I am going to begin this column with two commonly used words that cannot be published: f**k and ba****d. These are two simple examples from the large collection of abusive words that all of us process in our repertoire in various languages. They are not taught in any classroom but imbibed through social osmosis. As is often said the first words we pick up in a new language are words of abuse. We hear them being flung at targets and cannot fail to be struck by the strength of their utterance. Understanding the full import of the abuse often comes after the volley of sound, yet it is never a deterrent.

Using these words gives the teenager a sense of adulthood; for the adult, power and control. These are expressions of violence used when we snap. Very often, the use of these words is the point when a verbal bout degenerates to physical assault. They then illustrate, in a word-image, a physical intention. Verbal abuse then becomes an attack on the other person and meant to hurt deeply. Right through history ‘bad language’ has been a form of protest, a non-conformist counter to what is acceptable in society. And may be it is because of this nature of these words, that they vandalise ‘that which is rarely discussed in the open’ — sex and sexuality.

These words have been created by the masculine social construction we call society and are, naturally, male-chauvinistic! Take for example the ‘four letter word’. This is not just an expression of sexual intercourse; it signifies sexual violence. When you are abused by anyone with that term, you are being attacked. This term also comes from the perception among men that the sexual act is controlled by ‘him’ and hence even its abuse is part of his artillery.

Put all this together and I don’t see how the typical four-letter word isn’t regarded with the horror that ‘rape’ is. Women use this word with equal nonchalance. Living in a male-dominated, discriminative environment, being comfortable using these abusive words gives the women a sense of being ‘one of the boys’, even acceptance among the men. If we survey any language, we will find that verbal abuse is almost always a combination of sex+violence+women.

There is more. We know that the worst form of physical abuse in custody is targeted at the most sensitive parts of the human anatomy. This gives an insight into why verbal abuse too targets actions associated to the very same parts of our body. Both physically and emotionally, anything associated with sex makes us vulnerable; that may be the reason why historically we have saved the worst insults for sexual acts.

But, all this over obsessing with verbal abuse of only one kind has made us numb to other verbal abuses that we use freely. In fact we consider them acceptable, even funny. Take for example all the terrible expressions that target the physical disability of a person, even the simple phrase: ‘Are you blind?’ We use this with ease every time our child is unable to find something that is right in front of her. There are many such words, the ones in Hindi for instance, that target physical disability — kana (one-eyed), langda (lame), behra (deaf) and, of course, pagal (mad). We hear them everyday, as part of banter and fun, never feeling even for a moment that they are expressions of violence and discrimination.

There are some other abuses that are more than acceptable. I can freely use them in this column without wondering about repercussions: moron, retard, idiot, stupid, dimwit, imbecile. I have used them from the time I can remember the idea of ‘word’ itself. Like foul sexual abuses, we use these too among friends. But we also use them when we want to insult or question a person’s intellectual capacity or insinuate a lack of mental faculty and, as with all abuse, from a position of power we attack and put down the victim, making him feel incapable. We don’t care that these words cause as much hurt as the ‘real ones’. Even worse we are totally insensitive to what they say about people with serious intellectual disabilities.

We live in times when we have taken steps to evolve sensitive terms such as ‘differently abled’, and socially banned the use of several racial and caste related insults. Yet, we use terms that abuse the physical, mental capabilities and the sexuality of people without batting an eyelid. It is time to pause and think.

Originally written for The Hindu

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