Image credit: Stuart Whitmore —

When cursing obscures the message

The other day I was watching an old episode of That 70’s Show, where Eric Foreman was listening to George Carlin’s “7 words you can’t say on TV or radio”. He was delighting in hearing all those “offensive” words being repeated again and again. George Carlin didn’t intend for the bit to be offensive (he knew that most people would find it offensive). In his amateur linguist ways or rather for the love of language, he was doing the opposite and remarking on the power and meaning we impose on words.

I personally have very few issues with cursing and generally don’t mind it. I’m from a country (Norway), which rarely censors cursing in the media. I have been “on-the-air” myself and I’ve made a point of not cursing “on-air”, although I’m completely free to do so. These two opinions might sound diametrically opposed, but they are not. I know that within the Norwegian listening audience, if I dropped an F-bomb or 20, they would likely not care at all. Unlike a lot of young aspiring American comedians, I do not have the need to shock or offend my audience. I know that even if tried to shock them with “dirty” language, they wouldn’t be. They would most likely just be annoyed, which is worse.

When my, then 13-year old, cousin dropped a F-bomb for the first time in my presence, I just smiled. She could easily have used a less offensive word, such as copulate, breed or fornicate. However she wasn’t trying to communicate either of those three, she wasn’t out to offend me or her younger sisters. She was sitting in the backseat, checking her Facebook and realised that she had forgotten someone’s birthday. Her F-bomb, or rather firecracker, was part of her everyday language and what she was conveying was not an offensive word, but her upset for missing a friend’s birthday. She could also have said heck or fudge, but I’ll deal with those words later.

This brings me to Jim Jefferies. To some people he is the controversial Australian comedian who had a two season show called “Legit” on FXX. To other people he is the guy who once got punched on stage. To the majority of people, he is sadly a mostly unknown name.

If you are opposed to “strong language”, you would most likely not get through three minutes of his stand-up before labeling him a potty mouth. If you’re American, you might even give him less. Jefferies isn’t the guy who would refrain from using that most hated word amongst women — the C-word (you know the one that rhymes with “runt”). Is he trying to offend you? In my opionion he’s not, does he care if he does? Not at all. For those who are not familiar with the down-under male vernacular (I’ve lived a year in Australia and three years in New Zealand), calling your (male) friend a “good C-word” is a term of endearment. In certain parts and of certain (especially male) segments of the population this is more common than you would think. From there, to using the C-word in general, is not a giant leap. Are they trying to offend their female counterparts? No, it’s just the way they speak. Are they offending their female counterparts? Some.

This is the thing that most people will miss out with great comedians like Carlin and Jefferies. In his “7 words you can’t say on TV or radio”, Carlin was questioning the meaning of the words. He wasn’t just saying the words for the sake of saying them, he was talking about the words and how we perceive them. He was pointing out the hypocrisy of labeling certain words ok and others completely offensive. More importantly, he made us think and question our values. At the time (the 70’s) he was largely labeled a potty mouth. People heard the curse words and decided (I’ll emphasise this: Decided) to take offense and negate his larger message. Offense is not something you give, it is something you take.

An example of this is how there is no reason to dislike or condemn writers who write and create characters that are, or say offensive things. They don’t neccesarily believe what the characters are saying and projecting. What they have done, is create characters that you can and most likely will dislike. They might do this to make a story more exciting, but the true mark of a great writer is to highlight controversy, through their characters and start a larger discourse in society as a whole. If you decide not to listen because a character makes you uncomfortable, you will miss the larger point being made. The fact that language, characters and topics make us uncomfortable, may be suggestive of the need for these subjects to be dealt with. Doing just that is the characteristic of a developing society.

For those who only heard the offensive words on Carlin’s record, they missed the larger point of his message and to bring this point home, I’ll paraphrase an old interview with Carlin: I told my daughter that the emphasis and power she puts on words is up to her to decide.

This quote is perfectly summed up in a conversation I had with a friend. She told me that I couldn’t and shouldn’t use the word s**t. She would prefer if I used the accepted word crap instead. So I looked the words up, both words mean the exact same thing — faeces. There was only one difference between the two. In her mind, one word was less controversial and offensive. I’m not sure if it is the sheer sounding of the words that determine how something is offensive.

