This post isn't really about Ultron. Except maybe that he's a jerk and some of the people I will be talking about will be jerks? I dunno. It just seemed like a good thing to name a post.
The actual subject of this post is "Unmentionable." As in, unmentionable words. If you've been anywhere near a device or another human being in the last week, you'll have heard that the president - our sitting president of these United States, Barack Obama - used the N-word on Marc Maron's podcast.
Much hay has been made in the media and the social media about this event. Actually, "event" seems like too strong of a word. Occurrence, maybe? Happenstance? Anyway, people are riled up about it. It's got us talking about censorship and race relations in this country, so that's a good thing.
I've been thinking lately about this need to bowdlerize words, and what that really represents. When I was a kid, I remember referring to the F-word and the S-word, and feeling very on the fence about whether "crap" and "pussy" were swears, and whether I could get in trouble for saying them. At my age, and after a four-year stint in the army, there is literally no traditional curse word which holds any kind of taboo for me.
The words that I consider truly offensive, that even as a writer I deploy with great sparseness and only after long deliberation, are a handful of ethnic and misogynistic slurs. Perhaps it makes me a coward, but, yes, even in the context of this blog post about unmentionable words, I won't be deploying the actual N-word or C-word, or a slur against Jewish people which begins with a "K."
I've had characters say these words. BRAINEATER JONES was set in the 1930s, and after reading a lot of the literature of the time, I realized that it was dishonest to pretend like white people in that era were concerned with sparing feelings. These words which we consider the height of taboo today were tossed around with a casualness that beggars the imagination. And, perhaps even more interesting, the silly words which we're allowed to say on basic cable were things you didn't say in mixed company in the '30s.
It's a tightrope walk for me as an author to know that I'm writing for the sensibilities of a modern audience and yet trying to stay true to a period, or perhaps a character. It's kind of a cliché that villains are the only ones who can kick puppies, smoke, and use slurs (consider Dennis Hopper in "Land of the Dead") but often that's true. Because how can I make a bigot sympathetic to a modern audience? Certainly, it's possible. Dirty Harry - well, admittedly that was in the 70's - but he springs to mind.
It's just kind of a tough sell. It's a lot easier to extricate bigoted elements from a hero or anti-hero altogether rather than deal with all that baggage. No one (for the most part) likes to consider themselves racist or sexist, so when you throw that element in, an audience almost immediately refuses to sympathize.
So what's the big deal? These are just words, after all. Well, yes, but words have power. 2 billion-odd people around the world live their lives by the words of a five thousand year old book still today. And there are any number of sentences that will raise your hackles, send you into a fury, or please you almost orgasmically for the rest of the day. And then there are individual words so potent in their use and so deeply entrenched in historical usage, that the word alone terrifies people.
These are the words we bowdlerize. When "fuck" no longer meant anything to me, I stopped calling it "the F-word." But there are soccer moms and infants running around saying "darn" and "pee-pee" because those are the words which have power over them. I suppose we ought not to judge people with different sensibilities - after all, as I mentioned last week, there are people who find the word "moist" repulsive for no real compelling reason.
I think perhaps what unites the words we bowdlerize are that they can be used as weapons. If someone said "Fuck you" to me when I was twelve (or even in certain circumstances today) it would probably really rile me up. Curse words are like generic weapons: a bullet or a knife tossed in your general direction. The slurs that cause real pain, the N-word, the C-word, and so forth, are like a laser-guided missile that can only harm one particular kind of person. And every time we deploy it we harm all of that kind of person, not just the individual it's directed against.
Calling someone an "asshole" is like saying "You're worthy of insult because of your actions, whoever you are." Calling someone an N-word is like saying, "You're worthy of insult because of who you are, regardless of your actions." And what's the proper response to that? An asshole can stop acting like an asshole. A POC or a woman can never stop being what they are, no matter how they act.
I might be disappearing up my own asshole at this point. These are thorny, complicated issues and I don't even really know what I'm trying to prove or to who. Maybe we could have a (civil, please!) discussion in the comments. Let me know what you think!
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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