Profanity and Censorship

I am looking for feedback on this topic, because I really want to understand individual perspectives, not just society’s as a whole. Why is profanity so offensive? No, seriously. I’m going to give you my own personal take on it, but before reading on, please take a moment and consider why it offends you. Just you. Not your spouse, kids, boss, teachers or minister. For the purposes of this particular discussion, when I talk about profanity, I mean words that are considered vulgar. I suppose the same question could extend to obscene gestures as well, but I am just going to illustrate my point with words today.

I’ve not done any formal research into the psychology of profanity, or even necessearily the history of it. After chewing on tihs topic for a while this afternoon, I fully intend to, but for now, I just want to consider my own personal response. I am interested in any resources you may have to recommend in the comments, though.

So here’s the deal: I have been told that cussing is a sign of a lazy writer/speaker/whatever. It shows a lack of creativity and education. But the thing is – and this is really my whole argument – profanity, it’s just words. Is it more creative to call someone an idiot than a shit-for-brains? Well, Dostoevsky named an entire novel “The Idiot,” which is fairly well revered in the literature canon, so maybe so. But seriously, when I want to complain about my car, I could call it a clunker or a lemon, or just a fucking piece of shit car. You tell me – which of those three best communicate to the reader how I truly feel about the car? They’re just words – strings of characters with very specific meanings, which should be just as available in the arsenal of language as any other word. Yeah, they’re considered, base, classless, the stuff of low comedy. But it all comes back, again, to why?

So let’s think about some of the words that are most taboo (I’ll admit to a fair amount of naivete here, so my list may be a bit pedestrian): Fuck, shit, asshole, cock, pussy. Yes, that should be enough for now. On their own, every single one of these represent perfectly normal biological functions or parts. Ah, but they are functions/parts we don’t talk about. But why? Okay, don’t get me wrong. I don’t go outside naked, or have sex in the front yard. But they aren’t genuinely offensive, are they? They come up in non-dirty conversation. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have non-dirty words for them. We wouldn’t “make love” or “poop” or have “sphincters,” “penises” or “vaginas.” There wouldn’t be words that are acceptable in prime-time sitcoms, like “screw” or “crap.” Yeah, still seen as crass, but these get by the censors.

Another thought: does it have anything to do with the emotions that are being conveyed? If I say, “You fucking cocksucker,” instead of, “You jerk,” one would gather that I’m a lot angrier than if I’d just opted for the latter. Are we, as a society, afraid of these words because of the strength of [negative] emotions they convey? Can we agree that trying to reduce/eliminate the words that express these emotions does not make them go away?

The thing is, it really does seem to just come down to the words. Society has placed a distinction on these particular words for whatever reason. Then we go out and find new words, more acceptable-sounding words to replace them, because these distinctions have restricted our ability to effectively communicate. Frak, frig, darn, shoot, heck: these are understood to be the “nice” versions of the words they replace. So the question remains: why are the original words so bad?

Honestly, I’m not trying to belittle anyone who truly finds these words offensive. You’re entitled to that opinion. For reasons that are entirely my own, I find trench (and similarly styled) coats quite disturbing, and I doubt anyone will ever talk me out of that (although David Tennant’s giving it his best shot), so changing your mind is not my main purpose here. I really just want to understand why certain words hold such sway over so many people that, despite their commonality, they don’t even appear in today’s most common attempt to recreate life: family television.

Censorship really burns me

There are a lot of things in this world that frustrate me. Very near the top of the list is censorship. It really pisses me off that any one person or group believes they have the right to decide what I have access to read, watch or listen to. So when I read this story this morning about a group in Milwaukee seeking the right to “publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop, I was angry.

The group claims:

“the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

You know what else incites violence? The Bible. Yep, let’s throw out what is widely considered a great piece of literature (at best, it’s difficult to really understand great literature without a foundational knowledge of the Bible), because it calls for the murder of women, children, slaves, infidels, etc.

“Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.”
Isaiah 13:16

“For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death . . . ”
Leviticus 20:9

“. . . Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.”
Exodus 32:27

” . . . whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.”
Exodus 31:15

No, not really. Because getting rid of information is not the answer. Teaching peole how to use and filter information is the answer. The Christian Civil Liberties Union is offended that

library Director Michael Tyree has “publicly stated that it is not up to the library to tell the community what is appropriate.”

Actually, Michael Tyree has it exactly right. It is not up to the library, or the CCLU, or you, or me to decide what books should or shouldn’t be available to read. Parents should take on the [admittedly daunting] task of knowing what their kids are reading, and be willing to talk with the kids about difficult subject matters. Also, parents should have their fingers on the pulse of what their kids are and aren’t able to handle. Age-appropriate ratings are a good mechanism, but parents also need to know the maturity level of their own kids. The important thing here is that communiation is key.

