Saturday, December 02, 2006

Whoring the language

Warning: Objectionable language ahead.

When it comes to cussin', I've got a mouth like a sailor.

A specific sailor.

Gene Kelly in On the Town.

Honest. When I'm mad I really do tend to say things like, Oh for crying out loud! and Doggone it! and Shoot! Get me good and riled and I'll let go with a thunderous Holy...!

I've also been known to say Sonvuva!

And What the...?!

Being able to curse and blaspheme creatively and persuasively is a talent that some people develop into a fine art.

I believe that, as with any art, if you haven't got the talent, you shouldn't try to do it or you'll just make a fool of yourself.

I don't try to sculpt, play the piano, or needlepoint, and I don't try to talk like Al Swearengen or write like I'm on the staff of the National Lampoon circa 1978.

What's more, people who use words for a living use them in the same ways painters use colors---there are some people who paint with a black base and some who paint with a white one, some who pile on the paint and some who work by scraping paint away. Among wordsmiths there are watercolorists and those who work in oils.

Or to put it another way...Richard Pryor's and George Carlin's comedy is as impossible without their liberal use of the many and various combinations of the seven forbidden words as Bob Newhart's and Bill Cosby's would be impossible with them.

Or...words aren't just about what they mean. They are about the person who uses them too.

Cussin' is like any mode of speech. If you can't do it well, if you don't choose your words carefully, which means choosing them for tone and color as well as for their literal meaning, if you can't make the words your own, then you come off as a foul-mouthed, witless lout with no more imagination or soul than Dick "Big Time" Cheney.

Regular readers of this page have probably noticed that the language here tends to be PG-13. Doesn't stop a lot of the subject matter from being rated R though, does it?

Not about to start congratulating myself on this. I hope I've made it clear that I don't have a reason to. My word choices have to do with my being more of a Norman Rockwell than a Jackson Pollock in my temperament, outlook, focus of interest, and perfered idioms. Cussin', either angrily or with joyous abandon, just ain't my style.

Your style is your style, and you have to write like you.

But I do think that over here on the left side of the bandwidth, we need to be a little more careful, especially those of us who aren't just blogging to see our own words on the computer screen and who want to have some influence on the political debate.

First because Traditional Media types use all the cuss words as an excuse to dismiss us as foul-mouthed, rage-addled, hate-filled, rabble-rousing hippies.

And, I'm sorry, Fuck them if they can't take a joke isn't the right response here.

And second, because the good folks on the Right Side of the Bandwidth use whatever we do as an excuse for their own foaming at the mouth insanities and inanities and in their ravings they manage to make us sound no different from them, which would be no big deal except that it gives their audience a reason not to pay attention to any real arguments and gives the Traditional Media Types all the more excuse not to pay attention to us.

Remember, the Traditional Media pay far closer attention to Right Wing critics than they do to the Left.

I'm not saying we need to tone it down, go slow, apologize, or go all mealy-mouthed. I'm saying, we need to choose our words in a way that presents our arguments and the facts forcefully and doesn't give the people we want to pay attention the wrong things to focus on.

The Bush Administration and its minions in Congress and the Media give us enough ammunition. Usually just writing down what fresh hell they've conjured up is enough to prove that George Bush is a dumb fuck and Dick Cheney is a major league asshole.

But here's the other thing. George Bush is worse than a dumb fuck and calling Dick Cheney an asshole doesn't begin to describe the depth and breadth of his evil.

Simply calling them names, even with all the anger and profanity you can muster, makes them sound less destructive than they are.

And any rhetorical strategy that invites the retort, I know you are but what am I? needs to be re-thought.

The other danger with an indiscriminate use of swearing and name-calling is that the words can be more self-revealing than anything else. It's an act of exhibitionism and you wind up showing the world more of yourself than you really want them to see.

You may have heard how recently Tom Watson called a technical foul on one of the second bananas at Firedoglake for designating a not particularly admirable Congresswoman a whore.

Tom's contention was, quite reasonably, that the word whore has a specific meaning when applied to a woman and that it can't be used metaphorically without that meaning coming along for the ride. Whatever rhetorical effect you're striving for with the word, the actual effect is sexist and misogynistic and demeaning not just to your target but to all women.

Even if you don't intend it and are pretty sure your audience won't take it that way, you've given the other side permission to use the word in exactly that way but with the cover that they're just following your lead.

The second banana thought Tom was out of line. He didn't mean Tom's argument was wrong. He meant that Tom was wrong for daring to criticize him.

Another member of Firedoglake's supporting cast joined in, just as indignant that Tom would presume, and he showed up in Tom's comment threads to dismiss Tom as a Ned Flanders.

To which Tom replied placidly, "Okeley dokely, neighbor."

This second second banana also called Tom a cunt.

Then he defended his


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