'Presstitute’ is not a gaali for journalists
In the last couple of days, there’s been a debate on the usage of the term ‘presstitute’ as a gaali, or swear word for unethical journalists, and used as a blanket term for all journalists. Of course, the word came into public discourse and acquired currency in India after former Army Chief General VK Singh referred to journalists as presstitutes. A one-line note on the origins of the term can be found in the Urban Dictionary.
On December 16, senior journalist Rahul Pandita wrote a piece titled “Stop calling us Presstitutes: A message to my friends and other Modi supporters”. In response, a former journalist named Arvind Agrawal wrote, “Why we keep calling you presstitutes: A message from the rest of us”.
Both were talking about the public perception of journalists and the media houses they work for, and I leave it to the reader to come to a conclusion based on what they have said.
However, what both of them have missed, chosen to ignore, or perhaps it simply wasn’t on their radar, is that the term presstitute isn’t really an insult for journalists even though they are the visible targets for the word.
At worst, the term presstitute paints all journalists with the colours of moral and monetary corruption, without making a distinction between individual journalists and the organizations they work for. Also, to allege that all the media and all journalists have the same agenda is over-simplification of a rich and a fairly diverse group of people and organizations. Journalism in India is protected to some measure from becoming so homogenous because of linguistic diversity and local interests. It is also unfair to equate journalists with the media houses they work for because journalists are not agenda setters. While they are obliged to work under policies shaped by editors, editorial policies are themselves influenced as much by economic considerations as by political views of individual journalists or media houses.
What is really on display here, is just how ingrained misogyny and sexism are, in our lives. So ingrained, evidently, that we do not even notice it.
It isn’t rocket science to figure out that ‘presstitute’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘press’ and prostitute, and we all know who a prostitute is. English and many Indian languages (I cannot speak for all, when the Indian sub-continent has over 780 living languages), have the concept of a prostitute, a woman whom men pay for sex, and who is therefore, dirty because of it. She is, in fact, a sex object. Without getting into the legalities of it, the notion of sex work per se, need not be problematic if two consenting adults agree to a sexual transaction involving the exchange of money. Sex, then, becomes a service where the client not only demands the service, but also degrades the provider.
Several words like ‘prostitute’, ‘slut’, ‘mother-fucker’, ‘sister-fucker’, ‘loose’, are used liberally in homes and public spaces, largely by men, and in anger, which could be accompanied by violence.
But there are other sexist abuses, which need not have sexual connotations, but they are insults nonetheless because they are premised on the manufactured inferiority of the female, and non-binary genders. Calling a person ‘chhakka’ or ‘hijra’ is a classic example of this.
For all its economic clout and sometimes parasitic qualities, English at least, is a language which has consciously been made gender-neutral and gender inclusive. Swear words too, such as the word fucker. Of course, when certain prefixes are added to it, it becomes as misogynist as swear words in several of our languages.
That a minister in the country’s government and a former general at that, uses such a term to describe the whole institution of journalism is a reflection of just how tolerant we are about abusing half of humanity: women, men who are perceived to be feminine, and persons of non-binary genders, sexualities, and sexual orientations.
To castigate just VK Singh alone is not enough. He is merely the recognizable face of this tolerance for patriarchy.
What we really should be protesting, is this tolerance of patriarchy because it has contributed in amorphous ways to the rise of the ‘intolerance’, which has caused untold misery to too many people.
Towards the end of his piece, Agrawal wrote: “You have two choices now: be a man and make your peace with “Presstitutes” or introspect, reflect and opt for course correction.”
Making peace with people who refer to journalists as “presstitutes” as Agrawal wants, or people who call or think it is ok to call women “prostitutes”, is not an option.