Thursday, May 7, 2009

Exploring “$#@!”

As a hockey goalie, I sometimes find myself in a locker room among new people as a substitute goalie. The language of the locker room is, shall we say, “different” from normal conversation. What often happens is this: someone asks what I do for a living, I say that I’m an Episcopal Priest, and someone(s) always apologizes for the language they used moments ago.

With my best look of piety, I deadpan “Thanks…just don’t &$%@*# let it happen again.” Breaks the ice, every time.

I am fascinated with the way popular culture approaches “the words you can’t say on television.” I am amazed how many religious people think these words are non-negotiable in their wrongness for use and outlawed by the Bible. Many teach their children that this language is full of sin and should not ever be used with the only reason that “it’s wrong”…which of course, encourages its use out of parents earshot. I also think it’s fair to say that many people don’t consider why these words can be hurtful as well.

We generally call these words and expressions “swear words,” but I wish to make some clear distinctions between “vulgar” words and “curses and oaths.” In my opinion, The Bible is concerned with “curses and oaths.” I’ll write more in another post sometime soon, but will quickly say that I define “curses” as the asking for God’s action against someone or something (God “curse” that person…with a bolt of lightning, eternal hell, or some similar action). An oath, on the other hand, takes God’s name and binds a person to or against someone or some action. Peter “swore an oath” that he did not know Jesus. These actions are clearly wrong in the Bible, for good reason.

“Vulgar” words are not really addressed by The Bible, and are in a completely different category. Vulgar words are usually either slang for the anatomy, what comes in and out of our anatomy, and the things one can do with one’s anatomy. (I only recently considered how many vulgar words this description covers.)

I believe that vulgar words have an important role to play in our communication with one another and the world.

Now, it may seem strange for me to write about vulgar words. I think, however, that our general pious aversion to such words has hurt our culture more than it’s helped. We need to teach each other that it matters not that we use vulgar words, but HOW we use them. We need to be aware of the real affects of such words in our society.

First off, a vulgar word or phrase sometimes is the only way to give voice to something that happens to us: the moment of realization. They can express frustration, shock, disbelief, the unbelievable, and the outright funny. Vulgar words, in this context, are understood by all who hear it. The vulgar word or phrase is often a moment of bonding: leading to sympathy, empathy, or in the best cases…uncontrollable laughter. There is no meanness, no evil or ill intent, and no desire to provoke someone. It is just the perfect word(s) to express the moment.

In a similar way, a vulgar word can add just the right amount of emphasis to something. Use your imagination…

I’ll dare to say that both of these examples are good ways to use vulgar words. But it’s very clear that vulgar words lose their power when they are used casually to stand in for every expression. If every fifth word out of someone’s mouth is a vulgar word, they become common and meaningless. The “specialness” of vulgar words is that we DON’T use them in polite conversation, or around children. The “special use” of these words, I believe, holds no offense to God. Perhaps, God might even be enjoying the moment along with everyone else…

(Quick note: I will concede the argument that “vulgar words” could be considered “curses” in certain contexts. If I miss the nail with the hammer I swing, and smash my thumb instead, the vulgar word I yell out might be technically a curse. But I think it’s also fair to say that it is a heat of the moment expression of pain and dismay over my ineptitude, more than it is the desire for God to intervene and act against the hammer.)

Vulgar words are also used to temporally describe people who anger or frustrate us. It’s an understandable way to “blow off steam,” but there are plenty of pitfalls. It’s a potential mess if this gets back to the person in question. To go further, it’s not a generous thing to reduce someone in this way, especially if we let ourselves believe that our “choice word” accurately describes a person. If we stay in the “vulgar place,” we make no attempt to understand the person or their actions. We might actually be more healthy as a whole if we resist the urge to describe people, even really unpleasant people, in this way.

I can hear some of you saying “Oh, come on, get real Kurt.” Alright, I will a little bit…perhaps it’s not unhealthy to think “you jerk” when someone acts in a petty, mean or unreasonable way. But I maintain that it’s easy to let a “harmless characterization” keep us from really dealing with conflict, which can clearly hurt us and our relationships with others.

