“Bitch” has taken on countless meanings, but is it really a reflection of something deeper? Image from  wallpapers.rs.

I had one of Those Moments the other day, driving into work with a headache and a full schedule ahead of me. It wasn’t a big deal – I wanted to merge into my exit lane, and the car in that lane just kept hanging out in my blind spot. Accelerating didn’t help, and neither did braking, until I slowed to a near crawl so they could go by. “Thanks for nothing, bitch,” I muttered as I merged at the last possible second.

I felt guilty almost as soon as the words left my mouth. Saying it didn’t make any difference; the other driver couldn’t hear me, and there was no one else in my car to judge me, but I had the sinking realization as I coasted down the exit ramp that I had just added unnecessary negativity to my day. Since muttering to myself hadn’t changed anything – hadn’t stopped the other driver from dogging my blind spot, hadn’t caused the driver to apologize, hadn’t made me feel like I’d won – what was the point? More specifically, what was the point of calling that other driver a bitch?

Later in the day, interviewing a man who had been arrested for domestic violence, I was struck by the way he talked about the women in his life. Even when describing happy occasions, his tone was marked by persistent epithets, especially “bitch”. Everyone was a bitch – his mom, his wife, his sisters – and I’m sure I was as well. I made a note that his speech patterns consistently degraded and dehumanized women, that his initial characterizations of them was that they were aggressive, and angry, and dogs.

“Bitch” plays an interesting role in Western feminist culture. It’s a way of describing behaviour, primarily by correlating it to the behavioural patterns of a dog in heat. Applied to a woman, it suggests that she is unpredictable, menacing, sexually voracious, and cognitively impaired by her hormones. Historically, when a woman has been called a bitch, the implication is that she’s angry for no reason. Many Western feminists have, understandably, taken offense to this epithet. Others have tried to reclaim it, arguing that, Of course we’re bitches; we’ve put up with your crap for far too long! Something along those lines.

Personally, I’ve started to realize that “bitch” isn’t actually the problem. I had a long think after that interview with the detained man, not only about his use of the word, but about how it related to mine. Why was I okay hurling “bitch” at an anonymous driver on the interstate when this man’s seasoned speech made me squirm? What I realized is that, for both of us, “bitch” was the cover-up for the more insidious process of dehumanizing someone that had upset us. In the case of the arrestee, he was angered by years of trauma that had been inflicted by the various women in his life. I was annoyed that I couldn’t switch lanes. In the end, it really didn’t matter what vernacular either of us selected – the process was the same. Both of us were too fried, for whatever reason, to see the other person as a person and have a little empathy.

Maybe the other driver had spent the night in the hospital with a dying relative.
Maybe the other driver had a new baby and hadn’t slept properly in weeks.
Maybe the other driver had spaced out at just the wrong moment.
Maybe the other driver was trying to merge into my lane and was just as annoyed as I was.

Image from unitedinsuranceagencies.wordpress.com.
Road rage affects everyone. Image from unitedinsuranceagencies.wordpress.com.

I don’t know, and in the end it doesn’t matter. There will always be people who are tired, annoyed, grumpy, spacey, or confused, and irritating each other is inevitable. What matters isn’t whether or not this happens; what matters is how much grace we give each other in these moments.

I’ll never forget waiting to disembark one of our flights back from Okinawa. We had been traveling for about 20 hours and still had another 10 to go. Despite our exhaustion, I was elated. Nick had proposed on the flight, and we were going to get married. I was standing in the aisle, waiting for the people ahead of me to start moving, when from behind me a voice came, loud and annoyed: “We don’t have anywhere to go. Quit shoving, jerk.” I turned around and discovered that the person behind me had been bumped by my backpack as I wavered in my spot. It was completely accidental, but, as you can imagine, rather than wanting to apologize, I wanted to scream at the man that he was the jerk for not understanding that I was tired too and that he had just ruined my post-engagement high. I didn’t do that, of course. But that man’s assumption – that I was deliberately pissing him off – stayed with me. It was the same thing that, years later, I did to the other driver. It was the same thing that my arrestee did to the women in his life. I still wonder how I would remember that moment, and if I would remember it at all, if the man had said, “Excuse me, you bumped me” instead of calling me a name.

I like the idea that we could all make a tiny step in that new direction: giving one person, each day, the benefit of the doubt. Grace comes with practice, after all. I wonder if we could make a new habit and erase our tendency to dehumanize and attack.
It’s worth trying, isn’t it?