I kind of get how somebody would react to the C-word. It sounds and feels rough in your mouth when you say it. For all I know, maybe the sounding determines how you feel about a word. The word vagina sounds less harsh than the C-word (the dictionary definition is the same). There are inoffensive words that have the same sounding as the C-word, such as “hunk”, “count” or the aforementioned “runt”. However, the nice sounding alternative words some use (fudge, freakin’, heck etc.) has a different sound to them, but the intended meaning is the same as the curse words. So it seems to me that neither the sounding of curse words or the meaning, is what people take offense to.

I have also heard people who are quite literally a 100 times more offensive than Carlin and Jefferies combined, convey their disdain towards people of a different, religion, colour, gender, sexual orientation etc., without ever using “strong language”. Sticking to the accepted or alternative words. So maybe it really comes down to perception.

This again brings me back to Jim Jefferies. On the surface Jefferies can come across as sexist, ignorant and racist. Giving him the benefit of doubt and actually listening to what he is saying as a whole, rather than listening to his use of words, you quickly learn that what he says and what he means are two different things. Jefferies will hide a message within jokes and coarse language and an unflattering delivery and let us figure out the meaning of it on our own. Completely depending on us — the public to be intelligent enough to look past his language and discover his message, before making up our minds.

Jefferies will happily and some times ludicrously point out hypocrisy and in the process become the object of hate by parts of his audience. He will seemingly offend everyone in the room, while making them laugh. He will undiscretely flaunt his issues and insecurities, varying from sexual humiliation, hemoroids, alcohol dependence to depression. He will let us know, that in whatever we are struggling with in life, we’re not alone and we can laugh about it together. Sometimes he’ll just tell jokes. Some of them offensive, but not because of his language.

Harvey Weinstein is the distributor of a documentary called “Bully” (a must see documentary on the state, evolution and acceptance of bullying, taking place in the US, but definitely not unique to the US). The MPAA (the censors) wanted to give the documentary a R-rating because of a scene where three F-bombs are dropped. In a movie where a kid is hit in the head and receives death threats from one of his class mates, they opposed to the language, but this is beside the point. As a result of that word, they wanted to give the movie a R-rating, which would completely miss the audience who would benefit most from watching a movie about high-school bullying — highschoolers. In an interview with NPR, Weinstein told why the scene in question was so essential:

“I mean, you know, and the words are used onscreen. You can’t have the movie without that scene, because it’s what the bully says to the kid. I mean, as the boy is being bullied, you need that language. You need that to be clear. You need to see the intent and hear the intent. You edit those words out, you know what I mean, it just — you don’t get it.”

The documentarians never intended to shock their audiences with language, they wanted to highlight the reality of bullying. What bullying looks and sounds like. To the MPAA’s credit (for lowering their standards in this case) the MPAA and Weinstein finally came to a compromise and the scene remained in the movie.

This article became a lot longer and shorter than I wished it to be. There is much more to be said, but I’ll leave this up to you. If you take offense to “strong language” and are still reading, you are my hero for taking the time to read this and let me tie up my point neatly. If you are in the same camp and of the opinion that you would have given Jim Jefferies, George Carlin or me the benefit of the doubt and read this to the very end regardless. Just imagine if I said the words that I blurred with “soft language” (we both know what I was alluding to, I just used “acceptable language” instead), would you have read on? Be honest, not with me, but with yourself. I can’t read your mind. Your opinion and beliefs are your own, so be honest with yourself.

“Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right” — Ricky Gervais

It seems to me that important, uncomfortable topics that are brought into the public eye are more often than not, misconstrued or shooed away because it includes what some deem inappropriate language. This is the fallacy of dismissing an opinion based on the language, which is used to convey it.

Finally, if you are one of those people who use “strong language” to shock and offend. You can take respite in the fact that, this is not an inditement of your limited vocabulary. It is an inditement of your attention-seeking and limited intellect.

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