Harry’s Place readers may remember wannabe radical journalist Laurie Penny. She attacked Harry’s Place here and provoked a response from me which criticised her misunderstanding of the politics of the site. I also tweaked her tail by cheekily suggested her political inexperience and privileged background were at least partly to blame for her failure to distinguish between Islamists and people of the Muslim faith. Ms Penny has done us the honour of a rejoinder
I can’t help wondering if at least some of the problem here isn’t to do with the different ways the English language is used by people from dissimilar backgrounds.
I have always been (and still continue to be) amazed at how utterly and irretrievably alien English people can appear to their fellow countrymen. My adopted homeland sometimes sometimes seems more a collection of mutually uncomprehending subcultures than a recognisable linguistic community, particularly to a person who hails from a much more homogeneous place. And of course the differences between English people are never so apparent as when expressed in the words and phrases they choose to use or throw up their hands in horror at. North and South; East and West; private and state-educated; mushy peas or guacamole: no-one speaks to speak the same bloody language in the country that gave the world Chaucer and Shakespeare. Perhaps that’s why the English are pre-eminent practitioners of the comedy of errors: there’s just so much opportunity to take linguistic offence it would be a crime not to laugh.
Take for example the term “silly cow”. Casually inserting the phrase (as reported speech) into a conversation at which a young lady of proletarian origin was an interlocutor – in, say Manchester, would almost certainly be met with a shrug, a smile, a pulled face or – much more likely – complete indifference: that’s because it’s an accepted (though hardly elegant) part of the rough and tumble of speech for the majority of the population.
It’s not just the North of England where the phrase goes unremarked – its once sharp edges smoothed by repeated use in millions of conversations over the centuries. You can just as easily imagine it slipping casually from the lipsticked mouth of a working class character of a certain age in the Queen Vic as you can from her counterpart supping half of mild in the snug of the Rover’s Return.
Maybe the phrase wouldn’t go down well in the more linguistically-earnest environs of New England. Perhaps it would be completely misunderstood in the suburbs of New Delhi, but the fact is it’s a broadly accepted phrase you can’t avoid if you ever come into contact with the common folk of England, however fleetingly.
How to explain Ms Penny’s incendiary response to the use of the phrase without conjuring up images of Violet Elizabeth Bott is a challenge, I can tell you.
Harry’s Place contributor Brownie turned up in Penny’s comments box last night in an attempt to explain why he didn’t think the Harry’s Place response to her original attack was that big a deal.
Perhaps Gavin, Elly, Symon and Carolyn can advise as to the appropriate response when you are the subject of an evidence-free accusation of racism/bigotry?
Clearly, issuing a swift “silly cow” appears to be beyond the pale and wholly disproportionate.
Oh oh –
Those of you who were active in left of centre politics in a British University in the 1980s or who even chanced across an issue of Viz from the period can see what’s coming next can’t you?
Brownie, ‘cow’ is a sexist term. It’s dehumanising and specifically gendered. Have you ever heard of a man being labelled a ‘cow’?
And ‘silly’, whilst not specifically gendered, is almost always directed at women to make them feel irrelevant and out of place.
By calling me a ‘silly little’ cow, you and your commenter are calling me something that’s demeaning, dehumanising, patronising and belittling, all on the basis of my gender. If you don’t see that, you’re either being wilfully stupid or you generally don’t realise how fucking offensive your site is to women.
Brownie then attempted to explain that he wasn’t directing the term at Ms Penny at all, but all his efforts were in vain. The spunky young radical feminist’s dander has risen too far to be persuaded by mere logic and evidence. Not content with misogyny she decided to bring race into the equation too. And hate speech.
And ‘silly cow’ is a deeply sexist, misogynist and offensive phrase. If I happened to be an Asian-british young woman and you had called me a ‘brown cow’, would you find the superfluity of hatespeech as a counter attack easier to understand?
Brownie: Hold on, I didn’t say that. I only meant-
Laurie: Calling someone a ‘silly cow’ is a VIOLENTLY MISOGYNIST, DEHUMANISING INSULT. It is never ‘merited’. Not even Anne Widdecombe deserves to be called a ‘silly cow’. You don’t get out of it by saying that there ‘might not be merit’ in the comment, you sexist ass.
Brownie: But I didn’t –
Laurie: That’s IT! I’m closing the comments and banning you.
You know, I did feel a bit bad after what I originally said about Ms Penny’s background being a more of a hindrance than a help to her understanding of the world. While I still believed the two to be linked as I typed the finishing touches to the original post on Sunday I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been kinder of me not to have mentioned it.
After last night’s little outburst I’m left in no doubt that I did the right thing . People like Laurie Penny are the reason a lot of ordinary people are completely turned off by politics. If she can’t tell the difference between an everyday phrase used without incident by literally millions of people on a daily basis (and one not even directed at her) on the one hand, and a vicious attack on her tender soul – her eternal and precious essence – her very personhood on the other, well then she’s not cut out for the big conversation that politics entails.