Wednesday, 19 March 2014

On Language Most Foul

It has come to my attention that there's something of a generational gap with regard to swearing, as in those of an older generation seem convinced that folks my age (mid-20s, let's say) just swear all the time for no reason at all and generally don't even give a fuck. I'd like to claim that that's a misunderstanding.

Let's consider some swearing:

Pictured: bad times online

Now, I'm not going to mount a defense of the conduct of "@Soul_James" here. The man is obviously a cretin, and simply out to cause mischief on the line. However, the response by '@infinite8horizo' is something I hear a lot, & this exchange neatly captures the language dispute I want to talk about. Let's break it down:

'@infinite8horizo' (I'm just going to call him Peter) is upset here because '@Soul_James' (I'll just refer to myself in the first person) has sworn at him - eg, used 'offensive language'. In this case, the word 'fuck'. It's a word I use a lot, and most commonly refers to a sex act, the act of fucking. You can check out the etymology of fuck on Wikipedia if research is your thing, but it refers to sex, basically. It's got a lot of diverse, mostly negative or emphatic uses in contemporary English, but it mostly refers to fucking. Let's consider some other exciting modern swears!

  • Shit, is another favourite of mine, refers almost exclusively to excrement; faeces.
  • Dick, refers to a penis, or the male phallus for those who enjoy classics.
  • Arse, or ass for the Americans, refers to your buttocks or anus region in general.
  • Cock, penis again.
  • Piss, is urine. Not really a swear word in Australia so much anymore, incidentally.

So there's a few. Notice a theme there? All of them are related to bodily functions! That's not a coincidence - swear words are words you're not supposed to say, or at least not in 'polite society'. These words are considered swear words because they refer to unmentionable acts - the necessary functions of the body, the acts that bring out our animal nature. The taboo behind these words stems from an age where we liked to pretend we didn't have to fuck and shit and piss all over the place, so the words describing those terms are taboo (but we can refer to them via their medical euphemisms, like urine, faeces, sexual intercourse, etc).

Now, back to Peter and myself. I mostly use those words as a means of transgression, of calling attention to something other people don't like attention called to. I don't think it's appropriate for people to be ashamed of their bodily functions or avoid referring to them, so to reflect this I refuse to acknowledge social standards of reference to them. I'll talk about fucking and pissing as I wish, & I'll utilise their descriptors in general language as if they're normal words, which they should be. There's nothing intrinsic to those words (or any words) that make them automatically 'bad', it's an association we place upon them as being unacceptable/taboo. I reject that, as obviously Peter doesn't, to the point where he (ostensibly) found my language too pernicious (a fancy word for 'fucked-up') to speak to me.

For a historical example of this sort of thing in action, you can look back to some olde worlde swears, like:

  • God damn it!
  • Jesus Christ!
  • To hell with this!

We pretty much say this sort of shit as we please nowadays, because blasphemy isn't a big deal like it once was. Even folk of Peter's generation, unless they're especially devout, will use these as their go-to for exclaiming irritation & generally expressing the sort of things I use shit and fuck and fuckshit to express. I'll also use these blasphemous options sometimes, but as they lack the transgressive aspect of the earlier examples, they're not as rewarding for me personally.

So having outlined why I say those sorts of words all the time, and why they only really bother prudes who think we should live our lives alienated from our bodily functions as if we're ashamed of being human, are there words I won't say? What are the Swear Words of Tomorrow, if the bodily function ones are out of style? Well, this will vary from place to place obviously, but there are a fair few words I'm very serious about not using, actually. Let's have a look at some, carefully!

  • F*ggot, a male homosexual.
  • Tr*nny, a transgender woman.
  • N*gger, a black person (originally African-American, but has kind of expanded)
  • C**n, an indigenous Australian (not sure if this one gets used elsewhere)
  • Bu*g, same as above.
  • D*ke, a lesbian.
  • Go*k, an Asian person.
  • Sl*t, a sexually-active woman.

Now, if you don't know some of those words, that's probably good. They're quite common in Australia, though becoming less-so. Obviously, these are mostly concerned not with bodily functions or blasphemy, but with identity. There are a few other words, like b*tch, which I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometime blurt out in a bad moment, but as a general rule I don't say. These are some fucking swear words, because saying them causes actual harm to people. It doesn't just offend them (not that that isn't worth considering), but harms and oppresses them. Just saying those words is a kind of bullying, which isn't true about sex words or poop words. Even if I'm mad at someone to whom these labels apply I won't use them, because I want to destroy them on my own terms, not via reference to some institution that marginalises them. That's chicken-shit behaviour.

