12 April 2003; first
published 7 May 2004
LAST WEEK IN THE ONLINE edition of the Guardian Buhran Wazir wrote
about an aspect of the war which could never have been reported honestly
twenty, or perhaps even ten, years ago. In his Iraq diary he described how
he had accompanied a group of British soldiers as they drove a four-ton
truck into Zubayr as part of a humanitarian aid convoy. Wazir’s attention
was caught by a loud young Scot who was voicing his grievances. An officer
who had irritated him was “a fucking cunt”. The Turks were bastards:
“Stick fingered cunts the lot of ‘em. I hated that place. Remember they
stabbed those English fans? … Dirty bastards.”
And the Iraqis? After
a crowd of locals had gratefully accepted supplies of food, the Scot
expressed his view: “And I tell you another thing: they didn’t look hungry
to me. Some of those cunts were right fat bastards.”
Some who read Wazir’s
report may have been grateful that the lifting of taboos permitted a
reporter to record honestly an episode which reminds us that obscenities
are part of the lingua franca of war. Others, however, may still be
uneasy about the climate which allows such obscene abuse to be freely
Such unease is
understandable. We might well reflect that we have as a culture devoted a
great deal more time and energy to fighting for the right of novelists
(and others) to use the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ than we have ever given to
considering the psychology which is implicit in our usage of these words,
and in the power which they possess.
In the context of a
trusting and intimate relationship both words can be the focus of some of
the deepest human feelings. It is because of their richness, and the
affective wealth which has been locked into their obscenity, that any
culture which values emotional vitality should, I believe, always resist
those who seek to ban these words entirely either from literature or from life.
But even within a
sexual relationship these obscenities are fraught with a dangerous
ambivalence. And the further they are removed from a context of trust and
emotional intimacy, the more likely it is that they will be used as
vehicles not of emotional richness but of hatred and contempt.
In its most common and
everyday usage the word ‘fuck’ is one of the hardest and most violent
words in the English language. Very often it is used in a way that implies
the existence of a hated Other who must be punished, subjugated or hurt;
the hated Other is very often a woman. Indeed, when this word is used most
fiercely and most vehemently, it expresses, perhaps better than any other
single word, the misogyny of our culture, a misogyny so ordinary and so
deep that for the most part we do not even recognise that it exists. As
Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, even sophisticated men “still say ‘Fuck you’ as a venomous insult; they still find ‘cunt’ the
most degrading epithet outside the dictionary.” The contents of the Oxford
English Dictionary have changed since these words were written in 1970.
But the general truth which they express remains unaltered.
In creating a climate where it is possible to
discuss such misogyny without euphemisms, we appear to have progressed.
But this progress is more apparent than real. Insulting language does not
grow benign by use and such words remain, in some contexts at least, not
only offensive but viciously repressive. Of course, many people who use
the word ‘cunt’ as an insult do so with no deliberate misogynistic intent.
But the word remains freighted with hatred and contempt for women and to
use it negatively is to silently assent to and endorse such hatred.
To say this is not to
make misogyny – or what Germaine Greer once called ‘cunt-hatred’ – into
the sole criterion of offensiveness. The word ‘prick’ may be less
offensive than ‘cunt’ but it remains an insult. Just as misogyny itself
does, such insulting terms harness the enduring puritanism and sex-hatred
of our culture in order to denigrate and hold in contempt another human
When so many real men
and women on both sides of the war are still being shot or burned or
bombed to death it may seem frivolous or self-indulgent to engage in
arguments about the use of mere words.
But sexual obscenities
and war-mongering are intimately related. Anyone who doubts this should
study the emails which are routinely received by journalists who oppose
Western policies which involve war or subjugation. I say this on the basis
of reading a selection of emails sent to this newspaper which I asked the
Guardian to forward to me earlier this week. An hour or so after I
had made this request, a flurry of messages with unusual subject-lines
began to settle in layers on my computer screen: ‘Scumbag’. ‘You are a
piece of cunt’. ‘Fuck you’. ‘Asshole’.
“How many dogs had to
fuck your mom for you to happen?” wrote one reader to the author of a
Guardian article criticising US foreign policy in the Middle East in
the immediate aftermath of September 11. “I just don’t understand why you
have a job in the free world,” said another. “You should slither on back
into your sand-encrusted cunthole you ungrateful fuck..”
What these messages convey most clearly is
not hatred of peace, or hatred of the left, or hatred of Muslims, or even
hatred of Guardian journalists. It is hatred of the body – and of
the sexual bodies of women in particular. And it is not only angry
American readers of the Guardian who sometimes imagine war as a
form of intimate violence directed against a hated human body. At the
outset of the 1991 Gulf War General Norman Schwarzkopf said: ‘I want every
Iraqi soldier bleeding from every orifice.’
War is the ultimate form of violation. It is a violation of other people’s
sovereign territory and it is, necessarily, a violation of other people’s
bodies. It is a violation of the sanctity with which we normally surround
life itself – to which even the soldiers of an oppressive and hated regime
are normally held to have a right. This does not mean that war is not
sometimes necessary. But it is an obscene necessity to be resorted to with
the utmost rareness.
It is only in a culture whose moral
compass has been sent into a spin by the idea of freedom, which does not
understand the obscene realm to which war belongs, and which is unable to
distinguish between liberation and violation, that any politicians could
have seriously contemplated embarking on the present war.
may be confused about the nature and the obscenity of war. But for Arabs
throughout the middle east there is less doubt. Millions of ordinary Arabs
already see the invasion of Iraq not as an act of liberation but as the
violation of a Muslim country. Earlier this week, as jubilant Iraqis
greeted American soldiers in Baghdad, this view seemed to be undermined.
But the real harvest of any invasion is always a late one. It is worth
recalling that, when British soldiers were sent to Northern Ireland in
1969, they were welcomed openly by Catholic communities as protectors and
liberators. But when they used heavy-handed methods to enforce law and
order, jubilation turned to resentment and the same soldiers found
themselves facing petrol bombs, stones, and ultimately bullets.
As the jubilation in Iraq fades, to be replaced by the reality of
living under an occupying army, the images and the injuries of war, and
the thousands of deaths it has brought, will remain. Resentment will grow
both within Iraq and throughout the region. Millions of ordinary Arabs
will then be confirmed in the view they hold already. And they will not
forgive what they see as the rape and humiliation of yet another Muslim
country by the world’s only superpower – aided and abetted in this case by
the British government and a British prime minister.
In responding to the renewed rage which this war will inevitably lead to
in many Islamic countries, some in the West will point an accusing finger
towards the sexual repressiveness of Islam. But, before we demonise
another culture on account of their puritanism and misogyny, we
need to think a great deal more carefully about our own.
12 April 2003; first published 7 May 2004