The New Cool? On the Pervasiveness of Obscene Language
"My mother wouldn't let me watch Gone with the Wind even if my life depended on it," my neighbor reminisces. We are taking a walk around the lake in our neighborhood. I am pushing a stroller where my son is soundly asleep. She is walking her dog. Her lively gait conceals her sixty five years. I love listening to her talk about her life, past and present. She is my little window into the insides of America. I am the foreigner who has just landed and is trying to makes sense of too many things at the same time.
"Why?" I ask her. "Why wouldn't she let you?"
I watched Gone with the Wind long ago in Albania and now I am trying to remember what could be improper about it. The kissing scenes? The slavery elements?
My neighbor waits for her dog to finish sniffing around a tree.
"My mother didn't let me watch that movie because of a line she considered very inappropriate." My neighbor chuckles. "You know, when Rhett Butler is leaving Scarlet O'Hara for good, she implores him to stay. When she asks him 'oh but what am I going to do without you?' He answered: 'Frankly my dear I don't give a damn.'" She lets out a little laugh. "Go figure, how much things have changed."
"Interesting," I say, truly impressed by her mother's prudence, which reminds me of my own mother. As we walk in silence I remember how my mother would not tolerate even the smallest swearing in the house. For her, that kind of talk belonged to the street and desecrated our home. I recall that once, I said something in anger to my sister. I had no idea what it meant except that I had overheard it when two young men were fighting on our street. As soon as I said it, mom shoved a little hot red pepper in my mouth and had me chew it. The burning sensation eventually gave way, after a dozen glasses of water, but the lesson stayed. I never used that word again.
For my mom's generation it was maybe easier to keep obscenities at bay because swearing and foul language really was restricted to the street. Also, because it denoted incivility, very few people resorted to it, even there.
But that's not the case nowadays. We are all inundated by indecent language in our own private space, even if we ourselves don't use it. Print media, TV, the internetâ¦ you name it. All of them open the floodgates for the sweeping torrent of vulgarity. On one hand, children get reprimanded for inappropriate language at school, but on the other, they hear such language when they watch TV, read something on the internet, or listen to a song; moreover, they see that adults who use swear words get away with it. What hypocrisy!
In the movies, it is not only the villainous characters who swear, but the heroes do, too. In times of frustration, characters in respectable professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and policemen, vent their rightful exasperation in "justifiable" obscenities without repercussion.
The internet has taken the usage of foul language to a higher level. It is impossible to read a thread of comments on line without confronting an outpouring of swearing. Emboldened by the anonymity that the internet affords them, some commenters show no restraint. Those commenters who point out the lack of etiquette are called prudes and are made to apologize for it.
Being aware of the pervasiveness of profane language used around me, I sometimes feel at loss when it comes to giving clear guidelines to my children. "If mom and dad don't use the word you heard at school, ask us first before you use it," goes our reasoning. Yet, the exposure is so high that at times, an improper word or epithet will slip here or there, and cause me and my husband to wince.
We try to give our children alternative ways to deal with anger and frustration. One of them is to follow the advice of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. According to the prophetic tradition, when a person feels he or she is getting angry, before saying or doing something regrettable, that person should go and take ablutions with the hope that the cold water will cool them down. Another strategy is to walk outside and take fresh air or to take deep breaths and count to ten.
Yet, anger management is not the ultimate solution because some of the foul language used is not related to anger at all. Rather, as odd as it may sound, it is also used to express feelings of sadness, disappointment, or even thrill.
The last straw that broke this camel's back happened a few months ago in a most unexpected place. I was attending the thesis defense of a friend of mine in whose research I was interested. I, my friend, her thesis committee, and two other people were in the audience. The professors had found some aspects of my friend's work fascinating and were competing to point out what they liked best and why. The whole defense was proceeding in an atmosphere of enthusiasm. Then one of the professors dropped the bomb. To show the degree of scholarly satisfaction she had retrieved from my friend's thesis she said: "The connections you make in your final analysis are 'F word' awesome." My friend forced a smile in the face of this awkward compliment.
I was so shocked and disturbed that I lost my concentration and missed the rest of the discussion. Is this the new cool? Is this where we are headed? I wonder. I can't tell how my neighbor's long-deceased mother would have reacted, had she been able to eavesdrop in that conversation. But I can safely guess that my own mother would probably think in despair that there just aren't enough red hot peppers.
As for me, I think we should raise this issue and discuss it openly to find better ways to communicate our thoughts and feelings in positive and constructive ways.
Mirkena Ozer has a master's degree in women studies from the University of Georgia, Atlanta.