28 May 2015

Offensive on purpose...

Remember this bumper sticker?

Don't like my driving?
Call 1-800-EAT POOP*

* censored

For some odd reason that probably doesn't do me much credit, I've always gotten a little burst of pleasure from this sticker. In some way, its attitude strikes me as quintessentially American, even though we Americans actually drive in a much more orderly way than many other nations.

This forgettable little sticker came back to me for some reason as I was reading about the recent inclusion of "WTF" in Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary. Apparently this dictionary decision has drawn a lot of attention, judging by the number of links on Google's news page for "wtf dictionary."

Is casual use of rude, obscene, and profane language in public increasing? Is Robert De Niro's commencement speech going to set a new norm? And should we be concerned?

I'm not as worried about the words lexicographers decide to notice as I am about people's capacity to know when to use obscenities and when to ... well, when to shut up. The public space is degraded when we don't teach discernment and restraint, and when we don't respond to violations with at least a good-humored reminder that (to adapt a memorable line from Dog Day Afternoon) "our ears are not garbage cans."

There are of course grey zones, where bad (or in the Russian term, "non-normative") language might not be exactly desirable but it's not the end of the world. Buddy Guy's frequent use of the two top-ranked vulgarities, not just in clubs but in his all-age festival appearances (such as here) feels weird to me, but let's not pretend that my beloved blues music comes from some kind of sweet and sanitized context. And as Buddy Guy himself says, if you're shocked by his language, wait til you hear the words younger "urban" performers are using.

In the Christian world, Tony Campolo years ago created another grey zone when, in one of his oft-repeated sermons he began using a four-letter word with deliberate intent to shock, then challenging his audience to consider why his dirty language distressed them more than the loss of 40,000 children's lives each day to preventable causes. (Story here.)

One of America's leading theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, has written about related themes in his autobiography (highly recommended!), Hannah's Child:
In 1974, I was promoted to associate professor with tenure. As usual, I paid little attention to the process. I suspect Notre Dame had not yet developed the tenure review process that now dominates research universities. I assume I must have been run through some university procedures, but I certainly had little sense that I might be in any trouble. I remember David [Burrell] telling me I had received tenure. He reported that the only worries about me were that some faculty thought I had come up a year too soon and that I needed to be more careful with my language.

Being careful with my language meant that I should not, as I was wont to do, use profanity. I had continued to talk like a bricklayer. there were certain words that I knew how to use and that were, not surprisingly, offensive to people at a place like Notre Dame. I also used a wide range of other words that people might have thought offensive. I used those words because that is the way I had learned to speak. I confess that I often found the middle-class and upper-middle-class etiquette that dominated university life oppressive. I certainly was not above sometimes using words that I knew would offend precisely because I knew they would offend. It took an article some years later in Lingua Franca, in which I was described as "The Foul Mouth Theologian," to make me quit using the most offensive words. I simply became tired of and bored with having that aspect of my life made into such a "big deal."
I doubt Hauerwas was as naive and casual about appropriate language as this extract implies. He's probably referring to lectures and conversations, and certainly not to his writing, which has always been lively and provocative -- without needing foul language. Within the bounds of reason, isn't it a good idea to give the same care to our listening audiences as we give to those who read us?

Campolo and Hauerwas had their reasons for going beyond the bounds of normative English. I wouldn't have made the same choices, but I can see their points. What I can't see is using vulgarities in an attempt to seem hip. Years ago a writer I usually respect used the word "a**holes" to refer to the sorts of legalistic, moralizing, clueless people who (in his estimation) give Christianity a bad name among non-Christians. The word itself doesn't shock me; it certainly fit the stereotype he was building up, and in a private conversation I might have been fine with it. But the use of that word in a book seemed to me to smell vaguely of pandering, of signaling how clued in he was, how sympathetic he was with any reader who had been offended by those obnoxious Christians. If that was a worthwhile goal, I'm convinced that it could have been achieved without flipping a verbal bird at those alleged losers ... who still are, after all, his brothers and sisters in Christ.

So it seems that some public Christians incorporate a certain amount of vulgarity into their writing for the sake of authenticity, voice, street credibility, or some such quality. (Is this at all similar to the "we're jerks" approach I looked at a few years ago?) A few weeks ago blogger Micah J. Murray was treating us to his "kick ass playlist" ... and I noted down this title at the time but now see that it's been edited to "kick-a jams." (Another Christian blogger offers music to "kick butt.") These playlists appear in Bedlam Magazine, which promises "We are Bedlam and we will not be adding to the noise—but we will be causing a commotion." Let's hope we retain the capacity to remember the difference.

It's also important to remember the difference between commotion and catharsis. Case in point, but before clicking, consider yourself warned. Justifiable anger, perhaps under-edited. Yes, such rants may be therapeutic for the writer, but what about that vulnerable segment of the audience who needs the solidarity of your anger but not the barrage of f- f- f-?

July 2020: This post was republished here, with a fresh intro.

Christians in the Middle East: the West feigns empathy for a problem of its own making.

Nebraska gives the coup de grâce to the death penalty, narrowly votes to repeal. One version of the Quaker backstory. And Wilmer Tjossem's "Two Flowers in the Sanctuary" (PDF).

Music lovers: Nata Smirina has a gift for you, "just because."

One of my favorite clips from the young B.B. King. "Just a little bit of love."


Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for making those important points. In my life time, it's gone from Christians not spouting "minced oaths" to cussin' preachers.

Growing up fundamentalist in Nebraska, we were taught to never use "darn," or "heck," or "gee" because they were minced versions of those bad words Christians didn't ever say. In our family we couldn't say "butt" or "rear" when referring to our back side, but had to say "seat."

Needless to say I was in for quite a shock when I became truck driver for a chrome company...

But what I can't yet understand is why curse words became so popular in movies, even on TV and even in Christian speech. Sometime back I wrote a blog post of my own called "Pure and Profane Speech," and a satirical poem, "Giving Talk 'A' Grade--which shows how profanity is often no more than the constant "uh's" of weak speaking.

Your article is darn good;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Johan. I always like your posts, but feel moved to comment on this one. When I got clean and sober (27 years ago next month, by the grace of God and my 12 step program), I cleaned up my language too. My sponsor taught me it was a matter of self-respect, not prudery. Now, when I choose to use those words, people who know me know I damn well mean to.

When I hear words like "piss" or "ass" on TV, it does concern me. Degradation of public space, as you said. Yesterday, a group of late 20s women eating together at a nearby table in a restaurant where my wife and I went for our Friday night date were using vulgarity so casually , while young children were all around them absorbing every word. Barack Obama said that people in Washington get all "wee-wee'd up." I would rather he said "pissed off" than to use a childish euphemism, but surely our Harvard-educated President has many other words for anger in his vocabulary. Why not use them?

I agree with Tony Campolo, that people get more readily incensed about something like this than about preventable child fatalities, yet if we don't notice the canary in the coal mine, there are other disasters lurking right around the corner. I'm not one to "view with alarm" as a general rule, but language is far more important than we often acknowledge. Thanks for the acknowledgment.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks very much, you two!

Nancy Thomas said...

All of this inspires me to contribute a short poem by Billy Collins. (I wish I had written it.)


Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days.

Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe.

Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips.