~ Hey Motherfuckers – Read my damn post about shitty language!

Sorry for those who I offended with the title of my post.

Actually, I’m not sorry.   Because, if, with all the horrific things that take place in our world – wars, genocide, political corruption, child abuse, corporate greed, human slavery, environmental disasters, etc. – this is what upsets you, then you and I probably wouldn’t get along anyway.

And yet some people choose to focus their energy and time on this very issue.   Bill Cosby, for example, has often expressed dismay over the use of curse words in stand-up and today’s culture in general. He is not alone in this view. Will Smith has shared similar sentiments about the prevalence of profanity in rap music. More recently, if you watched the Golden Globes or Oscars, you probably noticed an abundance of bleeps during acceptance speeches.

And my response to this condemnation and censorship of profanity is to say, fuck that.

In all seriousness, though, I understand where they are coming from and recognize their good intentions. Yet, it seems silly to censor swear words or fret over the use of profanity in song lyrics when there are much more important issues to focus on or draw attention to.   Rather than worry about the use of profanity by rappers and “thugs” who let their pants sag low and speak “improper” English, Smith and Cosby would be better off focusing on the poor educational opportunities and lack of positive role models that often make the “thug” life appealing.   Rather than television censors bleeping out “bad words” to protect viewers, the F.C.C. should consider why it is still okay for immoral behavior to be glamorized and regularly depicted as consequence free (not that I’m advocating censorship).

The profanity police should think more carefully about where to focus their outrage or even their discomfort. After all, how can one be an arbiter of language and not recognize the mutability of words, the fact that language is not a static thing? Words and their meanings are in constant flux, changing according to the context in which they are spoken. Yet, censors and conservatives with an aversion to curse words ignore this fact.

Take the word considered most foul: fuck. “The first known occurrence of the word (at least the most accepted) is … in a poem in a French/Latin mix which satirizes the Carmelite monks of Cambridge from around 1500. The line reads, “[The clergy] are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely.”2  Used to insult the clergy in this poem, the very people who transcribed most of the written word at that time, fuck was deemed a “bad word.” Thus, it was the context in which fuck was used and not the word itself that originally made it so offensive. And yet, even though most of us aren’t Carmelite monks, we still consider ‘fuck’ profane regardless of the context in which it was or is used.

We also arbitrarily label certain words as “bad” or “off limits”. I say arbitrarily because it is often our social conditioning and not the actual meaning of the word or the intentions of the speaker that affect our interpretation. For example, the science fiction show Battlestar Gallatica uses the word ‘frack’ as the universal curse word, a clever way for the writers to get around the censors and still have their heroes express anger, frustration, and fear in the same way many people often do today, which is by cursing.   The fact that no viewers or censors objected to the use of this word, even though the meaning and intention of its use is exactly the same as our more recognizable equivalent, fuck, demonstrates how hypocritical people’s objections to profanity can be. Do you not like fuck because it is those four letters put together in that order OR because it is often used in a derogatory or hurtful manner? If it is the latter, then you should be just as offended by ‘frack’.

And yet we are not. Because our culture does not socially condition people to view “frack” and the people who use it as vulgar reprobates.

Not only is this hypocritical, it also ignores the delight a well-placed swear word can provide. It denies the deftness and nuance of curse words in favor of a one-dimensional (and thus incorrect) view of them as unequivocally “bad”. Yet, according to Wikipedia, “the more vulgar a word is, the greater its linguistic flexibility.” For example, the worst of all swears, fuck, has been shown to have the greatest flexibility.   “Linguist Geoffrey Hughes found eight distinct usages for English curse words, and fuck can apply to each” (Wikipedia), which underscores the importance of context in determining whether its use is offensive.

And I think Shakespeare would agree with me. Shakespeare – the man considered one of greatest artists of all time, sculpting the English language into shapes that have lasted for centuries – loved the vulgar and profane.   His plays were full of swears and sexual innuendo, the master wordsmith delighting in the “linguistic flexibility” such language provided.   Now does this diminish the meaningful insights he delivered in beautiful, poetic language? Of course not. In fact, his ability to weave together the profane and the profound is what allows his works to represent humankind as it really is, showing us that we are and always will be a clash of animal instincts and lofty ideals.   And that is what art and entertainment is supposed to do as Shakespeare explains in Hamlet: “to hold as ’twere the / mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own / image, and the very age and body of the time his form and / pressure.”

And when you consider the fact “that roughly 0.5% to 0.7% of all spoken language is swear words, with usage varying from between 0% to 3.4%. [and that] first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up [only] 1% of spoken words”1, it’s hard not to see that profanity is very much a part of human nature and our everyday life.

