My esteemed and very good friend Aaron has never failed to bring me interesting debate topics and different points of view, and while they often become quite heated (this I attribute to both of us being mild-mannered, prone to agreeing with something we don’t like just to keep the peace, humble about the weights of our opinions and generally just agreeable and easy to get along with), they’re hardly ever boring.
In this case, a recent tangential discussion in a comment-thread to an earlier blog entry has allowed me to put down some thoughts I’ve had banging around in my head for a while. It’s essentially related to the issues of insulting words, like retard and moron and so on, but a little more specific about what the problem is.
I don’t want to compare myself to Barney Stinson, but this is me.
And of course, by way of a disclaimer, there’s in no way a judgement going in either direction. This was just an interesting topic to me, so I decided to blog it up. I’m perfectly aware that just because different people decide to raise their kids in different ways, it doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong – and certainly doesn’t mean that explaining one’s own point of view is meant to cast criticism on the other, or is an attempt to change the other’s behaviour.
It’s an easy subject to get personal and defensive about, though, so the disclaimers do need to be made and I appreciate that. And as this blog post will hopefully establish, I don’t think our approaches to the issue are all that different, so much as our opinion of the source of the issue. Which doesn’t really matter, unless you’re pedantic.
Aaron made it clear to me from the start that there was no judgement or wish to change my mind, I get that and I greatly value it (because as he mentioned, that is a big deal for him to say). And conversely, I am in no way saying Aaron is a big wussy cry-baby who can’t handle curse-words and I’m all smart and liberal and progressive and shit (although, you know, I am … it’s just not automatically casting Aaron as the opposite of that by comparison, that’s with-us-or-against-us thinking and none of us are that stupid, right?), this is just the way I feel. Aaron’s own justifications, actions and logic are perfectly sound and respectable.
Where I feel the logic breaks down a bit, though, is this specific issue:
Words mean what they mean. Especially [swearwords], as they’re simple and well-defined. It is on the words.
If the words are the same words, standard and defined and simple, and yet some people react to them badly and others don’t care and others downright love them, then how can it logically be on the words at all? It’s on the listener (or reader), and yes, it is most definitely on the speaker (or writer). But people have different thresholds. Some people aren’t amused by curse-dependent humour. Some people love it for its crudity. Some people are upset by the word crevice, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should stop using it, although we might want to be careful if we give a shit about offending crazy people.
I don’t want to compare myself to General Melchett … so I won’t. But I also don’t want to upset him, because he’s a psychopath with the power to sign me up for the Front Line in World War 1.
Now, when it comes to swearing I am very much in The Dude’s camp.
I don’t want to compare myself to The Dude, but this is me.
But what it comes down to isn’t Bad Words, it’s about awareness of people, and basic respect for them. If someone is sensitive, then respect their sensitivity. If someone considers a word offensive or derogatory, think about not using that word. It’s not going to kill you, and for fuck’s sake no, it’s not robbing you of your freedom of Goddamn speech or expression. The classic and extreme examples of this are racial and ethnic and religious slurs. There’s a time and a place for them, but it’s extremely narrow and you need to learn that shit. You do. And the respectful thing is to just avoid using them in front of people who will be offended by them. Which is a lot of people.
 Because someone will probably challenge me at this point to come up with a time and a place to drop the n-bomb, I will provide two examples. One, when writing: Say I want to create a character who is an objectionable redneck bigot. He drops the n-bomb once and I can go home and have dinner. Job done. Two, in (what we will for the sake of argument call) real life: Say you’re surrounded by objectionable redneck bigots who are going to beat the tar out of you or maybe even lynch you unless you can convince them you’re one of them for as long as it takes to get away. This was handled surprisingly well in an episode of Quantum Leap I saw recently, where Sam had to pass himself off as a KKK Good Ole Boy until such time as he could actually strike a blow for harmony and respect.
 Sure, the truly principled will stand up and refuse to be weak, and will pay the ultimate price for not saying a two-syllable word. I’m not that heroic and I would dance topless on the bar singing the n-bomb song if it would get me out of there unhurt. Sorry.
Anyway, my point is, the words are just innocent clusters of letters. They’re doing what we created them to do. How we use them, their historical contexts, and how people react to them, that’s all entirely our fault. It’s about respect and empathy.
The word motherfucker isn’t to blame for you getting fired for calling your boss one. The word cunt isn’t to blame for you getting suspended for calling your teacher one. It’s your fault for being a disrespectful little tool. Don’t pass the buck.
The thing is, Aaron and I both have pretty much the same basic opinion of ‘bad language’ and the harm it can do. We even have pretty much the same approach to avoiding that harm and resolving the issues, although in Aaron’s case it is more about not using the words and making it clear that they are not to be used around others, whereas my approach is to use the words (all the fucking time) and make it clear that a lot of the time, people aren’t going to want to hear you say them. And sometimes, it’s fine. I’m pretty sure, for example, there are even situations in which I could call my boss (my boss, mind – probably not my USian CEO) a motherfucker and get away with it, but this is because I’m as charming as Errol Flynn would have been if he’d come from the mainland.
But regardless, that context and balance is a long and difficult thing to learn.
It’s just that, in my opinion, putting the blame on the wrong thing can open doors to the wrong solutions. Let me illustrate.
1) Alcoholism and drunk driving are bad, so the solution can be:
a) Focus on the people: help alcoholics, educate the young, control alcohol sale in sensible ways.
b) Focus on the alcohol: prohibition, because that works brilliantly.
2) Gay-bashing and hatred are bad, so the solution can be:
a) Focus on the people: encourage homophobes to be more open-minded, encourage homophiles to be a bit less militant about it all, ask gay people to close the curtains when they have sex just like straight people are asked to.
b) Focus on the gay sex: death penalty for gays, because that’s what progressive countries do.
3) Sexually-transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy are bad, so the solution can be:
a) Focus on the people: education, contraception, education again.
b) Focus on the sex: abstinence, because teenagers will just stop fucking each other.
There is a time and a place for every word.