After the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that aborting severely malformed foetuses was unconstitutional, Polish women (with men) took to the streets. One, if not the most popular, of the slogans used in the protests is “Wypierdalać”. Here is my comment.
The verb “wypierdalać” is not easily translatable. It means ‘fuck off’ but in the sense of ‘go away’. In the context, it is used to tell the governing elite to go away, well, to fuck off.
Before I start the blog properly, let me briefly tell you what it is about. The court abolished the so-called ‘abortion compromise’ in Poland, that is to say, a ‘compromise’ whereby abortion was allowed in a number of strictly defined cases (rape, developmental abnormalities of the foetus, danger to the woman’s health and life). For many, the compromise was unsatisfactory, for some it was too strict, for some not strict enough. The unhappiness with the ‘compromise’ was also to do with common abuses of women’s right to avail themselves of allowable abortion. All that, of course, didn’t mean that abortion was not carried out. Again, there had been reports of an abortion underground, as well as abortion tourism (with neighbouring Slovakia a frequent destination). Media reports suggest that the constitutional court has just ended the most common reason for carrying out abortions in Poland, practically all but banning abortion altogether.
But what I find extraordinary in the reporting of the protests, still going on as I write this, is that instead of engaging with the issue, quite a number of people commented on the slogan. After all, there is no doubt that the verb ‘wypierdalać’ is a profanity, a so-called swear word (in Polish often referred to as ‘ugly word’, brzydkie słowo). And so, there are many reports of politicians and journalists objecting to the vulgarity of the message, saying that enough is enough, certain lines must not be crossed. Indeed, the most read Polish daily reacted to such messages with an article from a linguist who commented on the slogan. The linguist, a well-known Polish philologist who used to be the private secretary to Wislawa Szymborska, a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, ruled that ‘wypierdalać’ is not exactly nuanced, but when shit happens (and, in Poland, shit is happening), you cannot ask people to be very polite, including in the language they use.
All that reporting got me to think about gender. You see, I think that the reporting of the slogan is more to do with gender than anything else. In other words, the point is not so much swearing itself, but that it is women who swear.
I started thinking that because my cultural/social upbringing suggests that swearing is the domain of men and when a woman swears, somehow, it sounds worse. I still remember going for a walk with my parents when I was a child, when we came across a woman who was shouting at a man in her company. And today, I would say that her swearing was masterful, her similes and metaphors were more castrating than a scalpel. And yet, my parents were horrified. A woman – swearing like that, and in public?
It’s worth adding that both my parents swore when angry. My father swore a lot, especially when inspecting building sites, always saying that if you don’t swear at builders, they don’t pay attention to you (something I heard from women working in so-called men’s professions many times). And yet, the woman in the street swearing loudly, using words which were (and continue to be) very vulgar (including the most vulgar references to both male and female genitalia) was something my parents were not able to countenance.
This was one of many social lessons which I had about swearing. When men swear it’s OK, or at least Ok-ish, when women do, it’s not so much. Needless to say, there is (as so often is) a class dimension to it, though. If you speak Polish, have a look at a discussion on swearing under a blogpost in which the blogger, an associate professor, reports being told off for using the word ‘arse’. The writing (mostly anonymous) academics condemn swearing as littering language.
And so, after this, I started looking for two things. First, some evidence that women are criticised for swearing more than men. Deborah Cameron’s blog quickly to the rescue (here is a link to the posts which discuss women’s swearing). Cameron argues that a swearing woman encroaches onto men’s territory. She adds that questioning swearing by women is mostly designed to undermine them, a strategy not to engage with them. For what it’s worth – I agree with what Cameron says.
I also quickly started looking at a number of Twitter hashtags related to the protest. Vulgarity is rife and yet, tweets directed at the female protesters, using extremely vulgar and violent language, are not really censured for the language. My impression is that, time and again, men using very foul language are criticised for the message, for the violence, but not for language itself. Men will be men, it seems, and they will swear. Women shouldn’t.
The second thing I started looking for was vulgarity in protests. Poland saw a number of large-scale protests of in the last two or three months, so I wondered whether profanities were used in the protests. To my surprise, I haven’t found much (to be honest, I didn’t look very hard, but I decided if it was there, I would have found it immediately). Judging by media reports, the recent farmers’ protest was, at least linguistically, fairly non-vulgar. Admittedly, calling a politician a gnome or a cretin is perhaps impolite, but not really vulgar. Needless to say, such language used by male farmers was not questioned by the reporting journalists. The same could be said of a recent protest by miners.
I did find a little gem, though. Here is a link to an article from a few years ago. You can see a banner with the slogan:
A prick, an arse, and a pile of stones.
The slogan is a reference to something a Polish politician was overheard (and recorded) saying, still, the vulgarity of the message (dotting part of the words, notwithstanding) definitely trumps that of today’s protests. And yet, the article doesn’t even refer to the banner. Incidentally, I also looked for comments on the politician’s not exactly very polite words. Yes, there were comments on the language, but also from clear political enemies. There were also a number of messages of “We all do it” kind.
Now, let me ask the question again. Is the critique of the language gendered? Yes, definitely it is. Is it only gendered? The furore over the language is so strong precisely because it’s the women who swear. Is it only gendered? No, it’s not. It’s the first time, it seems, a profanity is made into an ‘official slogan’, so much so that a Polish MP is using it (dotted out again) on live TV (link to article in Polish):
Needless to say, she was criticised heavily in a number of media reports for a ‘brutal attack’.
Again, it’s worth noting that the article I quote leads with the use of the word. It’s apparently so offensive that little else matters. And you could argue that the issue is of utmost importance, you could argue that the use of a swear word pales into insignificance in the context. And yet, apparently not, when a woman tells a male politician to f…off. And we come back to the gendering.
I guess I should say what I think. My first point is that language serves multiple goals, including those of being impolite, venting anger or getting a political message across. You cannot understand, and comment, on the word ‘wypierdalać’ outside the context. The anger over the ruling of the constitutional court (with the additional context of it serving its party-political masters) must be reflected in how the protest is done also linguistically. If you understand this, the word is fairly appropriate. It does what it is supposed to do.
Will it be successful, though? Well, we shall see. At the moment, however, it seems, it has been very successful in constructing those who use as very angry. More importantly, it has also been able to construct the issue as a women’s issue, not as, for example, as a legal, national or children’s rights one (as, I think, the proponents of the court’s ruling attempt to do). Also, by breaking a sort of taboo, it stops people. It asks them to think. What we see is using the dominant stereotype of the delicate and soft-spoken woman against those who hold it. Probably, more like throwing it in their face. In such a way, I think, the verb has already been very successful.
What of the swearing? Well, in contrast to how I was taught, I don’t believe that swearing ‘litters’ language. Yes, there are contexts in which one tends not to swear, but there are contexts in which one can swear. And the local context can bend those rules even more. Language has ‘ugly words’ for a reason- we simply need them occasionally. And, I would speculate, there are very few people who never swear. The point is to know when to do it.
I also don’t think that those who use the word, don’t have others in its lieu – those who swear are said to be ‘primitive’, lacking vocabulary. As a rule, such a charge is nonsense. Of course, the protesters have the vocabulary, they just prefer to use that particular verb. It offers them what they need in the context. I also don’t think that using the word ‘wypierdalać’ in the protests against the tightening of the abortion law in Poland has somehow (magically) brutalised the political debate in Poland. The debate has already been brutal, also linguistically and there is already a body of research on this. And so, I tend to see the slogan as saying: we’ve had enough. It’s just said with an oomph.