This is why it is important not to be offended by words unless they are used with certain intentions or in certain contexts. If I say, Fuck! after hitting my thumb with a hammer and you look at me with disdain, I would ask you to lighten up a bit and to recognize that it’s just a word that symbolizes frustration and pain and nothing more at that moment. On the other hand, if I walk up to you and say, go fuck yourself! Well, then I understand why you would never want to talk to me again.

This is why censorship is silly. It assumes profanity is wrong regardless of context. It refuses to recognize the nuances in language and in doing so, inhibits human expression.   After all, there’s something emotionally satisfying about letting out a string of profanities when you are pissed off or something completely visceral about yelling “Holy Shit!” when someone jumps out at you from behind a door for a practical joke.   (Trust me, I’ve tried “fudge” as a replacement and it did not do the trick.) In fact, Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that “swearing relieves the effects of physical pain,” with Stephens going so far as to say, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”   And yet even in their article, “Why the #S%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief” published in the Scientific American in 2012, they demonstrate the reluctance of the “refined” to lower themselves to the base level of those who swear by “censoring” the very subject of their research!   As if readers don’t know exactly what word those random symbols replace. As if, in our heads, we aren’t reading it as “Why the Fuck Do We Swear? For Pain Relief”. Still, at least their article argues that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique rather than issuing a sweeping condemnation of profanity as many do in our culture.

Now some of you might still have objections. You might ask me if I want my nieces or nephews to go around cursing out other kids on the playground? And my response is, of course not. But I say that not because I think it is so awful for a child to utter a profanity but because children do not possess the wherewithal to understand the nuances of context. They do not know when it is offensive and when it is not offensive to swear. Moreover, I’d be much more concerned about children being exposed to words like “retard, faggot, or nigger” and the hateful or ignorant views that usually go hand-in-hand with their use than with a child yelling out “shit” or “damn” on the playground.

Hey, what about racial slurs? What are they so bad but swears are not? Didn’t you just say it’s all about context, which would mean that even words like “nigger” or “faggot” are “okay” to use as long as we consider the context in which we are using them?

To some degree, I would argue yes. Context should always be the utmost consideration. However, I will also tell you that my general rule is to avoid saying words that have the potential to hurt others. Not hurtful to their sense of appropriateness but to their sense of self. For example, when I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even after having a multi-day discussion about why the abundant use of the word nigger was so vital to the message of Twain’s book, I could not bring myself to utter it aloud. That word is so charged, has so much history, and the thought that I might hurt even just one student by saying it was enough to make me refrain.

But that’s not to say that someone else using that same word is wrong. This is why the old argument that “it’s not fair that they can say it but I can’t” holds no merit. Again, it’s all about context and situation. I am a white person and an educator, which is why it’s hard to think of a time or place in which I would ever feel comfortable saying the word nigger. Because I cannot control how my students will interpret my use of the word and it has the potential to be very harmful.   However, if you are with your friends who know exactly what you mean and whom you know will not be offended, who am I to say it is improper to utter.

The same thing goes with profanity. As a teacher, I know it would be viewed as unprofessional if I told the kids to “get their fucking homework out.” I might lose their respect or receive a few dozen parent phone calls. I also wouldn’t say similar things in front of a grandparent or perhaps even you, if I knew you would be truly bothered by it.

And that’s what Bill and Will Smith and other language purists need to realize. Getting hung up on profanity distracts us from real offenses or turns us into self-righteous hypocrites. Take the French film Fuck Me, which was changed to Rape Me for its American release (Wikipedia).   How is this new title any less offensive than the original, if not more so? And yet, the more violent and charged word choice, rape, was deemed acceptable by censors while the one with the “bad word”, fuck, was not.

Similarly, more attention was paid to Vice President Dick Cheney’s saying “Go fuck yourself,” to Senator Patrick Leahy in 2004 than the fact that Leahy was calling out Halliburton‘s sole-source contracts in the reconstruction of Iraq (Wikipedia). Sure it was unbecoming and unprofessional for the man only a tragedy away from the presidency to use profanity, but how is that more outrageous than the fact that he exploited an ill-conceived and horribly destructive war for his company’s financial gain?

And this is at the heart of my defense of profanity. We need to care more about issues that actually matter rather than being indignant about someone dropping an f-bomb on live television.   So often humans get hung up on style over substance. We focus on the superficial rather than the material. And in doing so, we spend our energies on things that don’t really matter when we could be focusing on the issues that are truly problematic and that actually affect us. Instead of worrying about issues of substance, we focus on easier targets like profanity.

