Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Reptilian Brain Speaks

The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. ... In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The BBC, it seems, is taking some heat for its decision to air a program “devoted to the most offensive word in the English language.” To save you a lot of time trying to figure out which word that is, I'll tell you that the title of the program is tentatively, “I Love the C-Word.”

I have a few “c” words for the BBC. The very idea is a load of Crap, a pile of Crud, a Crock, total Codswallop (might as well use one the Brits would understand), a Crying shame, and a Criminal waste of air time. The same BBC that once gave us “I, Claudius” and the rest of the Masterpiece Theater programming now stoops to foul-mouthed soaps, Jerry Springer: The Opera (9000 curse words, including 200 instances of the big F), and phony documentaries on foul language. To show how serious the BBC is about this nonsense, they plan to have a comedian host it.

Yep, definitely a scholarly look at the evolution of the language.

When I broached this subject before, I said I didn't understand how foul language had become so ubiquitous. I think I'm beginning to figure it out.

First, let's separate “bad language” or “profanity” from “swearing”. They are not the same thing, even though in our linguistic laziness we using the terms interchangeably. In the olden days, swearing was serious business, since it was a violation of a sacred commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” If you invoked the name of God as part of a promise or oath, you were bound to undertake the actions promised. If you invoked God to curse someone, you were overstepping your personal authority and opening yourself up to the wrath of the Almighty, unless you had very good cause for such an invocation.

Profanity, on the other hand, came from “profane”, which did not mean dirty or foul language. Rather it meant “common” or “coarse.” The common people lived in a profane world; the language they used to describe it was, therefore, “profanity.” A member of the clergy, an educated person, or a peer was above such “profane” things and avoided the language, but there was nothing wrong with profanity in and of itself.

For example, a farmer talking about fertilizing his field was discussing a “profane” subject, but his language might well be more civil and easier on the ear than anything we hear today from a group of upper-middle class adults.

Somewhere along the line, profanity got associated with vulgarisms. What's hard to understand is how the vulgarisms got to be an acceptable usage in everyday language.

Enter the professorial types.

One Carol Breuss, a communication professor at the University of St. Thomas alibis our dwindling ability to express ourselves by saying, “As a culture, we decide what is a good word and we decide what is a bad word, and that's changing over time.”

Take notes, kids, because that piece of brilliance will probably be on the exam.

Foul language is recognized as foul language. No one thinks the F-word and its kin are good words, and few think of such words as even "acceptable". So the culture still thinks bad words are bad words, but the culture thinks its clever to use them in all sorts of inappropriate settings. Ms. Breuss lays the use of such words at the door of “permissive parenting”, but she also is paraphrased as allowing that use of bad language "may sometimes slip out because part of the brain handles language and part handles emotion. Studies show swearing comes from the emotional, instinctual place.”

So, we're letting the reptile within us control our thinking, and our parents wouldn't wash out our mouths for doing so. Well, that explains Dick Cheney.

What is really frightening is that nowhere in the story does Ms. Breuss think that thinking like a lizard is a good thing. Basically, she is using the “everyone does it” excuse, which is an incredibly lame justification for any action.

The saddest thing is that movies and television try to convince us that foul language is de riguer. I've tried to watch a lot of good films and had to give up because characters dropped so many F-bombs that it was impossible to actually follow what was passing for dialog.

I've got a bulletin for these apologists. I've worked in factories, slaved in restaurant kitchens, and even been a grape picker. Sure I've heard some bad language, but almost all people, white and non-white, managed to express themselves with a minimum of coarseness. I also found that bad language use is based on a sort of feedback mechanism. That is, if you use crummy language, the person to whom you're talking will, too. Avoid it and the other person will as well.

In other words, if we really want less bad language, we've got to stop using it ourselves. We could also decide that bathroom humor, juvenile dialog, and gratuitous profanity in our so-called entertainment media has gone too far. That doesn't mean purging all bad words from films and books, but it does mean using them sparingly so that it is clear that strong emotions are involved when such words are used. The lizard in our heads occasionally does the talking for all of us.

It just doesn't need to control our lives.

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