Discouraging Words

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.

This is so going on my blog

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.

Crevice is a dirty word.

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.

What the fuck are you talking about?

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[1]. Which is a lot of people.

[1] 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[2]. 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.

[2] 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.

dracarys

I don’t want to compare myself to oh wait, yes. Yes I fucking do.
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10 Responses to Discouraging Words

  1. aaronthepatriot says:

    I’m almost famous now!

    =/

    Two things:
    1. I wasn’t expecting to be quoted for your millions of readers when I made those comments (sucks being a friend of a writer sometimes, donnit?)
    2. I need to take some time to think about this blog post, absorb, make sure I understand what you’re saying and what you’re not saying.

    Hmm so I guess 3 things because I’m a wiseacre:
    3. All be bach! (my best written Arnold-as-Terminator impression)

  2. stchucky says:

    Good good, I thought it was an excellent starting point for some stuff I’d had in the works for a while, timely due to your interesting take on the moran issue, and I had nothing better to write about. You deserved the credit.

    And my millions of readers will have seen all your personal thoughts and remarks in the comments sections, because they’re seldom more than double-figures in comment-count and they’re excellent reading and my followers are discerning and brilliant and tastefully obsessive.

    • aaronthepatriot says:

      “they’re excellnt reading”

      They’ll notice that typo too, asskisser ;D

      Shit, I mean “bottom-kisser”!

      Poop, I mean “poop”!

      *takes credit before recent behavior gets it retracted*

  3. aaronthepatriot says:

    No one is joining in on this! WTF. Do you have any parents on your blog, besides us? ;D Maybe if you don’t you should have made clear the opinions of the currently-childless are more than welcome on this topic, in direct opposition to silly cultural norms in some places? Or maybe it’s just the weekend? Anyway I wish it wasn’t just us faffing off here.

    I’ve had some time to think, and I want to do this in “small” chunks (referring to the portion of your blog I address, not my response obviously *looks down*). My first issue is with this, the premise of the whole argument:

    “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).”

    Taken by itself this seems to be a very good point. But, we must recall exactly what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about words like “shit”, “fuck”, and “cunt”. Right?

    The reason those words draw you to their use in particular situations is that they are shocking, powerful, jarring, etc.

    Right? I mean, surely you have to acknowledge that. Otherwise, why are you even selecting them for use? Last time I checked you don’t swear casually, not even as casually as I do, and that’s saying something. Because at home not around kids, I drop the first 2 of those words, and several others, at even minor setbacks. So I’m not attacking the use of those words, just providing my opinion about who is mature enough to have access to those words. And by that, I mean older kids (teens?) and adults, and sometimes not even in those cases. But that’s heading to judgetown, so let me get back on point.

    So, if you admit, and you should by now, that you choose those words in moments of, shall we say “disturbance”, then it IS the words that have the power. Again, if not why would you even choose them? Why not just say “crap”, or “poop”, or “damn” or whatever even milder word you like, perhaps.

    My other thought, which we can’t really prove here because no one is commenting (!!!!) is that if a great majority of people really wouldn’t like to hear those words in most situations, even if they might use them privately at home, then isn’t it a moot point whether it’s the words or the people? Not that I’ve admitted it’s the people yet, obviously.

    • stchucky says:

      No one is joining in on this! WTF. Do you have any parents on your blog, besides us? ;D

      Hah, the non-parents I know are smart enough to know I value their opinions and don’t give a shit if they breed or not. And if I don’t know them, hopefully they’re still smart enough to know it makes absolutely no difference. If they’re not that smart, why should I care?

      I’m not going to have time to do this in such enormous detail, by the way, so don’t invest too much time and effort. I’ve said my piece in the blog post itself and I don’t see this achieving much – but anyone else is welcome to jump in.

      But, we must recall exactly what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about words like “shit”, “fuck”, and “cunt”. Right?

      The reason those words draw you to their use in particular situations is that they are shocking, powerful, jarring, etc.

      Right? I mean, surely you have to acknowledge that.

      Yes, of course. This is why the words were invented. By people. And it’s people who respond to them. It’s on them. Not the words.

      Incidentally: “those words draw you to their use”. Interesting concept.

      Last time I checked you don’t swear casually, not even as casually as I do, and that’s saying something.

      Not sure what you’re basing that on, I swear at the drop of a hat and most definitely do it regularly around my daughter. And not just due to setbacks. I’m Australian. Swearing is like punctuation.

      you choose those words in moments of, shall we say “disturbance”,

      – I don’t, not always –

      then it IS the words that have the power.

      Nope. It’s me, saying the words. If the words had the power, the words would be saying me.

      isn’t it a moot point whether it’s the words or the people?

      I always said so, and it doesn’t matter anyway because I’m not casting aspersions on the approach (which damn it, I tried to head off by saying so several times, but I guess this is just too personal to not take personally), and I say right there in the blog post that this is only a matter of identifying the root cause, out of pedantry. So, exactly right, it is a moot point whether it’s the words or the people. If you want to moot it, go ahead. Obviously, you do.

      But as I also say in the blog post, identifying the wrong root cause can open the door to agreeing on wrong solutions. I didn’t say you’d done so yourself. Just that this was my view on swearwords.

      And yeah, go easy on this shit, it’s Sunday. Nobody expects actual debate on a weekend. Even usenet had weekend lulls (as opposed to weekday LULZ).

  4. aaronthepatriot says:

    I sincerely hope you’re not taking the piss and I’m missing it. It had to be said.

    “Yes, of course. This is why the words were invented. By people. And it’s people who respond to them. It’s on them. Not the words.”

    If you’re going to go that far then you have to blame people for the very definitions of shit, piss, cunt, fuck, etc. And that’s ridiculous. If they weren’t defined they wouldn’t even be words.

    ‘ Last time I checked you don’t swear casually, not even as casually as I do, and that’s saying something.’

    “Not sure what you’re basing that on,”
    Hundreds and hundreds of pages of emails where I swear more than you do, and (alas, only) 3 hours of skype where you didn’t utter a single curse word (I would have noticed).

    But I suppose there’s some reason for not swearing as profusely as you are accustomed in front of an adult friend who swears around you, but not to show that same restraint around your daughter. I can’t figure out why the difference but I guess I don’t need to, right? But you questioned the basis for my claim, so I had to show you the logic that led to it.

    “I swear at the drop of a hat and most definitely do it regularly around my daughter. And not just due to setbacks. I’m Australian. Swearing is like punctuation.”

    Well, all I will say to that is, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact her socialization because she understands and always employs the very same restraint you have mastered in your many, many years of experience and wisdom and learning, it’ll never cause any trouble for her or you or the missus. Again I really don’t have to worry about it, thankfully. You do you, and please don’t take my stating my opinion as anything more than that, even though I’m sure you sense just how strongly I think my opinion is the wiser course.[1]

    [1] to be courteous I admit this in case you didn’t catch it.

  5. aaronthepatriot says:

    Well, no one else commented and I just got a strong hint so I’m going to bow out. Apologies we couldn’t come to more agreement here, and I hope no hard feelings.

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