This is the point I want to make behind all this: swearing isn't just some generational quirk, or arbitrary collective consciousness, it's a reflection of values. The things you won't refer to or discuss shows the things you're ashamed or for other reasons think ought not to be mentioned 'in polite society'. If someone says to you that's it's fine to call a woman a 'b*tch', & that to say otherwise is 'political correctness gone mad', but they get offended if you call them a 'fucking pile of garbage', then what they're saying is that it's fine to denigrate a woman specifically as a woman, but to refer to sex in their presence is morally unacceptable. If you're like my ancient grandparent who complains about 'so many n*ggers everywhere these days' but acts like you just took a shit on her mat if you say 'god damn it grandma don't say that shit', what you're saying is that you're fine with slavery, but being reminded that everybody poops is an inconvenience you should never have to be exposed to.

So, consider these social ramifications when you choose your words. Despite never being a person who was comfortable with oppressing others, as an aggressive little shit who loves to argue & hurl abuse I found it difficult initially to stop using some of these terms (language habits can be hard to break; f*g, b*tch, and 'gay' as a negative were particularly troublesome to drop entirely). It's not that hard though, ultimately, and you'll be amazed how quickly they disappear from your vocabulary. Just like that, you can stop worrying about inadvertently offending people or making them feel unsafe/unwelcome around you! Your vocabulary will pick up the slack in other ways, believe me.

This guy was actually a lot of fun to talk to and dished it out pretty good.

PS. There's far more that could be said about this subject, obviously, but I just wanted to cover these basics, so don't load me up with comments reminding me about swear words I didn't mention, or the complex linguistic history of taboo language, or side issues like non-verbal swearing (hand gestures etc) unless you have something profound to add. Because otherwise I'll react with scorn.

PPS. I could and will do an entire entry on political correctness, because that's Some Important Shit.

PPPS. Blasphemy is more complicated than I gave credit to here.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Abbott's Green Army: Punitive Civil Service

The LNP has put forward legislation to create a "Green Army" of disadvantaged Australians to engage in assorted environmental clean-up projects, at a pay rate of half the minimum wage. You can read the SMH article about it here.

Australian Labor has stated they will support the Green Army when it comes before the Senate. Read about that here.

What disgusts me about this isn't the vilification of the disadvantaged, which has been an Australian pastime since before the Howard years, or the deliberate erosion of workplace standards & the minimum wage, which has also been an essential element of the Australian political landscape for a while - it's the disservice it does to the very concept of civic participation.

An "environmental workforce" is a noble ideal, not because the environment is important (though it is) but because it represents the possibility of citizens being mobilised peacefully by the state to be empowered as stewards of our environment. Not "the" environment as an ecosphere or vague political abstraction, but our environment; our forests, our streets, our streams, our gutters, our parking lots. The maintenance of these areas by those of us who live in them - & the gratitude & respect that maintaining them on behalf of the polity should afford - ought to be a fulfilling, meaningful activity that our government would rightly be lauded for enabling.

Instead, that very possibility is destroyed by turning the act of taking care of our own environment into a punishment for what a capitalist system considers effluent - those unable to meaningfully take part in the systems of profit generation & consumption. It makes the maintenance & beautification of our world - not in the broad sense, but in the immediate, personal sense - a fucking dunce cap to be placed on the heads of social pariahs. What should be a noble, worthwhile activity is reduced to a brand of humiliation, a clear denoting of failure in the eyes of society.

Paying people doing these tasks a deliberately sub-minimum wage says as clearly as a capitalist society can say anything, "these people, and the task they are performing, are lesser. What they are doing is a job for the shameful, & the situation they are in should be reviled or pitied, but either way avoided." It twists acts of maintenance, of caretaking, of respecting our towns, cities and suburbs into a punishment, an unwanted activity we hand off to the unwanted dregs, and they'll bloody well do it if they want to eat & pay rent. There's no possibility of the barest self-respect in that.

Our society is, and should be, ashamed of the excessive waste it necessarily creates as part of its operation - whether it be inanimate garbage, or the human unemployed. Now Abbott has discovered a means to lump the two together, with the intent of ignoring both. Whatever you think of this as a policy, as a pure means to an end, of far more critical importance is its ideological underpinnings: the conservation of our public spaces, and the offering of assistance to those failed by our economic system, should both & together be considered embarrassments to be shunned, not duties to be willingly & proudly performed by all Australians.

This transforms active participation in civic life by citizens in the interests of citizens into a punishment meted out by those who are supposedly due our respect as worthwhile members of society - those who engage in profit-making for their own ends. The fully-revealed subtext behind this legislation, free of all bombast, is this: working to maintain the beauty & purity of our shared spaces & collective assets is a shameful weakness, & the exploitation of each other to increase our individual wealth is a righteous success.