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Kathy Sheridan: The coarsening of political, public and private discourse has gone too far

Who decides when a taboo word slides into acceptable use?

Who decides when a taboo word slides into acceptable use? The F-word is all over advertising spaces but – ha – it’s not about the four-letter word at all. It’s just advertising for a bank that normalises the F-word. The s**t word is all over social media too, as in “my s**t” or “bunch of s**t” to mean anything from my (nice) possessions, to a collection of drawings (of which the artist is inordinately proud) to an artist’s faux-shruggy announcement of a new album (“my new shit droppin 9/10”).

The c**t word is also appearing more regularly. To many it remains nearly as unsayable as the N-word or the foul F-word (applied to gay men) but that apparently is to give it too much heft. By one definition, “c**t” is not a slur but a vulgar insult. According to the New Republic, “although it is associated with misogyny, it is nothing like the N-word, nor any other rightly stigmatised racist epithet, because it was never a commonly used tool for oppression. The history of ‘c**t’ shows us the word itself holds no real power, unlike the people who object so passionately to its usage”.

The feminist writer Kate Millett might have begged to differ since she once said that the c**t word reduces women "to the one essential … our essence … our offence". But that's a while ago and women are simply reclaiming it for the public space. It all depends on context, say the reclaimers.

The discussion about the female politician included the full deck of misogynistic tropes; 'unhinged', 'craving fame'

I confess it still shocks me, but maybe that's a Millett thing. The Limerick WhatsApp group that featured exchanges describing two females – a rival politician and a professional in dispute with the group – as c**ts shocked me some more when it emerged that one of the more enthusiastic contributors was a woman. The members of the WhatsApp group included then Green Party councillor Brian Leddin – now a TD and chairman of the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Action Committee – with what he described as "a small number of men and women who were interested in planning and heritage issues in Limerick city". In one exchange reported by the Mail on Sunday – all dating back to late 2019 – disagreement about an appropriate WhatsApp profile picture to replace Leddin's was resolved by the use of the professional woman's image with the c**t word superimposed on her in capital letters. Lol.


Misogynistic tropes

The discussion about the female politician included the full deck of misogynistic tropes ; “unhinged”, “craving fame”, “portraying herself as a perpetual victim of toxic masculinity” and of course a racy riff on her appearance.

Perhaps they all forgot themselves and fancied they were the cast of Veep. Whatever about the others, Leddin is the Green Party's problem. Party leader Eamon Ryan said he had spoken to Leddin at length and there were discussions ongoing with the party's executive structures – a sentence that hardly rings of steely conviction.

We’ve always known about the hidden mindsets. They are now clearly visible courtesy of the boundary collapse and confusion between real life and virtual. Why not blurt out whatever you’re thinking? Why bother amending your language for any forum?

We all know the B-word means testicles and that it's a synonym for total rubbish or an affectionate male-to-male greeting

When the Liberal Democrats in Britain adopted the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” for the 2019 European elections, its then leader, Vince Cable, described it as “an attempt to put in a more pungent way what a lot of people think, actually … It is clear, it is honest. Some people will be offended, some people are easily offended. Other people will think, Well, actually these guys are absolutely straightforward about what they believe.” The ITV presenter holding the party’s manifesto kept a finger firmly over part of the pungent word.

In short, Cable’s party had harnessed a controversial, aggressively male term knowing it would be offensive to some. Voters were being asked to imagine pearl-clutching Tories choking on their Victoria sponge while the young flocked to the marvellous clarity made flesh by the B-word.

Button it

Yes, we all know the B-word means testicles and that it’s a synonym for total rubbish or an affectionate male-to-male greeting often accompanied by a punch in the chest and is basically harmless. But why drag it out of its private context? Who was impressed?

Not the Lib Dems. And certainly not the voters. The party’s anticipated gains crumbled and its new leader lost her seat.

Most people who yell swear words around the house would prefer not to see them on banners or badges or coming out of politicians’ mouths. Most people who nip out to the shops in old T-shirts would prefer not to see their politicians traipsing into parliament in similar gear (and yes, we know it was men in suits who crashed the economy, but men in jeans and T-shirts were also involved). But why should we care? Probably because of a sense that political, public and private discourse have been coarsened enough. Think of Donald Trump spitting words into civic life such as “sh*thole”, “loser”, “grab her by the pussy” and worse, and think how it soaked all the way down the culture and to this day stands as some shining beacon of authenticity on platforms across the world.

That thought alone should be enough to button it.