Saturday, 17 November 2007

Fuck Euphemisms

Shit, piss, fuck, prick, dick, cock, cunt, damn, goddamn, motherfucker, cocksucker, fuckface, bastard, ass, asshole, shithead, crap, fucker, dickhead, bullshit, bullcrap

These are obscenities. Practically from the moment we learn to talk, we hear how awful these words are. They have a strangely mystical, talismanic quality, we are taught, that makes them so evil that they may not be uttered, on pain of a whole plethora of punishments.

If you say them on TV or the radio, you're really asking for trouble. In fact, in the United States Reporter, the publication containing every decision and order of the United States Supreme Court, you'll find a complete, unabridged transcription of a George Carlin bit. Pacifica Radio decided to broadcast the bit, which ridicules the notion of "bad words", and, in so doing, lists them. The FCC was not amused, and the matter eventually made it to the US Supreme Court, where Pacifica lost.

Hundreds of pages of FCC administrative decisions every year concern issues such as whether "dickhead" is more offensive than "bullshit" (it apparently isn't), and whether either is fit to be said on network and basic cable television. These proceedings, it is worth noting, are initiated when viewers actually get mad enough about the use of a word to file an official complaint!

Millions of dollars are spent on "editing" (i.e. "censoring") films for broadcast. In one case, the "standards and practises" censors took issue with a character in Spies Like Us exclaiming "Oh, my God!" (abridged to "Oh, my!"), and an entire sequence involving a Baby Ruth bar that is mistaken for a piece of shit had to be excised from Caddyshack. In at least one movie, the censors felt a need to get rid of the phrase "I think it sucks". Sometimes these censorial choices are truly surreal. The censors in charge of bowdlerising the 1984 hit Ghostbusters, for example, could not bear to hear "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!" or a woman saying "I want you inside me", but "Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown!" was perfectly all right by them.

This censorship is not cheap. It involves writing and reading additional dialogue, or stringing words together from other words uttered by the same actor, and dubbing them over the original soundtrack of the film so that unsuspecting viewers will not realise how close they came to ultimate evil.

This is clearly serious business. These words, as George Carlin noted in the aforementioned bit, "are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."

A few weeks ago, someone in a chatroom was bemoaning the lack of socially conscious singers in the present day. "There are no Dylans in your generation," she said to me. I replied that this was completely untrue. Hadn't she heard of Ani DiFranco, Jello Biafra, Propagandhi, or even some of the really good, socially conscious rap artists of the past decade or two? At the mention of Tupac Shakur, she asked "does he swear?" When I answered that, yes, he did indeed, she remarked "Well, then that's just trash, then." When I suggested that it isn't exactly incomprehensible for someone to swear about the police violence, discrimination, social marginalisation, and poverty that devastate his or her community, she responded: "There's no excuse for swearing."

Tupac Shakur's Changes is a song about the misery of the present and the urgent need for change in a world in which

Cops give a damn about a negro
pull the trigger kill a nigga he's a hero
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares
one less hungry mouth on the welfare

His raw, undiluted lyrics tell of the bleak facts of life in the besieged post-Panther African American community ("It's time to fight back, that's what Huey [Newton] said / Two shots in the dark, now Huey's dead"). The world he evokes is one in which police officers can kill unarmed African Americans with impunity, where the only viable employment option for many is the drug trade, and where poverty and hopelessness are so omnipresent that the only way for many not to starve is to go outside of the law:

I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself
is life worth living should I blast myself?
I'm tired of bein' poor & even worse I'm black
my stomach hurts so I'm lookin' for a purse to snatch

N.W.A.'s notorious Fuck tha Police is a song of deep anger at the everyday racism, harassment, and violence suffered by African Americans at the hands of unaccountable police forces. It is presented as a trial at which each member of the group gives his "testimony". The song's first verse puts the problem in unmistakable terms:

Young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority

In addition to talking about the myriad everyday abuses suffered at the hands of the police (e.g., "Searching my car, looking for the product / Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics"), Fuck tha Police contains detailed narratives about fighting back:

Fuck that shit, cause I ain't the one
For a punk mother fucker with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and throw in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

The song ends with the verdict that the unnamed police officer on trial is a "redneck,
whitebread, chickenshit motherfucker".

