Monday, January 12, 2009

The Politics of Language


Clint Eastwood, from the new movie "Gran Torino", says he's had it with sensitivity.
"A lot of people are bored of all the political correctness," he recently told the NY Times. "...The country has come a long way in race relations, but the pendulum swings so far back. Everyone wants to be so"...and here, he gave a make-my-day sort of grimace..."sensitive."

Clint was referring to the main character of his new movie, Walt Kowalski, a "cantankerous cuss with a mouth full of bigotry and invective." Apparently he thinks of no group above notice, from the "micks", to the "hillbillies", and the "slopes". Eastwood of late in his career, has made a name for himself directing features on stories about ourselves that we try to keep hidden, illuminating them for all to see. Here he suggests, "we are drowning in our own sensitivity."

Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald writes, "Here in the US of the Aggrieved, these is no malady, mark, mannerism, mindset or malformation too miscellaneous to have its own support group, along with a cadre of lobbyists and lawyers hyper-vigilant for any suggestion of mistreatment or actionable discrimination. Largely as a result, American English has become a morass of compound constructions and newly invented terminologies designed to leave no one out, give no one cause for offense."

Pitts referred to an episode of Archie Bunker in "All in the Family" that he showed a class of his. All were offended by the main character. I remember that show and the few times I was able to sneak in an episode, as I was very young and not allowed to watch it. A lot like Walt, everybody was fair game to Archie. He made fun of every class of people with every kind of racial slur he could think of. Would such a show be allowed on tv today? Probably not.

In the movie, "Gran Torino", Walt's friendly banter with his Italian barber is not without each of them slurring each other's ancestries. But when it comes to addressing the black street youth, he calls them "spooks". Not the other word, which Pitts writes, "Eastwood doubtless knew using that word would have rendered the character irredeemable."

I found this particular commentary interesting, in that it relates to my recent thoughts on that woman of grace and thoughtfulness, Ann Coulter, and my apparent equal reaction of "hate" with responsive words like the dreaded "bitch" and "asshole".

What are words anyway? Words are equal to power, even swear words, even hateful words. The latter two especially in their ability to bring about a desired reaction from both the speaker and the speakee. Meaning when I say the word bitch or asshole, I actually feel better because I've said exactly what I feel at that particular moment. Power. And in the other sense, some that hear those words may bristle, cringe, or be offended at their power. Perhaps they are brought lower from hearing them, disgusted even, shamed, depending on the word.

I've always found the subject of swear words interesting, in that what constitutes as "cursing" just depends on where you live in the world, i.e. shit, bloody, root, shag, merde, etc., all have different meaning depending on whether you live in England, the US, Germany, or Australia, just to name a few. I've always wondered who exactly decided what a "curse" word was? A society, a religion? Who, I wonder?

Have we become as Pitts suggests, an overly-sensitive society, afraid of the Walt's and Archie's of today? Are we overly-sensitive when some of us, not all apparently, bristle at Ann Coulter's acerbic, acrid interviews, her maligning books? Are we being overly-sensitive when we judge and lecture someone for their language used to describe something?

I've found the hypocrisy interesting. For instance, I can't call Sarah Palin a nutjob for standing in front of a turkey killing machine while being interviewed without being singled out as a "name caller." But if Ann Coulter calls someone a "retard", she's explained away as being from the East, or "that's just her way."

Whatever. We are ALL hypocrites.

Pitts ends with this telling thought, "But for there to be friendly insults, there must first be friendships, with all the reserves of trust and affection that term implies. The "sensitivity" Eastwood deplores is stark evidence that all too often, there is not."

Is Ann Coulter friendly? Not obviously anyway, not that I can tell from interviews, not even on Fox News. She seems to be friends with no one. Is she using her words to get a reaction? Absolutely. Did I call her a bitch for the same reason? No doubt about it.

Is there anything wrong with either thing?
That, apparently, is the unanswerable question.

8 comments:

okbushmans said...

I agree, words are powerful. Words are weighted. How they are used and who uses them can change their meaning. I believe society as a whole has become 'oversensitive' to words, assuming the worse meaning even if that was not the intent.
However, in regards to obviously inflammatory words, such as curse words, racial slurs or words like 'retard', it shows a lack of vocabulary (in my opinion). Someone like Ann Coulter is either extremely ignorant and only knows words like 'retard' OR wants to intentionally use inflammatory words to get people talking about her (which is obviously working).
All this discussion is happening the same weekend Prince Harry called those he was fighting against in Afghanistan 'ragheads' and 'pakis', and many are upset. Is it just because who he is?

