16 July 2020

Purposeful profanity? (partly a repost)

One way I know I'm aging: I wince when I hear or read the f-word in public spaces. It happens even when I agree with the sentiment, as in this Twitter post from earlier today:

(Note: This exchange is getting a lot of circulation, but I somehow doubt it's genuine.)
Twitter might be the social network that is most responsible for hastening the promotion (demotion?) of blasphemy to profanity, of profanity to obscenity, of obscenity to vulgarity, and of vulgarity to ordinary slang, but this progression is happening all around me, online and offline.

The f-word has equivalents in many languages, but the English-language word is used in many places. In Russia, our students were often unsure about its rank on the naughtiness scale. To our simultaneous discomfort and amusement, they sometimes used it more liberally than we were accustomed to in the USA -- and more liberally than they would have used the Russian equivalents.

Our local McDonald's.
Once we were in the McDonald's restaurant near our home in Elektrostal, talking in English with one of our former students about her plans to offer Japanese language classes. A group of teenagers -- two young men and two young women -- sat down at the table next to ours. Realizing that we were speaking English, the guys apparently thought they could impress their companions by showing off their English. However, their vocabularies were apparently limited to these words: "hamburger," "cheeseburger," "French fries," and you know what. With increasing volume, they took pleasure in demonstrating their English: "F - - -  hamburgers," "f - - -  cheeseburgers," "f - - -  French fries." We did our best to ignore them, rather than confronting them, which would have been the more Russian approach. (Dear Russians: am I right?) In fact, after about five minutes of this, the family at another table came to our rescue and firmly put an end to the harassment.

The Walmart exchange on Twitter, true or fake, brought to mind a blog post from about five years ago, which seems to me to have kept its currency:

Remember this bumper sticker?

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-?

The title of this post back in 2015 was "Offensive on purpose" -- please see that earlier version for the original comments.

Beth Woolsey's COVID Diaries and the only three things she's been doing.

Meduza on Russia's #MeToo resurgence.

Using military service as punishment: what one young Russian anti-corruption activist and reporter, Ruslan Shaveddinov, is facing right now. (Worth registering for a free trial at this site -- no other up-to-date English-language coverage seems available at the moment.)

Meanwhile, in scenes that would probably warm the U.S. president's heart, Russian riot police charge into a peaceful demonstration and arrest around 150 participants.

Yet more attempts to explain why 81 percent of white evangelicals betrayed their/our values to support a corrupt, boast-and-blame reality TV star as president: Matthew Avery Sutton reviews three recent books that survey the resulting wreckage and the historical context.

In his usual clear and understated style, Roger E. Olson recounts the "untold story" of how Hitler came to power. If he intends for us to draw parallels, he leaves that decision and task to us.

Joint Quaker statement on potential Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley.

My favorite "opti-mystic" blogger, Mike Morrell, interviews Quaker activist Paulette Meier.

Gary Clark Jr. at Glastonbury.


Derek "Longshot" Lamson said...

Brother Johan,
Around Christmas 2019 - seems like another planet - I finished writing a hugely ambitious project for me: 119 pages of graphic novel script. So it's a very satisfying project, and I look forward to releasing it on an unsuspecting world... except for the F-bombs. Their usage and placement was authentic enough and appropriate to the characters and all that, BUT ... two months later I went back in to the ms and scrubbed them all out. I just was nagged by knowing that there are people I love who will stop reading at the first little F-stinkbomb-explosion. I was thinking of Julie, but actually there's quite a list, isn't there? A lot of people I care for would stop reading. Not only my dear friend April, who can't stand F-bombs, she wouldn't let her kids read my graphic novel either, and that would be a shame. Now before I leave off, I'll just say that for my low and vulgar taste, cussing is to English as hot sauce is to scrambled eggs. The question that finally put it over for me was: "Does my story need that word to succeed? If it does it's probably not very good writing..." So I yanked 'em out like bad teeth... it's still a good story.
Thanks so much for your faithfulness in this column, Johan, you're the best!

Johan Maurer said...

Where can I read the things you are writing?!