21 January 2012

Rant On Offensive Words

Earlier in the week I wrote about offensive language in a blog post regarding an Australian man found guilty of offending the wrong people in Saudi Arabia, and was subsequently lashed for his actions. Today I want to look at the somewhat curious example of offensive words, as opposed to offensive language.
There is I think, an important distinction between these concepts worth noting. Offensive language doesn’t necessarily infer the use of offensive words. I could write a wildly offensive sentence aimed at Christians or people of a specific race, without having to employ a single unsavoury word. Instead you would have to listen to what I am saying beyond the use of single words, to understand what the crux of my theoretical diatribe was.
There are however people who balk at the very mention of what they believe to be offensive words, regardless of how they are employed.
South Park dealt with the seemingly magical power some people believe curse words have in this episode. Yet Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly understand the mundane nature of such words, and that as our languages evolve and change, these things inevitable lose their power (unlike those in their show, who retain their cursed nature, to disastrous effect).
Indeed the dulling down of offensive words over time seems to be the norm, with the graveyard of former swears being populated by such innocuous words as leg (they preferred limb in the old days, pants ("Thats pants!" was the exclamation) and even occupy, which had sexual connotations that make the Occupy Movement of last year all the more confusing. Then there are the other swears which have just been blunted, but still retain their core meaning; like crap, damn, bloody and bugger.
But the reason I have brought this up today isn't just so i can start listing curse words (though that would be fun), it is due to this story that popped up in the news a couple of days ago.
Here we have an 18 year old American called McKay Hatch upset over the fact that a toddler in a TV show says what appears to be the word ‘fuck’. The episode is titled Little Bo Bleep, and apparently handles this situation quite delicately, and presents it in a most benign way.
In actuality the young actress says fudge (so Mr Hatch can at least take solace that her mind has not been poisoned by her having to utter this four letter word) and in the show her mouth is pixilated, and the word bleeped out. I always do find it amusing that we bleep out the word, but generally allow the consonants to remain intact.
Nevertheless  Hatch  takes exception to this. As a founding member of the 'No Cussing Club', he believes that 'cussing' not only degrades people lives, but hurts the world around you, and in swearing (using the oath giving meaning of the word here) to give up 'cussing', you can improve the lives of the people around you..
Representatives of the show explained their rationale for this episode, which seems perfectly reasonable:
"We thought it was a very natural story since, as parents, we've all been through this,"
This reminds me of a proud moment as a parent when our son first used a swear word, and did so in perfect context. It was upon pulling up at a petrol station, only to find the bowser out of action (and after explaining this to Harrison), that our son 
disappointingly exclaimed “Not working? Oh shit”. Brilliant!
Not this Bowser obviously.
In a sense I respect those who are offended by the concepts behind statements more than those who are offended by the mere words being used. Though as I mentioned in my previous post, you still need to be able to elucidate in a rational manner why it is you are offended, and why such offence should be taken seriously.
Concepts can be offensive, but it is rare that I would think a word in itself, devoid of any meaning, should be considered offensive. And make no mistake; that is what some people believe.
Fuck is one of the greatest words around, there have been books written about it, studies done into its psychological benefits, and praise levelled on it as being the second greatest gift that the British Empire bestowed upon the world (the first of which, if you are wondering, is the great game of soccer). Such a versatile word is not in of itself offensive, I think its fucking great; and I’m not alone.
However as with most hastily thought of rules, there are exceptions. In this case I think words that may warrant a further analysis regarding their intrinsically offensive nature are those specifically designed for more nefarious means. This would include things like racial epithets, discriminatory language, and other such derogatory terms. An obvious example of this, and perhaps the most powerful in today’s society, is the word nigger.
Nigger can be seen as offensive in almost any circumstance (and I'm going to ignore the whole 'nigga' to take back the word argument for simplicity's sake), because it brings along with it the implicit assumption of a stereotype originally directly linked to the word. A nigger was less than human; a nigger was property. And to say this word to someone these days is generally an attempt to remind them of this.
Yet even in this regard, people can take it too far. While reading an article on the word nigger by the late great Christopher Hitchens the other day, I was interested and rather amused to read this passage relating his introduction to the taboo surrounding it in American society:
“I found this out myself recently, when I went on Hardball With Chris Matthews. It was just after John Kerry had (I thought unintentionally) given the impression that young people joining the armed forces were stupid. Chris asked me where liberals got the idea that conservatives were dumb. I said that it all went back to John Stuart Mill referring to the Tories as "the stupid party." After a while, the Tories themselves began to use this expression to describe themselves. I added that the word Tory was originally an insult—it means something like brigand in Gaelic—and it had also been adopted, by those at whom it was directed, as a badge of pride. In this respect, I went on to say, it anticipated other such appropriations—impressionist, suffragette—by which the target group inverted the taunt thrown at it and, by a kind of verbal jujitsu, turned it back on its originators. In more recent times, I finished with what I thought was a flourish, the words nigger and queer (and I may have added faggot) had undergone some of the same transmutation.
Very suddenly, we went to a break, and the studio filled with unsmiling people who detached my microphone and announced that the segment was extremely over. My protests were futile. Should I have remembered to cover myself and say "the N-word" instead? It would have seemed somehow inauthentic. Did MSNBC think that anything I had uttered was inflected with the smallest tinge of bigotry? Presumably not. So, what we now have is a taboo, which is something quite different from an agreement on etiquette.”
I apologise for the long citation here, but Hitchens is a man whose prose I find it hard to prune.
But even this shunning of the objective use of the word nigger in the United States pales in comparison to stories such as the Washington D.C. official who was forced to resign after using the world 'niggardly' in a conversation with some co-workers about funding. Niggardly meaning 'not generous' or 'stingy', and having no racial overtones; just sounding a bit reminiscent of another word was enough to cause offense.
There are even those who believe that simply changing the word you are saying in these instances, yet keeping the overall tone and gist of your message, is somehow preferable; particularly if you substitute gibberish, or foreign words, for your expletive. Penn and Teller featured an American lady who believed in just such things on their awesomely named show Bullshit!. She advocated using the word ‘santa vaca’ rather than any English swears, even though this is in itself a swear in a foreign language (it means 'Holy Cow' in spanish, though not that much of a swear). She even created a hand gesture called the ‘whole turkey’ to use in the place of the much more efficient middle finger, when one wants to show others just how they feel (as in her view the 'whole turkey' is better than just 'flipping the bird', as Americans like to call it). This to me is a prime example of someone missing the point. It isn’t the gestures or the words themselves that are offensive, but rather the way they are employed, or the meaning they seek to evoke.
Penn put it very succinctly at the end of the episode whilst frightening a dog all too reminiscent of my own:
Now this post has gone on far longer than i had planned, but I can hardly finish a post on offensive language without including some words from the eminent lover of language, Stephen Fry.

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or of a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.” – Stephen Fry

So that's it for yet another language rant, of which there appear to be a lot popping up on here. I hope it was enjoyable, but I cant be fucked writing any more.

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