Whose Language Is It, Anyway? Musings on Words Fair and Foul
Several years ago, I found myself in an annoying online conversation with one of my oldest daughter’s friends. It started out civilly enough, but eventually, due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I had to let him know that what we were discussing was really none of his business. At that point, like many keyboard warriors of the Information Age, he got awfully brave, knowing that he lived what he considered to be a safe distance away from me. His messages began to border on the disrespectful, at which point I advised him to stop talking. His reply should be familiar to anyone who has tried to tell a teenager that he or she should watch his or her mouth: “I have free speech, so I can say what I want to.”
“Son,” I replied, “just because the government won’t come and arrest you for saying something doesn’t mean I won’t show up at your door and kick your ass.”
The problem with this kid’s thinking was that he believed “free speech” means that anyone can say anything at any time. But “free speech” does not mean “speech without consequence.” Whenever you say something to anyone, in public or interpersonally, you have to gauge the possible consequences of your language. Otherwise, you might find yourself in jail (if, say, you yell “fire” in a crowded theater when no fire exists) or expelled (if, say, you use hate speech in a university classroom) or beaten to within an inch of your life. Other possible consequences include losing friends, being socially censured, and having to defend your ideas and diction.
As a writer and an academic, I am hyper-sensitive to language, its uses, the forums in which it is used, and its consequences. I firmly believe in a free press, in free speech, in freedom of expression. I hate censorship in any form. But I am also aware of the difference between censorship and disagreement, between free speech and rudeness or hatefulness. I don’t believe that I can control others’ language or that I should try, though I do often call attention to how that language might be perceived and whether or not it should have been used. In the example above, I wanted to stop the discussion about private family matters because they were private, and I wanted him to reconsider his tone not only for my sake but for his; after all, if I didn’t bother to kick his ass, someone else likely would in the future if he kept trying to hide his rudeness behind an imagined shield of unimpeachable “free” speech. I’m still waiting for him to thank me for the lesson.
Another example—my students are, by and large, decent and smart enough not to use words like “nigger” or “faggot” in class, knowing that such words constitute hate speech and that such language would create an uncomfortable learning environment for everyone else. I want to believe that they don’t use such words because they know that doing so would be morally and ethically wrong, but even if they avoid those words out of their own sense of self-preservation, at least that’s something.
They often don’t consider the implications of more innocuous hate language, though. I still hear them say “that’s so gay” when describing something that they consider stupid or ridiculous. Somehow they don’t make the connection that using “gay,” a state of being, as a synonym for “stupid” or “silly” is just as offensive as calling someone a “faggot.” I have a friend who asks her students, “Would you be comfortable talking about the same thing and saying ‘that’s so black!’?” Most of them have never really thought about it like that before, and some of them reconsider their use of the phrase in private or in other social situations, having learned that the ability to say something legally does not always mean you should do so ethically or morally. If they still choose to use such language in their homes, at their parties, and the like, I have two choices: 1) keep trying to educate them and hope they eventually see the light, and, failing that, 2) avoid them. I can’t force them to be good people at heart; I can only make a good case and hope.
If they do use language that is universally considered hate speech (except, of course, among bigots, who often firmly believe that they aren’t bigots, evidence and common sense be damned), they are rightly subject to discipline. If you call someone a “faggot” in class, for example, I will ask you to leave (and call security if you refuse) and report you to the administration. The university will determine your punishment. We, the faculty and administration, are not forcing you to like and accept gay people; we are not prohibiting you from using such language on your own time or in other forums. We are simply saying that hate speech is unacceptable in our forum, not because you don’t share our values (though if what you value is hate, you don’t speak my language anyway) but because you make LGBTQ peoples and their allies feel afraid or uncomfortable in an environment where everyone should feel safe and cared for and nurtured.