So the next time you hear someone swear and feel offended, ask yourself if there isn’t a better outlet for your outrage.

 

Works Cited

1 from “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words” printed in Perspectives on Psychological Sciences in 2009

2 From Ranker.com article entitled “Origins of the 7 Dirty Words”

~ Don’t Help Your Children With Their Homework?

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This article has some interesting insights on the impact (or lack thereof) parents have on their child’s education.  It debunks some common beliefs such as the more involved a parent is with a child’s schoolwork the better the child will do in school.  At the same time, the article also provides alternative, more effective means of ensuring your child’s success.   Click on the link below for the full article.

http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/and-dont-help-your-kids-with-their-homework/358636/

 

~ If You Like It, Then You Shouldn’t Put a Ring On It ~

I love me some Beyoncé and have happily danced along to “Single Ladies” while out with friends.  But like some other songs that cause toes to start tapping, its catchy hook obscures its problematic lyrics.  Essentially, “Single Ladies” expresses a common sentiment concerning the engagement ring.  That if you “like it” then you better “put a ring on it.” And why is that you may say?  Well, so that everyone, including the woman herself, knows that it is yours.  The problem is that the “it” in question is your future wife or life partner and NOT some possession or thing.

So why, in 2014, must a man still “mark his territory” or “stake his claim” by affixing his fiancé with an engagement ring?

Now you might argue that I am overthinking the issue or that I am missing the important symbolism of the engagement ring tradition, particularly the meaning it provides for the couple and the message it sends to the outside world.  But let me assure you, this is not the case.   Instead I am merely trying to shed light on a social tradition that many of us feel compelled to adhere to despite internal misgivings or without really knowing why.  To do this, we must look at the origins of this custom and ask some questions.  For example, why is it that men don’t wear engagement rings?  If it truly is a symbol of a future lifelong commitment, why does only the woman wear one prior to the official nuptials?

It is in answering this question that the overtly sexist origins of our modern tradition become apparent.  In fact, “today’s symbol of love was once something more like virginity insurance”, a replacement for the “Breach of Promise to Marry” law that “allowed jilted fiancées to sue their former lovers, particularly when the pair had premarital sex and thus the woman’s value was damaged due to her lack of virginity” (O’Brien).   Farther back in history the sexism inherent in this tradition was even more evident as rings were used by sultans and sheiks to “tag” each of their wives (Bare).

Thankfully, times have changed since then, and in most civilized places a woman’s worth is no longer determined by how chaste she is or to whom she is married.  This progress might cause some to argue that even though the engagement ring tradition may have had sexist roots, we have transcended these dark origins and made the act into something more meaningful and egalitarian.  Yet, even if you say the ring is merely the embodiment of a promise to marry and not some politically-charged object, the question remains: why is that only the woman wears this ring?  Both the husband and wife wear the wedding ring, a symbol of their lifelong commitment to each other, so why isn’t that the case with the engagement ring?

There are two potential answers to this question and both cast women in a negative light.   The first is that women cannot be trusted to stay faithful during this interim before the wedding unless they are wearing an object that wards off potential suitors.  Otherwise, why must women wear a symbol of this commitment in public while men need not?  The second reason one might give for the persistence of this tradition is that women want the ring.   And while in many cases, this may actually be true, this reasoning implies that women are materialistic and superficial, an idea that has been reinforced by the competitive nature of this tradition whereby one’s love is seen as directly proportional to the size of the diamond.  In fact, just recently in US Weekly, there was a full 2-page spread of engagement rings, a display of wealth that invites the reader to see this supposedly deep, symbolic and intimate act as a competition.  This is why I feel a bit sad every time someone gets engaged and the first thing women ask to see is the ring.  It’s as though the fact that this couple has decided to bind their lives together is overshadowed by a piece of rock in some metal.

If you voiced my concerns to jewelers like those at DeBeers, they would likely dismiss any overtones of misogyny or materialism in this social tradition.  Perhaps they would argue as DeBeers’ website does that “ today, perhaps more than ever, the diamond engagement ring remains the most powerful universal expression of true and everlasting love and an essential part of the marriage ritual across the globe.”   And many people would agree with this sentiment without being “wrong.”   After all, a symbol is an object to which we ascribe value.   And if people want to see engagement rings as symbols of love and enduring fidelity, then who am I to stop them?

The only thing I ask is that they consider why they feel this way.  Is it because they truly believe this or because marketing and social pressure have told them that they do?