Essentially, then the idea is that random police violence and torture, the complete nullification of the constitutional rights of an entire ethnicity, crushing racialised poverty, and internecine violence are bad, but not bad enough to say "fuck".

"Obscenities" may be jarring, disturbing, or even revolting at times, but they all speak truth. Sometimes, they speak truth about the matter being described ("Cops give a damn about a negro"). Other times, as with the use of racial epithets, they speak truth about the person speaking. Words like these exist in every human language, though the specific items included often differ. Wherever they are used, though, they bring us back to a primal and visceral reality, one free of whitewashing or window dressing. As such, if they didn't exist, we'd have to invent them.

Faulty intelligence, intelligence failure, enhanced interrogation, coercive interrogation, detainee, officer-involved shooting, waterboarding, neutralise, collateral damage, peace process, police-community relations, military commissions, depopulate, forced-draft urbanisation, intervention, civilian contractor, authoritarian leader, death in police custody, pro-life, strategic hamlet, shock and awe, free market, free trade, rationalise, downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, restructuring, union avoidance, payday lender, tort reform, school choice, crisis pregnancy centre, special relationship, democracy promotion

There is another class of words that you don't normally hear about when "obscenities" come up. Unlike the "explicit" words declared "obscene" by conventional wisdom, these words speak no truth. They do their best to conceal it. They are bloodless, heartless evasions that destroy the truth whilst leaving the underlying facts mostly intact (though they are occasionally outright lies). These are the euphemisms.

Commentators speak of "the war in Iraq". The United States "intervened" in Iraq, they will say, because of "faulty intelligence". Regrettably, there has been the odd bit of "collateral damage" in the midst of what military experts call "low-intensity conflict" or "counterinsurgency operations", which often involve "depopulating" large areas, including "village closures", in order to "neutralise insurgents". This policy of "shock and awe" "counterinsurgency" sometimes involves "civilian contractors", who help in "the defence of Iraq".

On the news, you will often hear that there has been an "officer-involved shooting" or that someone has "died in police custody". This revives the on-again-off-again debate about the serious "police-community relations" problem that has plagued law enforcement.

Sometimes, you might hear about the (implicitly isolated) "abuses" of "detainees" detained as part of the "war on terror". Sometimes, these "abuses" include such things as "waterboarding", "sensory deprivation", and other methods of "softening them up". Often enough someone will bemoan these "coercive interrogation techniques" as a major public relations disaster for "Operation Iraqi Freedom". However, on the other side, someone will note that "enhanced interrogation techniques", while not pretty, are essential in the fight for "peace and security". These same people will argue that "military commissions" are necessary in order to try offences for which "the application of the rules of evidence would be inappropriate".

Turning to business news, we often hear that management has decided to "restructure", a process involving the "rightsizing" of the workforce in order to "rationalise" workflows and "curtail redundancies". While the "externalities" may be substantial, they pale in comparison to the excellent return on investment the shareholders can expect, due in part to "significant wage restraint". Sometimes, rather than "rightsizing" the workforce, certain work processes are simply "outsourced" to "less cost-intensive environments", where "free trade agreements" have led to "economic miracles". Editorials will tell us of the need to enhance "workforce mobility and flexibility" as part of the transition to the "new economy", and hail the increase in "opportunities" in the "service sector". Needless to say, this is all "at-will employment", so it will not present a hindrance to any future "rightsizing" that might become necessary.

The new, "flexible" worker may find, whilst enjoying his new "opportunity", that he is experiencing "negative cashflow". Luckily, there are benevolent "payday lenders" on every street corner to help him make ends meet. The only downside to this arrangement is that he must use his "payday loan" "responsibly".

Each of these expressions manages to express an identifiable fact, while totally obliterating the underlying truth.

