Vulgarities in Context: The Power and Disempowering of Language

This is a re-post of March 13 in order to add this commentary: Last night, Jon Stewart made many of the same comments to the Rush Limbaugh broohaha that I suggest here. Stewart joins the debate in a feature called The Vulgar Game in which he discusses the uses, abuses and consequences of vulgar words. Kristen Schaal demonstrates to the Republican Party how to turn their policies into stand-up comedy by turning the vulgarities on herself. I think it’s a fascinating conversation, so here’s my two bits.

You’ve heard the uproar about Limbaugh’s use of the word “slut” to attack the character of a woman testifying in defense of hormone therapies. He used it with full knowledge of the impact it would have: for the over-forty crowd, it is regarded as a profound assassination of a woman’s honor. What he didn’t know, was that another generation had already begun to disempower the vulgarities of our generation. I discovered the depth of it only recently in a conversation I had with two young men in their twenties.

David, Jason, and I had a passionate discussion about language and discovered a wide generational gap in our emotional reaction to certain dangerous words. You know the ones: they’re the words we can only publically speak of with euphemisms like “the N word.” There were also the “C” and the “F” words used as slurs for women and gays. Jason and David argued that for their generation these words no longer hold the social power they once did. I argued that they did indeed continue to be inflammatory for other generations and in other contexts.

Context, of course is everything. These two may well be able to use these words within their peer groups without inciting gasps of dismay (as I did when David said the C word…see I can’t even write it. “You’re too sensitive,” he said…in a way, he’s right). I know of a thirty-something here in Santa Cruz who holds an annual Pimps and Hos (that’s “whores” to those of you out of the loop) costume party. For them, its kind of ironic, maybe a form of 21st century camp.

Jason argued that they deliberately over use dangerous words precisely to disempower them. We agreed that Comedy Central’s South Park is a perfect example of this kind of speech act: they’ve set records with their scatological and penis references. They follow, of course, in the footsteps of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce who both risked careers and arrest with their use of dangerous words. So I can believe that the 21st century youth may well have succeeded in denuding some of the volatility of some of these words. But only within the context of their limited social worlds.

I grew up in a generation that also fought to change our language. We wanted it to be more gender neutral and less condescending to women. And we wanted language to be less divisive and incendiary, hence the pressure to prohibit the use of ethnic slurs in public: no more Spade, Chink, Mik, Spic, Hebe, or Wop jokes. This move got a bad name—“Political Correctness”—but people stopped using the words…at least in public.

So I can’t be dispassionate about all the work I did to impress upon people the power of language. Many of those dangerous words are, in fact, still dangerous and potent. I really doubt that white Jason or Russell could walk into the North End of Hartford, CT and use the “N” word casually without being beaten up. They need to be respectful of different contexts as really real. On the other hand, these words clearly have less impact with their generation and may reflect an easier set of relationships between race, gender, and class. And maybe I need to accept that context as a legitimate one, too.

The passionate reaction to Rush Limbaugh’s slur inspired a perfect example of what I’m trying to express. This girl band–The Reformed Whores–divest the word “slut” of its disparaging character and imbue it with modern feminist power. And it’s hilarious. Comedy is a good indicator of cultural change.

Response to Limbaugh

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