This leads to a distinction: it is different to call a rival a vulgar word than to jokingly or casually “describe” a friend. For example, a good friend, seeing me do something particularly not brilliant, makes a witty or ironic comment. I then suggest to him that he’s such a _____, (or to go do such and such), and he might reply, “I love you too.”

This, in my opinion, can be a term of endearment. My friend knows that this isn’t real name calling, or meant to degrade, disparage, or bring down. I don’t think my friend is really this: quite the opposite is actually true. This is cement of friendship and bonds of affection.

The danger here is that context is absolutely critical. It’s very easy to step over the line and to hurt or enrage a friend or loved one.

There is also the problem and challenge of what I call the “vulgar group words” that are slang for race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. These words are the ones that have been used to hurt so many people at various times…can they be used in a positive way?

This gets really tricky. As a white, heterosexual, protestant male, I believe that I have no claim to any of these words. I avoid using them because of how they have been used in the past to inflect pain and dominance over groups of people. There are plenty of choice “generic” vulgar words to use, that I don’t need to chance misunderstanding.

What about those who are in the afflicted group? Certain offensive and hurtful words that have been used to degrade tend to get reclaimed and rebranded by the afflicted group.

The “safest example” to talk about is the b-word for women. (I think this might be considered safer because “b____” generally describes characteristics of a particular woman instead of all women, which is unlike most of the other words.) Books to “claim your inner b____,” and the female singer who sings that, among other things, that “I’m a b____,” are attempts by women to recast the word to express alternatives to the negative way men have branded women.

While I recognize the sincere attempt to “turn a negative into a positive,” I wonder if this really works. What do men end of thinking when they hear a woman proclaim she (or someone else) is a b_____? Do they understand what’s being said, or do they hear the classic insult and putdown? Does it matter what they might think?

This conversation across our groups might be helpful in breaking down stereotypes and barriers, but it cannot happen if we simply lump all vulgar words as “bad.”

So I say, let vulgar words take their proper place in our language without apology. At the same time, let us talk openly and honestly about the power of language, and consider its affects on each other. That distinction of “right or wrong” is a conversation worth having with other adults, as well as our children.


Fran said...

Three thoughts.

1. As one whose vocabulary has it's share of "vulgar" words, I love that you wrote about this. Good work.

2. One of my good friends discovered that one of the things that vulgarity did was decrease her communication. If all she did was let fly a &*#*@! when something went wrong, it kept her from expressing what was really going on. It's far more complicated to say "I am really angry with you because of X" than it is to say "&*#$@ you."

3. About reclaiming words. A very good example would be queer, or even dyke and fag. All were used by the majority to label and belittle gay folk. All have been reclaimed by gay and lesbian folks (and to some degree our friends and allies). I might well refer to myself as a dyke - but I don't take kindly to it being yelled out of a car window as a slur. You can trace the gay positive movement by how these words are used.

Kurt said...

I find your second point a great explanation as to the limitation of vulgar words.

Your third point is a fine example, but again it's not without challenges. I think the intent of reclaiming is positive. But there's danger. For example, the rock band Green Day, in the song "American Idiot" sings that they're part of "fa--ot America," claiming solidarity with those who suffer the intended insult. I understand the intent. But not only have I talked with gay friends uncomfortable with such a public use of the slur (even to repute), too many hear it and miss the context. Others hear it and think it's okay to use the word freely...leading to "uncomfortable moments" at best.

Perhaps if the use of these words led to more honest conversation about them, I'd be more willing to "go there."

Kurt said...

(A funny example of this sense: whenever I'm blasting Green Day in my truck, I turn the sound off at that line, in case anyone is listening. I don't do that with "non-group oriented" vulgar words...)

Jen Carbonneau said...

I'm curious. How do we have conversations like this with our children?

As a teacher of that lovely preteen, how do I decipher in their minds the difference? As a teacher should I be? Is that the job of a parent? For many reasons I'd leave it with the role of parent.

