West Coast Editor,
November 2006

When we speak of air pollution, we generally have in mind things like automobile exhaust and smokestacks that belch toxins into the atmosphere. We generally agree that this is an environmental problem that needs concerted attention, excepting the Harper government, which thinks the best way to solve the problem is to blow more smoke and hot air.

Another kind of chronic air pollution that gets little or no attention, until it’s too late, is the debauched state of political discourse on talk (schlock?) radio. Although we expect children to indulge in schoolyard squabbling and infantile name-calling, we expect, perhaps naïvely, a higher standard of conduct from those presented to us as political experts.

Recently, right-wing pundit and Israel apologist Norman Spector repeatedly demeaned MP Belinda Stronach on CKNW’s “Bill Good Show”: “I think she's a bitch. It’s as simple as that. And I think that 90 per cent of men would probably say she’s a bitch for the way she’s broken up Tie Domi’s home and the way she dumped Peter MacKay. She is a bitch.”

I had no idea that Spector was privy to the intimate details of Domi’s life, such that he could imply that Stronach was 100 percent to blame for the marital strife. Moreover, I am amazed to find him so well versed in the workings of the male psyche that he can generalize about the way men feel about the subject, as well as the romantic travails of Canada’s lovelorn foreign minister. Of course if he lacks the aforementioned qualifications, he showed himself to be a dyspeptic gasbag who thinks a gratuitous, crude insult makes for informed commentary. I suspect the latter is the case.

Since this miasma hit the airwaves, Spector’s critics, mostly women, have fixated on his use of “bitch” to accuse him of being a misogynist. He does open himself up to this charge, since he clearly implied lewdness, but “bitch” does not necessarily refer to sex or even femaleness. Initially, the word denoted the female of dogs, foxes and other animals, and dates to the Old English bicce, which came from the Old Norse bikkjuna. Beginning around 1400 it became a term of severe contempt for a woman.

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) gives us: “BITCH. A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore.” Yet it also gives us the following definition of it as a verb: “TO BITCH. To yield, or give up an attempt through fear. To stand bitch: to make tea, or do the honours of the tea table, performing a female part.”

One lump or two, Mr. Spector?

The term “bitchy” for ill-tempered dates to 1925, and the verb “to bitch” in the sense of complain came about five years later. In the 1990s, the term entered black English slang as a sexually contemptuous epithet for a man.

Stronach might indeed be a bitchy woman to work for, and she may bitch a lot about the way she is treated. She may even wear the most bitchin’ designer outfits, a connotation that dates to the 1950s, but doubtless none of this matters. Had Stronach not quit the Harper Party to join the government of Paul Martin’s Liberals, this sorry episode would never have occurred, which leads me to suspect that it’s all politically motivated.

Regrettably, host Bill Good did not ask Spector to rephrase his attack, and chose to cite freedom of expression and Spector’s reputation as a political analyst, as if that mattered. The problem with this line of defence is that it misstates the purpose of protected speech. The concept of freedom of expression assumes that the speech being protected—however offensive, satirical or vulgar—has some redeeming or edifying value and deserves to be heard. This criterion does not apply to Spector’s bilious expectoration.

Good should have stepped in for the good of the language.