Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/08/2011

Can we talk? or, Using the f-word in class

About twice a semester one of George Carlin’s seven deadly words slips into my speech in class.

The one that usually slips out, of course, is “fuck.” There’s hardly any way I would want to say anything that would require the use of the others. But the cats and I use “fuck” in conversation at home when no one else is around, so it’s bound to slip out now and then when I don’t really intend for it to. Last semester I did once, without thinking, use “tits” when a student was reporting on his Body Modification research on breast enlargement procedures. I embarrassed even myself by thoughtlessly using “tits” instead of “breasts” in front of the class. I forgave myself, however, because of the nature of the conversation (which was probably not appropriate for an academic situation in the first place—see my posting for December 4). I immediately apologized and used my own slip as an occasion to talk about diction level in academic writing.

In one of my favorite films Hugh Grant and the late Charlotte Coleman run around yelling “fuck” over and over (at least that’s my recollection without putting the disk into my computer right now) because they are late for a wedding. I don’t remember how many times they say it, but it’s enough that any thought that it is a “dirty” word vanishes. It becomes (as it does when the cats and I use it) simply a mindless epithet.

As I write the next sentence, I wonder how many people reading this will be offended (I’d hate to lose any readers because of it). Oh well!  For those too young (or living with their heads buried even farther in the sand—or elsewhere—than mine is) the seven words are: Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits.

About twice a semester I use other words in class that lower the diction level. Those uses are more calculated. Usually it’s “God damned” or some other expression of extreme disapproval. Using those words is an effective means of getting attention because the students don’t often use “strong” language. “Fuck” doesn’t get attention because the students use it in its various declensions and conjugations all the time. I think they have no comprehension the word used to be considered vulgar. They don’t comprehend that its overuse weakens the impact of their speech or writing—as does  the overuse of any word. “Fuck” is always bleeped on free television (not, I suppose, on channels one has to pay for, but I wouldn’t know about that; one can, of course, get away with any monstrosity as long as one is making money on it—the essence of capitalism).

I watch Comedy Central Presents. Many of my friends find that weird, strange, low-brow? Most of them think the diction is too low. Some of the comedians stoop. I don’t watch the Cable Guy. But some of the comedians understand language—the use of the seven deadly words especially. Myq Kaplan is one of my favorites:  He uses puns and double entendres to create penetrating social commentary in the style of Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, Lewis Black (I know, I know—the jury’s still out on him), and Carlin.

An example of Kaplan’s humor is, “I have some distant cousins who got sucked into one of those pyramid schemes, you know, building them in Egypt” (1). To point out the obvious, the verbal sign for “pyramid scheme” (an illegal process of taking money from investors to pay promised returns on the investments of previous innvestors) becomes a verbal symbol for the (presumed) kind of work Biblical Jews were forced to do in Egypt. I cannot think of any comedian (or anyone else I know) who has managed to invert “fuck” to create a different meaning such as Kaplan’s inversion of the connotation of “pyramoid” to make a new meaning.

Kaplan’s use of “pyramid” follows Susanne Langer’s assertion that

At the center of human experience, then, there is always the activity of imagining reality, conceiving the structure of it through words, images, or other symbols, and assimilating actual perceptions to it as they come—that is, interpreting them in light of general, usually tacit ideas (2).

Kaplan’s shifting of the meaning of “pyramid” joins two “general, usually tacit ideas” (illegally stiffing clients for money and holding a nation in captivity) in a way so incongruous one can hardly help but find it humorous. There are, of course, other tacit perceptions—this joke comes at the end of a series of jokes about stereotyping, including jokes about himself as a Jew—at play, including the stereotype of the “money-grubbing” Jew, which, I’m pretty sure Kaplan intends his audience to think of.

In his blog posting on NPR yesterday, Alva Noë avers that

we need to come to terms with the extreme delicacy and dangerous apparent simplicity of the Wu Tang Clan’s [the wildly popular and influential hip-hop group] use of proscribed language.  This is a conversation that has to happen. Not once. But often. It’s a blessing. And not only because of the history of racial hatred and conflict in America. There is a more general reason why we must encourage conversations, and conflicts, about the way we use words. . . [because when we speak] it is the words themselves we put on display. Not mere sounds. Not mere marks on paper. The words themselves, with all their meanings, associations and gestural power (3).

We use words to share both ideas and experiences. We also use words to harm and simply to shock, to express feelings and to seduce. Langer says the roots of language usually “convey ideas of felt experience, i.e., either of action or of impact,  and feeling is either good or bad.” From those roots, words can actually (and often in our language do) reverse meaning (think, for example of the use of “Jew” as a noun and its use as a verb; or the use of “faggot” by homophobes and its use by gay persons). “In every sensory experience there is the threat of evanescence and the threat of intolerability, and the precarious balance between them is implicity in every moment” in which we use language (4).

Alva Noë is exactly correct when he says we must have conversation about the use of language. My saying “fuck” or “tits” in class is nearly always (perhaps always) indefensible in the classroom. On the other hand, the words we use, as George Carlin was saying in his famous “Seven-Words Routine,” are not in themselves harmful or inappropriate. That is, I would judge, the point of Noë’s posting. Langer warns us that, while a word itself is not harmful or inappropriate,

The use of words is always an index to people’s intellectual power; the vagueness or precision of the the distinctions they draw. . . may be seen in their choice of distinct words. . . or their tendency to let one word serve many puposes and shift its meaning without taking account of relevant differences (5).

Pyramid schemer

Pyramid schemer

I intend to continue the conversation with my students about the precise use of words. Saying “fuck” is not so bad because it is, in the long run, meaningless. Calling another person “illegal,” indiscriminately referring to people as “terrorists,” or lumping all “evangelicals” together serves to shift meaning not only of the words but of our perceptions, our understanding of relevant differences.
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(1) http://comedians.jokes.com/myq-kaplan/videos/myq-kaplan—religious-extremity
(2) Langer, Susanne K. Philosophical Sketches. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962 (128).
(3) Noë, Alva. “Words Too Hot To Mention!”  13.7 Cosmos and Culture. NPR.org. January 7, 2011. Web. 08 Jan. 2011.
(4) Langer, Susanne K. Mind: an Essay on Human Feeling. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press,1967 (197).
(5) Langer Sketches, 129.

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