Similarly, take a major publication like The New York Times or Rolling Stone magazine. They are not guilty of censorship if they refuse to provide column space for, say, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard or a neo-Nazi leader or a Republican like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and so forth. They are not obligated to give everyone a forum, just as the New Republic is not required to provide space for Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow. They are not guilty of censorship if they run columns and articles against those with whom they ideologically disagree. They are not guilty of censorship if they refute alternative ideas and suggest that other people shouldn’t support such concepts.
They are only guilty of censorship if they try to quash—not question, but actually stop— the opposition’s ability to produce their own forums, to disseminate their own ideas in their own spaces, and to make their own lingual and ideological choices in private.
For an example of how to cross this line, take the Parents’ Television Council—please. This conservative, allegedly Christian watchdog group scrutinizes television shows and reports on any “objectionable” content. Objectionable according to whom, you ask? Why, according to the Parents’ Television Council, who seem to believe that they speak for the rest of us. Now when they watch those TV shows with their own agenda in mind, that is not censorship. That is their right. When they publish their findings on their own website and their own newsletters, that is not censorship. That is their right. When they tell us that we shouldn’t watch these shows because the programs don’t evince the right values, that is not censorship. That is their right. They are expressing an opinion and allowing people to consider their point of view.
However, the PTC often does not stop there. They often try to organize boycotts of the shows’ sponsors and write to the networks, demanding that the shows be removed from our TV screens. At this point, they cross the line into attempted censorship. They don’t want to provide an alternative viewpoint; they want theirs to be the only viewpoint. They don’t want to influence my choice; they want to take it away. This is wrong. It’s unethical and un-American.
Much of the debate over what we should or should not be allowed to think comes down to the language we use. A lot of those “objectionable” shows use so-called adult language—though, having once been a kid, I can personally testify that adults aren’t the only ones who use such words. And no, I didn’t learn the words from popular culture or art; I learned it from adults.
Someone recently raised the question of what is or is not acceptable language on Facebook. One of my friends, a 63-year-old Christian politician who often disseminates progressive ideas on his personal page, used the phrase “Life’s a bitch” in a status update. The consequent debate over the word “bitch” should fascinate any linguist; were that my area, I’d probably write and publish a paper on it.
Many of his conservative Christian friends attacked him—not questioned or debated him, but attacked him—for his use of the word, even going so far as to question his own religious beliefs. I personally don’t remember the Biblical passage that says “bitch” is an affront to God, so I didn’t really see their point. I’ve been lectured to more than once about using so-called “foul” language on Facebook; my usual response is that you’re questioning my use of the word on ethical or moral grounds, and I don’t agree with your ethical or moral definitions, so your argument doesn’t convince me. In fact, I think that “foul” language represents some of the most versatile words in English. Let’s look at a few of them.
The word “fuck” is often unpleasant for people to hear, but it has become almost ubiquitous due to its adaptability. Taken on its own, it is a verb, one that means “to have sex,” though people often contrast it to “making love,” which has a tenderer connotation. Put a “you” after it, though, and it becomes a combination insult/aggressive response. Follow it with an “off” and you have an imperative sentence that, at the very least, seems unfriendly. If you preface it with a “to” or add an “-ing” suffix, the results are verbals that can act as nouns, meaning that they can function as sentences’ subjects, direct or indirect objects, and so forth. Pair the “-ing” form with a helping verb and you get a different verb tense than if you simply add “-ed.” Take the word by itself and put an exclamation point after it and you get a popular interjection. The “-ing” form can also function as an adjective, as in “holy fucking shit,” a phrase you often hear in the movies. Yet that form can also be an adverb, as in “fucking gross.”
Are these expressions crude and, in certain situations, impolite? Sure. But sinful? That’s debatable. Unless “Thou shalt not say ‘fuck’” is the lost eleventh commandment, it seems that the only way to call this word “sinful” is if you stretch the definition; one might argue that since the word as a noun refers to a sexual act, and not necessarily one that takes place inside a monogamous marriage recognized by a church, then using it might—might—be sinful. But still, it seems to me that using the word itself is no more sinful than using the word “lying” or “stealing.” We might consider its use uncouth because talking about sex in public settings goes against certain social conventions, but that does not necessarily indicate sin.
