Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Devaluation of the Cuss Word

“May you live in interesting times” is supposedly a Chinese curse, although a native-born Chinese friend has sworn the first he heard of it was from me. Be that as it may (and it is), the sixties were both a blessing and a curse. In the blessing column, it was a fascinating era of new ideas, new ideals, great music, technological advances, and new visions. In the curse arena, some of the visions came from a new proliferation of drugs, the Viet Nam war divided the country, racial strife came close to tearing us apart, Nixon began his infamous dirty tricks that ultimately led to his downfall, free love led to increased VD, and an open attitude toward speech led to a proliferation of profanity in literature and entertainment that has culminated in a daily comic strip featuring the phrase “Son of a bitch!”

. I'll try not to do that again. 
Before it even occurs to you, this is not a diatribe against Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce was somewhat more vulgar than mainstream comics of the period, but what got him busted was not the F-word. It was talking openly about sex. You see, innuendo was fine, the kind of stories a Redd Foxx might tell were okay, but to actually get into what men and women were doing in the bedroom, in detail no less, was downright obscene to some people.But, then again, there are people that would have everyone arrested for running around naked under their clothes.
At any rate, I’ve no problem with Bruce because he wasn’t telling his stuff at 7 or 8 PM on a general network that the kiddies might be watching. He actually had material he could perform on TV and did. He saved the heavy stuff for adult audiences in an adult environment. 

Then came Richard Pryor. He was telling us about the streets using the language of the streets. There was a legitimacy to that approach that made it work in a both funny and visceral way. Unfortunately, comics began to see that Pryor could get laughs using, well, dirty words. And they found that they could get a cheap laugh just by throwing in an F-word or one of its friends into a lame gag. 
Perhaps the ultimate irony comes from George Carlin. Early in his career he didn’t use much vulgarity in his routines, but he did do a riotously funny routine about the seven words you couldn’t use on television. The bit is brilliant because it diffuses the words and renders them harmless in a way that would lead you to think, “Ah, what the heck, say them, don’t say them. Who cares?” Unfortunately, Carlin has decided that there is something liberating about saying them as much as possible to the point that, to me, it detracts from the meaningful messages he’s delivering. 
And then there’s rap. I can’t say much because I’ve never thought much of the style, I don’t care for the whole rapper/gangsta scene, and frankly I find the style to just plain boring.What I don’t understand is how profanity reached the point where it’s so ubiquitous. It seems that no one is capable of speaking in a movie or a novel for more than a dozen words without some sort of cuss word, especially if he or she is supposed to be “hard” or “tough”. I could barely get through “Pulp Fiction”, a movie I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed, because of the endless F-bombs. And “Reservoir Dogs” I couldn’t get through at all. And don’t just blame Quentin Tarentino. Anything that’s supposed to be “indie” or “cutting edge” is vulgar to the point that it’s simply distracting.
By the way, the need for vulgarity has gotten so common, that in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood film, one of the characters drops an F-cuss. What is funny about this is that the word was not in use in England at the time. What do expect for a movie where Robin Hood doesn’t have an English accent? 
People curse; they always have. I’m sure that Neanderthals made good use of their hyoid bone, primitively placed as it was, to gurgle appropriately salty phrases when a flint tool cracked during napping. Profanity has always been a mark of anger, frustration, or disappointment. It has been a mark of intense emotion. Or rather it used to be. Now it seems to have become a commonplace, as pithy as calling the weather cloudy. We have even reached the point where the Vice President of the United States would use the F-Word while presiding over the Senate. At least, Nixon and his associates kept it in the Oval Office. 
The Internet has become a constant cacophony of F-bombs, racial and homophobic slurs, and sexist insults. It sounds like a junior high school playground on forums, blogs, and the vast majority of web sites.
A while back, I realized that I had fallen prey to this kind of coarseness. Oh, it wasn’t like every other word was profane, but too many were. It was a convenient way to avoid thinking of an appropriately strong adjective, I guess. But, I decided that it was just too much, so I’ve cleaned up my act considerably. I think we need a moratorium on cussing. Everybody needs to set one day a week where no coarse language crosses their lips or their keyboards, no matter how aggravated or aggrieved they may be. We should challenge ourselves to find ways to express our feelings that can actually be spoken to a group of Quakers without worrying about any of them fainting dead away. 
Besides there are such dramatic ways of expressing disgust, anger, or angst. Think of the opening to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “You blocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things!” That is so much more effective than, “You dumb mother-------s!”

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