Thursday, August 30, 2012

Swear Words (Warning "Coarse" Language)

Photo by:  Ian.Kobylanski

I was browsing through the news when I noticed a bizarre story that left me gobsmacked.  An Oklahoma teen was denied her diploma because she said the word “hell” in her graduation speech.

Photo by:  John Walker
"What the FUCK did she just say??"
This was a girl that never received a B in school, according to her father, and consistently had a 4.0 at the school.  She completed all the curriculum...and yet...they’re denying her the right to graduate because she said “a bad word.”

Let’s ignore all of that though.  I like consistency and stability, and if a straight A student was allowed to graduate for violating a rule that a C student was held back for, that would be garbage.  Instead, let’s constitute what makes a “bad” word for a moment.

Words only have the power that we give them.  When we’re afraid of a word, it gives that word a significant amount of power over our feelings, and it gives the wielders of those words power as well.  I’m not necessarily arguing that we forgo all instances of censoring ourselves in polite company, nor that we strip society of all conventions and run amok in our birthday suits howling at the moon.  I’m just saying we should take a moment and consider what we want to hurt us, and what we don’t necessarily mind slipping past.

Anecdotal examples:  Growing up, my mom did not allow swearing in the house.  That’s not to say that I didn’t partake in it at school on occasion, but with a few exceptions, I actually kept a pretty firm reign on the swearing even at school.  (This was partially because living in a small town almost guaranteed that if I didn’t, someone that knew my mother would wind up seeing/hearing my behavior and word would get back to my mom, but it was also partially because I genuinely took the whole “my kids are good kids” thing to heart.)  Regardless, the big bads--shit and fuck--were definitely not allowed.  Even the somewhat milder words, like damn, hell, and piss, were not allowed.  And taking the Lord’s name in vain was a no-no, so no way could I be goddamned pissed off about this fucking shit.  I had to be “gosh-darned ticked off about this freakin’ crap.”  Which was okay.  It occasionally felt like I couldn’t properly express my rage about things, but I didn’t necessarily depend on those words to express thoughts and ideas.

One day, I was visiting a friend--I don’t remember who, it’s been a looooooong time--and I made the comment that something was “crap.”  My friend’s parent admonished me for my use of “foul language,” and I was thunderstruck.  “Crap” was a bad word?  Really?

This was basically her reaction.

I also remember asking my mom if “heck” was okay to say.  Her response was, “It’s not the most polite of words, exactly.”  I think I was 7 or so.  I had been watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I wanted to sing along with “Poor Jack.”

I also remember watching Titanic with my dad and step-mom once.  I got into a huge amount of trouble when the navigator said something along the lines of “Turn the ship, you bastards!”  I echoed the guy’s words, “Yeah!  Turn it you bastards!”  HUGE TROUBLE.

Justine Larbalestier posted a really interesting discussion on Twitter about this very thing, which I’ll post below.

I’m not saying I have all of the answers.  It does seem related to me that our standards for what is “obscene” has evolved so much through the years.

Remember how women couldn’t expose their ankles without being considered loose and whorey?  And what about now adays?  Men can go topless on a beach, and yet women are forced to wear what society deems “appropriate attire.”  If a movie features even a brief glimpse of a man’s penis, SWEET BABY JESUS SLAP A NC-17 RATING ON THAT BAD BOY!!! (See Saw IV.)

The point of clothing was once to cover ourselves and provide protection from the elements.  It’s purpose has moved beyond that.  What’s obscene about the human body?  What’s obscene about the word “fuck”?  Besides what it describes.  What about “fornicate”?  Or “sex”?  Are those bad words?  What’s obscene about the act of sex?  Is it not a natural and necessary part of life for our species to continue to exist?  What about defecation?  That’s a fine word, but “shit” isn’t?

These aren’t answers.  These are honestly just questions.  I’ll leave the answers to smarter people than me.  These are just thoughts that rattle around from time to time.  One thing that I do think: that teenager should not have been punished in such a way.  Even among the most conservative, hell is not that bad of a word.  You can debate about whether it was okay or not, but it's not like she shouted "FUCK" at the top of her lungs.

1 comment:

This where you post your head dumpings. I don't mind disagreement if you're polite, well-thought-out, and civil. However, I decide what is and isn't acceptable. I reserve the right for my underground dwelling Comment Goblins to capture and devour any post they see fit.