Friday, November 10, 2006

Language and Rationality

Returning to one of my favorite subjects, civil discourse. I was just reading this fine post at Dr. Free-Ride's blog. Great discussion in the comments.

The issue, in this case, deals with a child saying a "bad word." The bad word in question is "bitch." Now, admittedly, in some contexts it would be entirely inappropriate for a kid to use that word, particularly if applied to a person, such as a classmate. Name-calling is not good.

On the other hand, the child in question apparently didn't know the word. It was spelled (incorrectly), and the child pronounced it, at which point someone tattled, and stupidity ensued.

This brings me to two points:
  1. Intention is key. A word is not a "bad" word if it is merely pronounced. You'd think from the administrative reaction to this event that merely invoking the word "bitch" would cause one of the Ancient Great Ones to manifest on the spot (which would probably make dog shows a lot more interesting to the layman, but I digress) or something equally dramatic. The child in question didn't call someone a bitch, just said the word.
  2. Context is also key. Clearly there are times when using the word "bitch" is useful, appropriate, and correct (e.g., the aforementioned dog show) and inoffensive. And in other cases, such as when applied to human animals, it might be offensive (although I'm unclear how this makes it a bad word). I can think of other words that have no useful, correct, inoffensive uses (though I'm finding it amusing to try). But somehow, making it a punishable offense to say the proper names of certain female animals, free of context, seems absurd.
And ultimately, where I'm going with this: There really are no bad words. To paraphrase my second-amendment-booster friends in defense of the first amendment:
Words don't offend people. People offend people using words.
Words are like guns and bullets (more like bullets in this context, but I think this simile is going to be dangerously overextended if I pursue this): they are useful tools that can be used for good or evil (and a huge range of other things in between), but they have no intrinsic value. It is we humans who employ and interpret them that determine goodness and badness.

Overreaction seems to be what we do best these days. As my scuba instructor used to say, "Stop. Breathe. Think." Good advice in many contexts.


dragonfly said...

So true.

Laura E. Goodin said...

I'm not sure it's as cut-and-dried as that. Intent may, strictly speaking, be absent, yet the use of the word still result in offense. For example, there may very well be people who have no idea that "nigger" is desperately offensive (and not just to blacks, either). And it's their very cluelessness that contributes to the offense.

A common "justification" of amazingly racist, sexist, and other just plain rude behavior that I've heard more than once here in Australia is, "Aw, I didn't mean anything by it." I can't help thinking that the sheer act of considering it just fine to ignore other people's feelings and wishes is, in itself, repulsively offensive.

As in America, many people here think that labeling someone's feelings as "politically correct" gives everyone else license to trample on them. And yet it doesn't matter WHY I don't want someone to call me "Baby". It's enough (or should be) that I just don't want them to. The same way they wouldn't want me to mispronounce their name or call them Hitler. Even if I "didn't mean anything by it."

Chard said...

There is also a distinct difference between "I didn't mean anything by it" and "I didn't know what it meant."

Just ask George Allen.

Kelly A. Harrison said...

Try fanny. In the US we've even named women Fanny, but go to the UK and the word takes on new meaning.

You can do this with other languages. Take Pookie, which was Garfield's name for his teddy bear. In Tagalog, it means vagina.

Then there's dill, as in dill pickles. In Chinese, that basic word (although pronouced shorter) means penis. I'm not sure if it's Cantonese or Mandarin, but I'd bet someone can tell you.

As for racial terms, I had my students read an excerpt from Randal Kennedy's book "The N Word," and then we watched a film on the history and meaning of the word. One thing I've found is that people over 30 totally know how awful the word "nigger" is because they have some sense of the intent with which it was used not too long ago. Cut to my 20-ish students, and they have no connection to that intent. They've learned the word through Hip Hop and movies and inner-city groups where kids have slightly altered it to "nigga" and use it as terms of friendship. To them, the word has lost most of that offensive meaning when used in that context. Of course, they still know that it can be used offensively, but consider that this is a generation that says "fuck" without concern to who's listening.

This blog entry reminds me of the entire South Park movie, btw. Thanks.