Masonic Boom

"Crazy" "Oversensitive" "Feminazi" "Bitch" bloggin' bout pop music, linguistics and mental health issues

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Semiotics of Swearing

WARNING: contains lots of rude bits and bad words, obviously. It is impossible to address the linguistics and implications of swearing without containing some examples.

I've always been fascinated by swearing, from a linguistic point of view. The dynamics of what words are forbidden, what words express our most primal (and often negative) instincts, what words are used to shock, and what our go-to insults and most-bad-thing words are. You can tell a lot about a society or a culture by their swearwords - both what they value and what they denigrate. Words interest me, especially in the totally text-based environs of an internet messageboard, words define, shape and reinforce our worlds. And words and their connotative meanings are bigger than you, despite what you may think your intentions are.

This comes, of course, from another internet forum kerfuffle. (It's the things that really get under people's skin - yours or someone else's - that are worth talking about.) Of course, I've learned the hard way that a lot of people dislike debate because they see any and all disagreement as conflict. I get accused of "ranting" when really I'm just rambling, often thinking out loud about stuff I find - you know - just *interesting*, even if I'm being quite calm and reasonable and thoughtful. I think it means that if I'm talking about emotive topics which produce discomfort or even anger in the reader, they project that feeling onto me or my writing. They're angry, so *I* must be ranting. Riiiiiight.

Update: I have been told that I have misrepresented the views expressed by some people on this thread by condensing several posts/viewpoints for the sake of summary, and by not explicitly stating that there was a variety of other views, some enlightened, some not so. This is a blog. This is not a newspaper, it is not a forum digest, it is not claiming to represent "the truuuuuuuuth!" - it is a a diary, a journal, a record of my *opinion* and *my* experience and interpretation of events. In the past, I would have linked to the thread itself, I have not done so in this case because 1) this post was not meant to be about the thread so much as the things it made me think about (you really don't have to look very far on the internet to find kids using homophobic language, whether "ironically" or not - anything from Facebook to 4chan, or even supposedly "Intelligent" dance music forums, for example, WATMM, will provide you hundreds of examples) and 2) I have since asked to have my account removed from the forum, and all my associated posts have been deleted, making the resulting thread now incomplete.

The argument started about the use of the word "faggot" on a supposedly "satirical" (read: that kind of little boy mocking piss-taking) website, probably intended in the same kind of spirit as Hipster Runoff or @tiestosuperfan. That is, the "satire" is only really obvious to those who are already so deep into the culture as to blur the line between satire and participation. To the outsider, it's either incomprehensible, or indistinguishable due to the narcissism of small difference.

I don't find that kind of humour funny - granted, as a middle aged woman, I am not its targeted audience. To me, the site just read as a sniggering "Let's call people faggots to show that calling people faggots is wrong" and the way its "offensive" content was quoted on the forum (the title of the thread itself being not about the other puerile but non-political blog entries, but the most eye-catching and controversial use of the word "faggot") just seemed to me a kind of childish gleefulness at getting to use the "bad words."

This lead to a discussion of humour and offensiveness, which started out getting at some interesting points, but was derailed by the typical "why are you offended?" and "people need to get off their high horses and stop being offended on other people's behalf." (my emphasis) as if it is only the offense taken that is the problem with Hate Speech. Some people get as far as "You shouldn't use these words because people will get offended" and then stop. This is only part of the story - and it's a part that is very easy to abuse, because it often leads to the kind of victim-blaming whereby one casts the people so "offended" as being to blame because they are "oversensitive", rather than actually accepting the responsibility that one is using terminology - and reinforcing the world-views behind that terminology - which degrades, denigrates, and excludes.

There are words that are loaded, and usages that are inherently bigoted, even if you, yourself, are not. An *action* can still be bigoted (racist, sexist, homophobic) even if you do not, personally, hold those beliefs. Claiming "I'm being ironic!" is not a "get out of the hegemony free" card.