Now, as a parent... you are right. We can't dismiss words as being merely unacceptable or only for adults or "signs of ignorance." We need to find better ways to frame vocabulary choices.

Kurt said...

Some really thoughtful ideas! I don't think you can truly "decipher" how a preteen understands, but you as a parent can be both consistent and persistent as to exploring why language matters, and what makes certain language ok or not. Sometimes it's only through trial and error that we discover these things, but if adults model to children why context is so important (and why some words, regardless of context should not be used because of history), children will start to discern the real meaning. After all, teenagers quickly become experts of "the letter of the law." (Mom said I couldn't do "x," she failed to bring up "y.") A contextual approach to things, even at a younger age, helps children to discern what isn’t right and why…

As far as a being a teacher, I think that it is the role of the parent (or perhaps a minister, who's charge includes ethics) to have a conversation about something like vulgar words, where there are so many differing opinions as to the ethics of them (unless you happen to be encountering them in the subject, like, say, Shakespeare, where the text is full of vulgar word play). However, I think all teachers have to deal with context. Educators, after all, shoot for applied knowledge: how do children take what they learn and apply it to real life. I think good teachers try not to lose sight of the fact that their roll is to prepare children to make educated decisions for themselves (in the best ethical light), rather than simply see what can be memorized and regurgitated. Sure, it's likely easier to do this in English and History, but it's certainly present in the driving questions of science, or the ability to use mathematics in ways beyond the straight forward.

Jen Carbonneau said...

I've been thinking about your response for the past week. I agree that teaching various aspects of life and appropriateness to our children should come from parents/families and the church. My concern is the growing number of students in our community that don't have access to the appropriate role models. The school is the one place that all children have in common; for some, it is the only place they can find positive "role models." Though we speak of language here, there are so many lessons that either don't take place or need to be addressed in the school or community. As a whole, I worry about where our society is going and wonder how I can help improve the path.

Kurt said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said here...

My hope is that I would want teachers to use the point of my post: getting children and teens to consider the challenges posed by language, and to consider what words do and don't hurt. "Sticks N' Stones," the good old response to name-calling...isn't really helpful. Words can really hurt.

As a teacher however, I wouldn't start with my "Exploring $#@!" conversation: not because I think it wouldn't be fruitful...but because all it would take is for one student to share the conversation with parents who take a "more strict" view of "$#@!" for the school office phone to start ringing (Teacher said it’s okay to say $#@!). There are plenty of places for teachers to go to explore the power of language without putting their job in jeopardy. Perhaps I'd take that risk with older high school students, but probably not with preteens.

Jen Carbonneau said...

I agree. However, the use of this level of language is flowing into the school setting, so the teaching moments are there (though uncomfortable)! Sometimes students just don't understand boundaries and how by crossing them they can harm others. However, like you have suggested, we must take opportunities when they come and not fall back on the old expressions or expectations. Thank you for the food for thought!

rrchapman said...

I agree with you totally. Let those that cause disagreement go all the way and follow the advice given in Galatians 5:12.

I'm still trying to figure out how women can follow those directions, though.

(This is where we find out how many people have an accurate, modern translation or know Biblical Greek.)

rrchapman said...

On a different note, some of the vulgarities have a cultural element to them.

As a person who occasionally watches CBC-TV, I will hear comics use a word with a fine Anglo-Saxon heritage referring to excrement (noun) or having a bowel movement (verb), particularly in the later evening. In the US, this dung-related word is one of the "seven dirty words."

CBC-TV broadcast a very slightly edited version of the Shawshank Redemption. That was on a Sunday afternoon.

When in Vancouver, BC, my partner was watching SRC-TV (French CBC) one early evening. Forget any words relating to excretory functions. The F-bomb was dropped, but in English. The audience laughed at the context, so they all understood it. It was pretty much the only word I understood. To hear that same word on CBC-TV (English broadcast), you usually have to wait until after midnight, when I've also seen full frontal nudity.

My only thought about this is if it requires some vulgarities on TV to get a health insurance system that works for everyone, so be it.