Lula O said...

What's happening to Prince Harry is a perfect example. That video was made during his cadet training I think, in 2006! A goofy home video, and 25% of the English that took a newspaper poll want him out of the army because of it.
A step too far, or social justice? He's still practically a kid. Now they're trying to limit what he says in his private time. I would call that the perfect example of being "overly sensitive".

Lula O said...

And as far as having a lack of vocabulary when you swear, some words just aren't as effective. That's the whole point. It all depends on what country you grew up in, or what religion you are, or how you were raised. Each society is different.

Let's take the Mormon society in general. Darn, crap, heck, fetch, the list goes on and on, are not spelled the same, but people say them for the same reason they would say shit or hell. Yet these words are more accepted. People are not looked down upon as white trashy for saying them, like they would if they dropped the f bomb every five minutes.

okbushmans said...

I would also argue that even if I ran into a Mormon who said flip as a constant adjective, or 'holy crap' as frequent exclamation, I would categorize (correctly or incorrectly) as someone with a limited vocabulary. Just as over-using 'um' or 'ya know' came back to bite Caroline Kennedy in the behind, remove those and her message was a good message. (Notice I said 'behind', was it less effective because I didn't use the curse word? I would hope not.)

The point of using words, is to get your beliefs or message across. Many people, including myself, tune out to what you're saying (no matter how important or valid) when explitives are used. Just as many of you tune out when President Bush speaks, because it is too 'folksy' or improper English, even if what he is saying might be important. This is where Obama excelled, he didn't dumb down his speeches or add in 'controversial language' to get attention. (As many in the Pres. race did). More people were willing to listen to him.

Bryce and Mandy said...

So should she have called Ann Coulter a witch instead of a b----? Would that be more acceptable? If you actually think about what they really mean being called a witch is far worse but everyone thinks it is better to say that than the b-word because of what our society has told us is a bad word. So I see your point Lula. I don't like the word either and I plan on teaching my kids it is a bad word but I do see your point.

I agree with you, it depends on where you live and how you are raised for you to consider something to be a bad word, which is kind of funny if you think about it. Bloody is the bad word in England but here it doesn't mean anything.

My mom didn't like the word 'fart' and didn't like us saying it. So, now I hate the word and to me I cringe as much when someone says it as when someone swears. I never say it, I didn't even like writing it above. Silly, I know(my hubby thinks I am crazy), but it is how I was raised.

And I would have to agree with the hypocrisy of saying someone is a "name caller" for saying nimrod, or nutjob, but you can say "retard" or "anti-christ" and it is explained away as being okay.

okbushmans said...

Saying "retard" or "anti-Christ" is just as deplorable.

And 'witch' wouldn't give the same characterization as the b-word. You could say 'a bitter, ignorant, overly-opinionated, inaccurate, often-racist, narciscistic (sp?) woman'. Which paints a broader picture of her personality than the b-word does in one stroke. Did you see her on The View? It was fabulous! She looked completely ridiculous, and for the first time I actually felt bad for Barbara W.

Just for clarification, is the hypocrisy directed specifically at me, or the Moms blog, or a general statement which points out that all people can dish it but can't take it? Sure, I can be guilty of that even if I try to avoid it.

Lula O said...

Mandy - I agree. It really depends on how we were raised, what our parents thought was acceptable. Fart, farty fart fart..;o), is also a hard one for me because of it, but the word Hell, since I heard it so much from our grandmother, has a nestled place in my speaking dictionary.

Okbushman - A general statement. I said we were all hypocrites. More specifically, I brought up the berating I received for name calling from the Palin turkey incident, and then Jen defending Ann Coulter's comments as "its just her way", as being the same in my book, yet she chose to lecture me again.

I'm sick of being lectured, especially when it's something we ALL do from time to time.

I missed the View interview. How uncomfortable it must've been, for everybody but Elizabeth that is. Joy must've had a cow!

okbushmans said...

The View was fabulous, worth watching if it's on youtube. Joy was actually uncomfortably quiet, twitching from the tension. Whoopi and Sherrie were the most vocal, never out of line, just calling her out on a lot of ridiculous comments. Ann C went after Barbara and referred to the way she read exerpts from her book, as if Barbara was 'reading from Mein Kempf'. Yes, she went there. And Elizabeth actually was siding more with Whoopi and Sherrie than Ann, and for yesterday, represented sane conservatives. (Somedays she's great, others...not so much!) It was awkward and contentious and great! Why she went on their show is beyond me, to stir the pot more, I'm sure!