You can see how much people are missing the point by their explanations - "why are we even having this conversation? We're all tolerant here! I mean, most of the time when we insult people by calling them fags, they're not even gay!" Yeah, this is the reason we're still having this conversation. If we lived in a culture where being gay or straight was as much a non-issue as having blue or brown eyes, then you wouldn't view calling someone "a fag" as an insult. We don't live in that world, we live in a world where people can still be criminally penalised or even executed for being gay. Even in the nice, "tolerant" west, we live in a *culture* where gay kids are still bullied about their sexuality to the point of suicide, as shown by recent, high-profile events.

The reason that it's not cute or funny to use "fag" or "gay" as an all purpose insult is NOT because "oh noes, gay people might get offended" - it's because every time you use the word "gay" as just another synonym for "bad" you are reinforcing that cognitive link between "homosexual" and "negative." You are contributing to a culture of homophobia by reinforcing those stereotypes.

And no, claiming this thin veneer of "irony" does not protect one as the writer. Firstly, as someone pointed out, it's Beavis and Butthead syndrome. That the people against whom the irony is most sharply pointed will not understand it as irony, they just see it as reinforcement or even celebration of their own idiocy. Secondly, there is not much difference between an ironic fist and a sincere fist for someone who is on the receiving end of the homophobic attitudes that this writer is perpetuating and reinforcing. Thirdly, that whole "I am so post-homophobic I can make fag jokes ironically" and the audience's response of "I'm so sophisticated I can eye-roll knowingly as I laugh - while we still get to keep the hilarious fag jokes" hides a kind of smug self delusion whereby one's own privilege goes unmentioned and unexamined.

It's no accident that "fag" and "gay" are the insults of choice anywhere that large amounts of young straight males congregate. Choice insults and swearwords cut straight to the heart of a community's worst insecurities. The homophobia expressed by groups of young males speaks directly of this crisis of masculinity (especially in communities where women have been excluded, by accident or design, such as many internet fora) expressed as a kind of "gay panic" or terror at not being seen as masculine enough. (See also feminist writing on Patriarchy: It Hurts Men, Too, as to the negative effects of over-policed gender binaries on males as well as females.)

Other communities have other deep-level insecurities, expressed by their insults-of-choice. A friend on the same thread commented that although he cringed at "gay", he still felt comfortable with a similar use of the word "retarded", even thought the use of "retarded" or "lame" as negatives is generally viewed as ableist, and therefore to be avoided. Among people who view themselves as intellectuals, the fear of being thought of as unintelligent manifests itself around insults aimed at portraying the other as stupid or ignorant. (I do this myself - my reflexive insult is to dismiss an irritant as "stupid" or "thick.") It is, however, a harmful and derogative category error to portray the mixture of the developmentally disabled and mentally ill commonly dismissed as "retarded" as simply a synonym for "unintelligent" or "non-intellectual." It reflects the Able person's fear and denigration of the Disabled under the guise of the intellectual's disdain for the ignorant.

Peel back the layers of any culture's "forbidden words" or "insults of choice" and you will find their deepest fears laid bare. Volumes have already been written about America's relationship with their worst-bad-thing word, "N*gg*r" - a word I cannot even bring myself to even type, let alone say, because, as a liberal, I fear being labelled as a racist or bigot myself as my "worst-bad-thing." I still don't entirely know what it means that the UK's worst-bad-thing word is "cunt" - if this speaks to a pervasive cultural misogyny, or more generally, to a deep-level terror of sex, or the body itself. (See also "bollocks" and "wanker.") The prevalence of scatological swearwords such as "crap" or "shit" can also represent a discomfort with the body, rather than simply its more base functions. Ironically, swearwords such as "hell" or "goddammit" or irreverently invoking the names of deities reflect the importance of religion within a culture, rather than point to a culture's irreligiousness.

If these concepts were not *important* they would lose the power to shock, which is one of the most crucial functions of a swearword - the shock, the rude jerk which the swearword produces mirrors and expresses the rude shock of the annoyance which triggers it. This is why swearwords intrigue me, *what* has the power to shock or "offend." But it is so important to look beyond that shock value, to realise *why* something is shocking, and assess whether that makes your 5-second LOL really worth it. Words do have power. Choose them wisely.

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