Because that’s exactly what DeBeers wished to happen when it started marketing diamond rings to the masses in the 30s, even going so far as to suggest in the 80s that this purchase should be the equivalent of 2-3 months of salary (Bernard).   Copywriter Frances Gerety and publicist Dorothy Dignam for N.W. Ayer & Son ad agency even explicitly stated that their goal was “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring” (Sullivan).  To do this, they convinced Americans, particularly the women, to ignore their more practical natures and indulge in their superficial and materialistic sides.  Prior to this campaign, an extensive survey conducted by N.W. Ayer found that most Americans thought diamonds a luxury for the very wealthy.  Moreover, Frances Gerety herself stated that women wanted men to spend their money on “a washing machine, or a new car, anything but an engagement ring…[as]…”it was considered just absolutely money down the drain” (Sullivan).

But with their campaign, Gerety and Dignam changed that.  After just two years, sales of diamonds in the U.S. increased by 55% (Sullivan).  And since then, the tradition has only grown stronger, so much so that jewelers now say that “a girl is not engaged unless she has a diamond engagement ring” (Sullivan).    Not everyone feels this way as 25% of brides don’t wear one for whatever reason (Sullivan).  Still, it is clear that the majority of women do feel that an engagement ring is important or necessary.

And despite my personal contempt for the custom, this article is not about my sitting in judgment of that vast majority.  Again, I am only asking that they consider whether they ascribe this value or meaning to an expensive piece of jewelry because they truly believe it to possess such worth or whether it is because society and marketing campaigns have assigned it that significance.  Because much of what we want in life is really what others tell us we should desire rather than what we actually do ourselves.  And the result of such pursuits is usually unhappiness or dissatisfaction with one’s life.

Perhaps after reflecting, you might decide that, like me, you would prefer to spend your “engagement ring money” on a wonderful trip with your fiancée.  Personally, I’d rather be showing my friends the amazing pictures from our time together in Spain than a piece of jewelry.  And instead of having a physical object representing that commitment for the rest of my life, I would have those memories of that first trip together as a soon-to-be-married couple.

Then again, I’ve never been a jewelry person, so perhaps that is why it is easier for me to dismiss this tradition than it is for others.  Still, after learning about the engagement ring’s origins, it is hard not to realize that, just like with Valentine’s Day and Christmas, the public has been “sold” a story in order to increase company profits.  Whether you truly believe that story is up to you.  Because in the end, I’m not trying to make people feel badly about wearing or wanting a ring.   I’m only asking you to really think about why you want it, to make sure it is not because of the value others ascribe to it but because of the value you do.

As for myself, if you like me, then you better not put a ring on “it.”  Instead let’s have a mature discussion about our desire to commit to one another for the rest of our lives, and then we can plan a trip to celebrate!

Hmm, I wonder why Beyoncé didn’t make that the chorus to “Single Ladies”?

Works Cited

Bare, Kelly. “The History of Engagement Rings.” Readers’ Digest. 2014. Web.  2 March 2014.

Bernard, Tara Siegel. “With Engagement Rings, Love Meets Budget”. New York Times. 31 January 2014. Web. March 2014.

O’Brien, Matthew.  “The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings”. Readers’ Digest. 2014. Web. 2 March 2014.

Sullivan, Courtney.  “How Diamonds Became Forever”. New York Times. 3 May 2013. Web. 2 March 2014.

~ Free the elephants and orcas in captivity

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The editorial board of the magazine Scientific American makes its position clear.

Read the story here:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/free-elephants-orcas-captivity

And if you are really interested in this topic, here’s an article with greater detail and pictures:

http://us.whales.org/blog/courtneyvail/2012/03/its-time-to-get-honest-about-captivity

~ Does Classifying Addiction as a Disease Help or Hurt Addicts?

(Let me start off by saying that I realize addiction is classified as a disease by medical professionals. So this post is not about the legitimacy of labeling it as such but whether it is helpful or hurtful to addicts to classify their problem this way.)

If someone stopped you on the street and asked you to name 5 diseases, well, first you’d probably take a few steps back and ask why the hell they want to know. Your next move might then be to name illnesses like cancer, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s, ALS, or MS. Most of us don’t think “addiction” when we hear the word disease.

Yet recently, this term has been used often when discussing the great actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose on heroin. People have shown great compassion for Hoffman’s struggles with addiction, expressing sadness over his passing and shaking their heads at yet another soul lost to a compulsion they could not control. And while I am glad this tragedy has at least got people talking about this all too common but overlooked problem in our society, I still feel that twinge of resentment, that tiny flicker of anger when I hear that word, disease, used in reference to addiction. Perhaps this is because when I think of disease, I picture an illness that a person has acquired through no fault of his/her own, a condition that has no relationship to the behavior of the individual or the choices he/she has made.

