Wednesday, July 11, 2007

let it go

theme for today

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse does a good job of defending the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens against so-called moderates who treat them as extremists harming their own cause. Comparisons between them and the highly admirable atheist philosopher J L Mackie are instructive. I haven't read Mackie's The Miracle of Theism but I've read his Ethics: inventing right and wrong a couple of times, and I'm sure his style would bore anyone not madly captivated by labyrinthine philosophical discourse. And getting to a wider audience is probably more than half the battle. Rosenhouse makes the point well here:
If Dawkins and all the rest stripped every snide remark out of their books, that would not stop the right wing noise machine from painting them as dangerous extremists. The mere fact that they are endorsing atheism and having some success is enough for that. On the other hand, such a move would surely hurt their sales and lead to less media attention as a result. Flashy rhetoric attracts attention.
Now I want to write about something completely different, almost. A while back I had a most unfortunate and public spat with someone over the use of language. Frustrated with not getting my voice heard as the heat of the debate rose, I ended up calling her a bigot, which put paid to any further discussion, civilized or uncivilized. Everybody was uncomfortable, and I had the distinct impression, whether correct or incorrect, that they all looked upon me as a cad and a bounder. So for my own sake I need to tease this issue out carefully.

The difference of view arose when one of my step-daughters, herself a mother of three, complained that the word 'bastard' was being used too frequently on TV during children's viewing time. Some obvious responses came to mind, though it was hard to get a coherent argument across with several people at the table all trying to put forward their views at the same time. I'll put the two most obvious responses here. First, the word bastard has come to have a distinctive colloquial meaning in Australia. The long entry for 'bastard' in Australia's Macquarie dictionary testifies to its manifold use here, and much play is made in Nino Culotta's There a weird mob to misunderstandings surrounding Australians' everyday use of a word which might cause offense elsewhere. Second, if we're talking about primary or high school kids, there's no doubt that they would hear [and probably use] much blunter and racier words and phrases than 'bastard' in the school-yard.

These are not the real issues for me, though. The issue is a broader one of morality. Let me illustrate with a couple of stories.

A while back, I was one of two people from our housing co-op assisting in an appeal or dispute between two members of a highly dysfunctional co-op, and that co-op's hierarchy. This co-op's recent history was appalling. It was made up of elderly women, a number of whom had left the co-op, even abandoning their houses, because the stress of meetings and of trying to deal with the cabal running the co-op was just too great. The list of people who had left or were too 'sick' to attend meetings was a long one, and the cabal stood accused of high-handedness, contempt for due process, intimidation, preferential treatment re maintenance and so forth. People were afraid to speak at meetings lest they be shouted down. The leader of the cabal, the most long-standing member of the co-op, presented herself very well at the appeal [unsurprisingly] and confessed to not knowing what the fuss was about. She found the meetings to be robust but nothing more, 'and of course, there's never any bad language, that would be totally unacceptable'. This remark really struck me. I was tempted to point out that, in our own co-op, everybody used 'bad language', quite frequently, but we all got on famously, most of the time.

Another story involves the actor, Carole Lombard, who died tragically young in a plane crash. Apparently Lombard could barely finish a sentence without swearing, she was considered one of the most foul-mouthed women in Hollywood, but she was also one of the most admired and loved, for her charity work, her generosity to aspiring actors, her down-to-earth good humour.

It's obvious enough where I'm going with this [and many other examples spring to mind as I write]; the point being that there's no clear connection between a person's use [or avoidance] of soi-disant bad language, and their moral value.

How anybody could think that a kid hearing the word ‘bastard’ on TV, and using it herself, would therefore be more corrupted or degenerate than if the word heard and used was ‘blackguard’ or ‘rapscallion’ is frankly beyond me. If she used it to belittle someone born out of wedlock, that of course would be another matter, but that’s not the current usage.

I was asked, in the course of this dispute, if I thought it would be ok if Courtney, my favourite four-year-old, started using the word bastard. In my stubbornness I insisted that it would be fine by me. A rather more considered response would have been that I would have discouraged it, for two reasons. First, if I didn’t discourage her, she might’ve gone on using it until she encountered and was admonished by someone much more intolerant – one of those Christians who think that bad language is a sin, while worshipping and promoting a mass-murdering supernatural despot is fine. Second, she would probably be using it as a put-down, or as a general act of name-calling, and that should generally be discouraged. I might add that I’ve heard Courtney use, in her innocence, terms much stronger, by socially accepted standards, than bastard. She didn’t pick them up from TV either, which illustrates my very first point.

There’s a bit of history behind this dispute, for me at least. I recall this same step-daughter having some doubts about the ‘strong’ language used in a novel I’d published some ten years ago. It was about growing up in a working-class suburb, and the colourful language of some of its characters was clearly integral to the novel. I didn’t know whether to be infuriated or amused at her pious, puritanical response, and obviously there’s still some residual annoyance. I put it down to the corrupting influence of that murderous Lord.

Finally, I’m not sure if this fits but something is nagging me to insert it. When I was a teenager, I watched a movie on TV, Night of the Iguana, based on a play by Tennessee Williams. In a seminal scene [ho ho], Deborah Kerr was talking to Richard Burton about some sad but sympathetic fellow who’d masturbated in front of her, or something like that. Burton’s character said something contemptuous about the fellow and his ‘disgusting act’, to which Kerr responded, ‘I didn’t find it disgusting. The only thing I really find disgusting is cruelty.’ It was one of those unforgettable, penny-dropping moments for me, one that has permanently affected my view of morality. So I look at bad language through that particular prism. Is its use a form of cruelty? If so, or when so, condemn it whole-heartedly. When it isn’t, let it go.

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At 9:58 am , Blogger ZoeJane said...

In Re. to your comment, I have to think that Americans are more inclined towards extreme religion because at the start, alot of settlers came over JUST for that religious freedom, unlike, say, Australia, where the continent was originally a prisoner colony.

I'm glad I found your blog!


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