There is, indeed a war "in" Iraq. Though one might wonder how it got there, this question must remain unanswered. "Faulty intelligence" has the ring of truth, but only if it is used to refer to the failure of the American people to react intelligently to the campaign of outright lies used to whip them into a warlike frenzy. "Collateral damage" does an admirable job of strangling every last bit of humanity out of the concept of dead civilians (and if it doesn't succeed, the almost complete suppression of accurate casualty figures will). "Low-intensity conflict" and "counterinsurgency" are misdirectors: they focus on the military classification of a series of tactics - in this case, terrorist warfare against a civilian population - while avoiding any actual mention of the tactics themselves. A "village closure" sounds rather innocuous; it refers to the practise of turning villages into concentration camps ("strategic hamlets" in Vietnam-era parlance). "Depopulate" and "neutralise" actually manage to strangle the life out of "killing". A "civilian contractor" sounds like a construction worker, someone who is probably involved in the "reconstruction of Iraq" we keep hearing about; in fact, "civilian contractor" refers to a member of one of the many mercenary forces - many of which include notorious terrorists and mass murderers - operating with complete impunity as part of the occupation of Iraq.

One never hears of a "civilian-involved shooting"; those are just called "murder". When a police officer kills a civilian, however, he has just "participated in an officer-involved shooting". If the death comes as a result of a beating after the civilian has been arrested, he will have "died in police custody"; of natural causes, of course. And just what are "police-community relations"? What community? And how exactly are the police "relating" to them? It does however, sound somewhat better than, "the ongoing pattern of police violence and discrimination".

"Waterboarding" sounds like a sport that might be big in Malibu. In fact, it refers to repeated simulated drowning of the victim, relenting only long enough to prevent actual asphyxiation. These "abuses" (i.e. "systematic torture" or "war crimes") are often described as "enhanced" or "coercive" "interrogation techniques" in order to make it sound like they are somehow useful for - and used for the purpose of - obtaining useful information to protect us all. And what of these "military commissions" that try these people once they have been enhancedly interrogated? As it turns out, the term actually refers to "unaccountable kangaroo courts" that can sentence people who haven't had the benefit of a defence attorney or the right to confront their accusers to the death penalty based on no evidence at all.

When an employer "rightsizes" its workforce, it is, of course, "downsizing" the incomes of employees who will now be lucky to avoid homelessness in the age of "welfare reform". "Externalities" refers to poverty, insecurity, unemployment, destitution, loss of health care, destruction of entire working-class communities, and other irrelevancies. "Mobility" and "flexibility" are positively connoted, and they aren't precisely lies. They just leave out the direction of the mobility (hellward, in a handbasket) and the nature of the flexibility (going to bed not knowing whether you'll have a job when you wake up). The same is true of "at-will employment". At whose will? The employer's, of course. And "opportunities in the growing service sector" does certainly sound better than "low-status shit jobs with starvation wages and no security or hope of advancement".

Who are these "payday lenders" who are only too happy to help out our haplessly flexible working-class friend? You may know them as "loansharks", gone legit. They lend out pittances to poor people at high interest, accruing rapidly. How does one use them "responsibly?" There are two options: default and skip town, or don't use them at all.

If we were not so deeply deluded, we would easily realise that "shit", "piss", "fuck" et al. do not hold a candle in the obscenity department to even the mildest of the above expressions. Each one eliminates unspeakable atrocities and great injustice and suffering from the picture. They seek to anaesthetise mind and conscience alike. They distort the realities that lead people to say "Fuck tha police" or note that "cops give a damn about a negro" into the bloodless truthlessness of "the problems of police-community relations". They turn crimes for which every one of us should feel deep outrage and shame into neat, tidy abstractions, each syllable a mass grave hiding thousands of bodies. They turn the great sadistic butchers of our time into great visionaries who seek only peace and democracy. The mental operation that turns the mass murder of innocent civilians into "collateral damage" is not at all far removed from the one that gave us "special treatment" and "final solution".

No wonder you're not allowed to say "bullshit".