Sunday, September 10, 2017

Thoughts on "Douchebag"

I'm not big on using insult words that arise from gender. For instance, "bitch" has probably never come out of my mouth when applied to a woman. I may have exclaimed "son of a bitch!" on occasion, and I regret it, but it's not the same as applying the word to a particular woman. And the more recent trend to call men "bitches" or say someone is "my bitch," implying all sorts of things about gender, is just as bad if not worse. (The verb "bitching," however, doesn't bother me... I think.)

I haven't thought as much about the insult "douchebag" or "douche." My tendency was to avoid it because it seemed based on the premise that anything to do with women, and particularly our lady parts, was negative. But then I read this essay and it changed my mind.

In it, Michael Mark Cohen, a professor at UC Berkeley, says that "douchebag" is the white racial slur he's been waiting for. He starts out by describing how he starts his undergraduate class on the history of race in America each fall, asking the students to call out any white racial slurs they can think of. The students are reluctant at first, but finally

...I cajole a few of them into “Cracker” and “Red Neck.” We can usually get to “Hillbilly” or “Trailer Trash” or “White Trash,” possibly even “Peckerwood,” before folks recognize the “Cletus the slack-jawed yokel” pattern of class discrimination here. And being that we are at a top-ranked west coast university, not only do we all share basic middle class aspirations, but we can feel pretty safe in the fact that there are no “Red Necks” here to insult.

The 60s era black nationalist terms come out next, usually from one of the all-too-few black male students in the room, sometimes from a student athlete. “Honky!” This gets a chuckle from the class, after all, it is a funny word to say out loud. “Whitey” and its weak hip hop variant “Wigger” are voiced to more giggles. The black power aggression of “look out whitey” are only a memory of a failed black militancy that has lost its pinch.

Hispanic students find their way to “Gringo,” just as a student perhaps from Atlanta or Houston offers “Yankee.” Still other students give their own regional variant insult for white imperialists and tourists — such as “Haole.” From this we learn that race is defined by place, and that where you are white matters.

It is either a sign of their ongoing potency or proof of the decline in the category of ethnicity, but the old racial slurs for Italian, Irish, Greek, Jewish, Catholic, German, Polish, etc., never get heard. Is this silence because these groups are or are not white? Maybe these kids have never heard someone use the word “dago” before, apart from that Jewish guy in The Godfather?
So, basically, there are no current, go-to white racial slurs that apply to all white people. They're really class insults, or out of date if they ever really were meaningful insults to the ones who were meant to be insulted.

On the other hand, Cohen has discovered, it hurts to be called a douchebag, and people almost exclusively use it on well-off, sexist, white men:
The douchebag is, quite literally, a useless sexist tool. And that is why it makes for such an attractive, even overused insult. But what does the human douchebag really look like? Why do we call him that and what do we hate about the douchebag?

The douchebag is someone — overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males — who insists upon, nay, demand their white male privilege in every possible set and setting.

The douchebag is equally douchey (that’s the adjectival version of the term) in public as in private. He is a douchebag waiting in line for coffee as well as in the bedroom. This definition marks him, like the atavistic, dusty rubber douchebags of our grandmothers’ generation, as a useless, sexist tool.
Some other thoughts worth sharing:
The douchebag is the demanding 1%, and the far more numerically significant class of heterosexist men who ape and aspire to be them. Wall Street guys are douchebags to be sure, but so is anyone looking to cash in on his white privilege.... There are billionaire CEO douchebags like Larry Ellison and Donald Trump, and wage slave douchebags that work as lifeguards, bartenders and in sporting good stores but aspire to be billionaires. Tech, finance and consulting douchebags predominate in the category, but there are also high concentrations of douchebags in real estate, mid-level management, gamers, fitness-types and television entertainment.... Fox News offers us the spectacle of an entire television network composed of douchebags pushing a douchebag’s view of the world.
Douchebag men, he reminds us, can be dangerous, like Elliot Rodger, who went on a murderous rampage against women in Santa Barbara:
...while we can enjoy laughing at the douchebag online, we need never forget that these rampaging white males are not just a random assortment of crazy loners, but that they often act violently out of a sense of racist and sexist entitlement that renders them the enemies of humanity.
After a description of the history of the douchebag as object (hey, "douche" just means "shower" in French), Cohen sums it up this way:
Douching is not only an anti-feminist practice pushed by male corporations on women using shame and insecurity as a weapon, but it is almost certainly dangerous to a woman’s health. And therein we find the link between the medical appliance, the outdated practice of feminine hygiene, and the men we recognize today as “douchebags.” They are both, it bears repeating, useless, sexist tools.
In the end, he questions his premise momentarily before the wrap-up:
Do we really need a white racial slur? Is the vision of equality that we should aspire towards a world without the N-word or Douchebag? Maybe. Maybe it is. But as everyone who is not colorblind can plainly see, this is not yet that day.

For the time being, this is the vernacular critique of whiteness that we’ve always needed, and its been right before our eyes all along. The term douchebag, again used as we already use it, has the power to name white ruling class power and white sexist privilege as noxious, selfish, toxic, foolish and above all, dangerous.
So, while I'm not sure I'll use it myself, at this point I don't have an objection to the word anymore.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine and I have been talking about this use of the word. She's convinced me that there's still something about it that's degrading to women. "Asshat" and plain old "dick" are my favorite words for the kind of guy described herein.