But this isn’t entirely true for addiction. Because even with addiction, there are choices. A choice to do drugs (and this includes alcohol). A choice to escalate that use. A choice to not stop using in spite of the negative effects it has on yourself and others.

And yet, I recognize that there are many other “diseases” in which choice plays a significant role. Take Type II diabetes or lung cancer for example. Not everyone who has these illnesses “brought it upon themselves”, but more often than not, these conditions are the result of years of bad decisions. Now that doesn’t mean that I would say to someone with lung cancer, “good, you got what you deserved.” Or that I wouldn’t have compassion for those who are suffering from Type II diabetes, even if it is the result of their own choices. It just means I find the term disease troubling when used to describe these conditions because its connotations somehow imply that the person suffering shares no responsibility for their plight.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize that once someone is addicted it is not a simple matter of will power to overcome the temptation to use. However, I resent the idea that an addict is “powerless” over their addiction. I resent it because it does those battling their addiction a disservice while also providing them with a convenient excuse when they sometimes lose a battle.

Think about it. If there was no element of volition in addiction, then why is it that some addicts are able to stay sober while others are not? If it is truly a “disease” in which one is powerless, then how does one get or stay sober in the first place? Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t an element of compulsion or that the brains of addicts have not been altered due to their addiction. Just that in the struggle to stay sober, choice plays a role and that using the word disease to describe addiction sometimes undermines this fact. Furthermore, it discredits the efforts of the “recovering” addict as well. Staying sober is a hard, hard task. One that requires commitment and strength and honesty and a network of support. So when we say that addiction is a disease in which the addict is powerless, it feels like we are also saying that their sobriety is not their own, not something that they clawed and climbed their way out of the darkness to achieve.

Furthermore, referring to addiction as a disease provides the addict with a convenient scapegoat when they do relapse. They often use this “diagnosis” as a way of avoiding blame or explaining away their mistakes. “It’s not my fault. It’s a disease” is something I’m sure many a loved one of an addict has heard before.

And so it is for these two reasons that I resent referring to addiction as a disease. It doesn’t help the addict or those affected by addiction.

What might actually help addicts is to rethink how we discuss addiction. Not just whether or not it’s a disease but how we can prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. After all, no one smokes their first joint, takes their first shot, or snorts their first line thinking they will be an addict. We all think we will be the exception, even when we have had front row tickets to the main event our whole lives and know the predisposition for addiction lies deeply embedded in our DNA. Even then many decide to play Russian roulette, never knowing whether they’ve lost or not until it is too late.

So this is what we should be focusing on when we talk about addiction: how to stop people from becoming addicts in the first place. To do this, we need to understand why some people become addicts and others do not. We need to know if there is an identifiable “tipping point” in which recreational behavior turns into something more sinister. Just when does a person’s brain chemistry or wiring change so that he or she is now an “addict”? Are there genetic tests that can determine the degree of one’s predisposition for addiction? Perhaps if we could tell people from a young age just how great their odds are, then maybe we could convince them to never pick up that beer or that joint or that pipe. Yes, most children of addicts already realize that they are at a higher risk for addiction themselves, yet there is no hard and fast rule for just how much so. Nor is there an explanation for why one sibling becomes an addict while the other does not. The one thing we do know is that the earlier one starts using the more likely he/she is to develop an addiction. Perhaps this should be emphasized in drug awareness programs rather than focusing on the immediate physical damage that can be done. Because the message we send to children is hypocritical, telling them not to drink as we lift our glass of wine. Maybe if instead of trying to scare them away from experimentation, we explain that waiting until their minds have fully developed will allow them to better enjoy the pleasure that mind-altering substances can provide, they might actually listen.

In addition to preventing addiction before it starts, we also need to know if there are different types of addicts (not just people addicted to different substances) so that we can better help people who become addicted. Currently, we rely on AA as the panacea for all addictions even though its long term success rate is abysmally low and it fails to recognize that addicts are a very diverse group of individuals. Because of this diversity, what helps one person stay sober may not be as effective for another. Sure, there may be some universal elements among all treatments, such as insisting on accountability for one’s actions, but there should also be some flexibility and individualization. Treatment should be tailored to the individual, perhaps combining pharmaceutical aids with behavioral modification therapy for one person while teaching another to place their faith in a higher power and to attend daily meetings.

These are the types of discussions we should be having in light of yet another life lost to addiction. Because even if Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death was the result of his own poor choices, this does not mean we do not still mourn his passing.