Alternatively, adults, especially those who have been in the world for a long time (like the “elderly” involved in this complaint) should know that the world is not perfect, and pretending that it is does not make it so. We cannot address things which we don’t ackowledge. Although, my understanding of this book (which I haven’t read, but now, of course, plan to) is that it is essentially the story of a young gay boy. This induces an entirely different fit of anger for me – that of the bigotry of homophobia – about which I’ve blogged before and will therefore not dwell on it here.

Now, I know there are probably some of you sitting there, reading this tirade on censorship, and thinking, well, what about all you heathens trying to take creationism out of the classroom? Isn’t that censorship, too? Well, fine. I’ll tell you why I think the two scenarios are different. Not that I think I’ll change your mind, but because I may as well preempt the question I know will be coming:

Libraries and bookstores are resources for anyone who wants to use them. Schools, on the other hand, are educational facilities, designed to teach specific curriculum about the real world. Creationism (or ID, if you insist) does not belong where it is currently being taught – in science classrooms – because it is not science. It is an ideology that postulates no testable hypotheses, which are the basis for the scientific method. It belongs in an elective philosophy or Bible class, but it does not belong in the science classroom. And that is what the fight has been from the beginning. Not even to remove it entirely from schools, just from the science curriculum.

This is similar to what we do expect libraries and bookstores to do for us: categorize material by age and topic so that our decisions in choosing material appropriate for us is well-guided, and we find particular books where we expect to find them. Likewise, putting creationism in its appropriate place is not equivalent to censorship.

Where Science Meets Spirituality?

I love Twitter. It’s how I stay connected to the world and the people (famous or otherwise) whose activities I care about. I even got to have a brief conversation with Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer) one day about the validity of semicolons. Now I double-guess my usage every time I try to join two related sentences/ideas thanks to him, but where else could I speak about something so mundane with someone so respectable?

But Twitter has its flaws, too. Well, Twitter users have their flaws, I suppose I should say, and they use the Twitter machine unfairly. Many spam artists rely on the twitters who, desperate for a veneer of popularity, play the “I’ll-follow-you-if-you-follow-me” game. So they follow a person, expecting reciprocation, and thus the ability to flood that person’s feed with commercials for their product.

I tend to block these types of followers rather quickly; their following me doesn’t mean I see anything they have to say (I’d have to follow them for that to happen), but I feel dirty just being associated with them. This morning, though, I got a follower who appears to be trying to hoodwink the PTB at the asylum to let him out. He has grossly underestimated them, but I’m sure many inmates will be convinced. Here’s what I saw in my followers list this morning:

Human Design book HumanDesignBook

So I click over to the profile, and see:

  • Human Design – where science meets spirituality about 13 hours ago from web (latest tweet)
  • Bio HUMAN DESIGN: Discover The Person You Were Born To Be, published by Harper Collins May 2009

So I click on the link provided. Here’s the synopsis of the book:

‘Forget your sign, what’s your design?’

Would you like to know whether you are on the right path in life?

Would you like to know how to attract the ideal people to you, both professionally and personally?

Would you like to know who you really are?

More accurate and detailed than astrology, Human Design is a revolutionary new system that is changing people’s lives around the world. Using the date, time and location of your birth it reveals the person you were born to be and life you were meant to lead.

Chetan Parkyn, a veteran practitioner of Human Design, has made it his mission to bring this remarkable system to the world. Here he presents the first book of its kind on Human Design. Along with the free software available on this website, this book gives you everything you need to map your own life — a ‘design for life’ as unique as your fingerprint.

In a simple-to-use guide, Human Design shows you how to:

• Understand your personality quirks and make better decisions in life

• Find out who you best interact with to help you find your ideal partner and succeed at work

• Identify the personal and professional environments in which you excel

• Discover your creative capabilities, talents and potential

With this book you can discover the true inner workings of your personality blueprint, and those of your friends and family.

Prepare to meet the REAL you … it will change your life for ever.

This appears to be self-help, astrology and reflexology all thrown into a pot and stirred into a steaming pile of three-shit soup. No thanks.

Where is the science? Just exactly how does the date/place/time of my birth have anything to do with how my body’s designed? Would it matter if I was born in the jungles of Africa, to parents from Moscow, and raised on a Canadian tundra? What drives the difference between the randomness of the Human Design Book’s system and astrology’s? No, I’m not going to buy the book to find the answers. I’m not sending good money to this person’s pockets. If this is real science, point me to the peer-reviewed journal where laboratory data is published.

And finally, I’m not sure the claim of attracting the ideal people to you is all that believable when you clearly need to refine the searches that are providing your to-follow lists on Twitter. I’d say I’m not so much an ideal person for you, professionaly or personally.

Block engaged.