.
As for the Tories who object on these grounds, I find them hypocritical in the extreme. Male Tory MPs are notorious for open sexual harassment in the Commons (such as miming swinging boobs and mouthing “melons” when a female Labour MP is talking), and two of these men were recently restored to the party because the prime minister needed all the votes she could get in a no-confidence ballot while a third was cleared of any wrongdoing by an ‘independent’ disciplinary panel after making clearly derogatory comments about Muslim women in a column for the Telegraph, and the party as a whole is responsible for austerity policies that have resulted in women’s refuges and Rape Crisis centres being closed countrywide, for abolishing child benefits that are paid to the mother in favour of Universal Credit which is paid to the father, and for social care cuts that have resulted in disabled women being forced into dependency on partners who may be abusive for lack of accessible alternatives and disabled women who cannot get from wheelchair to toilet on their own being required to use nappies to save on care costs. Yet they turn into social justice warriors whenever one of their women is mildly insulted using language many of them have used many times themselves.
As for the phrase being sexist and the logic behind this, just because it is rarer to say “stupid man” does not mean that people regard women as inherently stupid. In fact the phrase reflects the politeness with which men generally speak to women, especially ‘respectable’ (i.e. middle-class or professional) women; with a man, they would call him a stupid jerk or something even ruder, referring to a body part for example. I suspect the reason we have more openly gendered insults in English is because English lacks both inbuilt gender and adjectival nouns; in another language such as Spanish or Arabic you may just call someone a ‘stupid’ which suffices as a noun and would usually identity the subject’s gender on its own, but in English you need a noun, hence ‘woman’ in Theresa May’s case. Much the same is true of compliments; if we admire a girl or woman’s personality, it is common to call her a nice young lady or young lady.
Another argument was that ‘woman’ should not be used in insults by men because “women are a marginalised class”. Well, Theresa May is in no way marginalised; she is the prime minister, and furthermore, is a wealthy woman who represents a prosperous constituency in the London “stockbroker belt” and belongs to a party which represents privileged interests. It shows the weakness of the concept of women as an “oppressed class”; the ‘class’, such as it is, includes a large number of very privileged people and some very powerful people even if they share some common experiences with those in poverty or who suffer abuse or oppression; the situation is much more complicated than obvious cases of oppression such as experienced by people under occupation, dictatorship, colonialism or segregation and is not a straightforward hierarchy as devotees of certain theories claim. When a woman acquires power that enables her to affect others’ circumstances for better or worse, and particularly when she uses it to remove others’ freedoms or impoverish them, we cannot treat her as if she is being oppressed when an opponent insults her under his breath.
The claim that ‘stupid’ is ableist has even less merit. Quite simply, ‘stupid’ does not refer to any impairment but to a state (stupor), usually associated not with cognitive impairment but with drunkenness. Still, the incident brought out all of the usual serial offence takers who demand that everyone stops using words like idiot, stupid, lame etc not because they have any real emotional impact but because they have taught themselves to find them offensive on the basis of a theory. A few of them get paid writing articles criticising a public figure for calling someone a moron (and then complaining again when they fail to show the contrition they expect) but a lot of them just have enough free time on their hands to sit behind a computer and police others’ language. We often hear of snowflakes (people who profess offence to something greatly out of proportion to what was said or done) but there is in fact a minority of “pro-flakes”, people who make a living or at least a hobby out of this kind of behaviour. This is not to deny that there are situations where using this language is inappropriate, but using them in common speech is not hurtful, just mildly irritating to some people.
When Theresa May first came to power, Dan Hodges (a Daily Mail writer who forever moans about why he left the Labour party) predicted that “if May’s elected the misogyny of the hard-Left is going to be a truly appalling sight”. I quoted him and added “in other words, I’ll make a fuss any time someone calls May a bitch, while she slashes welfare & expels immigrants”, but this is proving true of parts of the wider Left as well. If we are trying to prevent the country being dragged off the Brexit cliff or stop devastating cuts to social care or support for disabled people, we should not be wasting too much time policing the language others use to refer to our enemies unless it is seriously offensive or threatening and especially we should not be doing this in public. This has generated a huge distraction and it is not even clear if he actually mouthed those words to Theresa May or just muttered them under his breath. We should not be like Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judaea, who when their common enemy was mentioned, said in unison “The Judaean People’s Front!” instead of naming the occupying Romans. The Right is not and has never been afraid to play dirty, and we have only so much time to spend on making sure we are, or appear, squeaky clean.
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