The same is true of words like “shit” and “piss.” They refer to bodily excretions, or to things that we compare to bodily excretions, and they are blunter and cruder (to some listeners, anyway) than more euphemistic words or scientific-sounding terms like “defecation” or “urination” or “excrement.” Perhaps they aren’t pleasant for some people to hear or contemplate, but that hardly makes them sinful. “Crucifixion” is unpleasant to contemplate, but we don’t censor people for using that word in public. Again, it seems to me that we’ve conflated sin with something else, whether we want to call it impoliteness or crudity or bluntness—or simply the use of colorful language.
“Bitch” and “bastard” are considered acceptable if used in certain contexts—i.e., to mean “female dog” and “illegitimate child,” respectively. But if we talk about someone’s bitching about something, or mention that bastard at work who keeps stealing our stapler, or say that “life’s a bitch,” then the words become, to some people, unacceptable. But it’s still tough for me to understand how they can be considered sinful.
The term “god damn” or “goddam,” as some writers (like me) spell it, could be considered sinful from a Christian perspective, given the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. So I suppose I could understand if self-appointed lingual guardians took issue with it. When I use it in my fiction, though, it’s for purposes of realism or emphasis, not because I or my character is asking God to damn something or someone. Is that still sin? This word seems to exist in a moral gray area. Of course, for non-Christians, using the term is likely a non-issue.
My point here is that the complainers on my friend’s Facebook page seem to be arguing for a version of Christianity that might not exist and is certainly not universally agreed upon. This makes their implications that my friend is somehow less Christian than they seem especially offensive. You might find his word choice blunt or crude or impolite, if you are of certain mindsets, but that’s as far as I’d take it. To the best of my knowledge, no one tried to have my friend exiled from Facebook, so no one is guilty of censorship; but I would suggest that there are better, more conciliatory ways of making your point about his language than deriding his faith. To judge him as less of a Christian based on his use of one word in one context seems too judgmental and unlikely to make your point; it would probably only anger him and lead to his de-friending you.
In fact, the nature of Facebook as a social networking site implies that you are there voluntarily. No one’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to be friends with anyone. It’s not a shared, paid-for, goal-oriented community like a college classroom. Thus, if someone’s language offends you, you should feel free to take issue with it as long as you do so in a way that makes your point, that encourages discussion and debate rather than destroying the possibility for them. And if you can’t convince them with your logic and evidence and reasonable arguments, if they still want to use language that bothers or offends you, you can always hide their posts or de-friend them. If the consequence of their language is that you will no longer be their Facebook friend, and they are willing to accept that consequence, then you have little recourse.
What you shouldn’t do is try to censor them; it’s their page, and you don’t have to read it. You shouldn’t insult them; to do so is to react to a possibly controversial word or idea in a definitely unacceptable way. You shouldn’t assume that you know what God (or, for that matter, Mark Zuckerberg) wants and thinks better than they do just because their ideas are different. And you shouldn’t expect everyone to share your definitions of what is moral, ethical, or sinful. It simply won’t happen.
We should not use language that devalues someone based on their states of being—language that is homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, and/or xenophobic, for instance. Everyone has a right to be who they are without someone’s using language, laws, and/or violence to oppress them. If you disagree, I won’t try to censor you from spouting your views, no matter how dangerous and sickening I find them. But I will choose to debate you civilly or ignore you. That is my choice, my freedom. Likewise, if I say “bitch” and it offends you, feel free to tell me why, as long as you’ve actually got an argument, not a knee-jerk emotional judgment. In that way, perhaps we can learn something from each other. If not, there’s always the “de-friend” button.
Hateful and bile-ridden responses, though, teach us nothing. They leave us all in the dark, grasping for illumination. To echo Full Metal Jacket, they leave us in a “world of shit,” an ugly metaphor for an ugly situation.
See? Sometimes the “bad” word seems like the right word, even if it makes you cringe.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.