Vulgarity is a useful tool; too bad so many people are rank hypocrites about it.
One evening, my kids watched a comedian on TV rant about the practise of dubbing over vulgarities and obscenities in movies shown on TV with nonsensical words. Like: “Ah, go fruit yourself!”
This brought to mind a silly movie from the 80’s called Johnny Dangerously, starring Michael Keaton. This movie, though it had virtually no other redeeming qualities (except possibly Dom DeLuise‘s appearance as the Pope), did manage to cheat the censors by intentionally using nonsense words in place of the standard seven words you can’t say on television, and their sundry declensions, conjugations, participles, and gerunds. Examples included: “you fargin cork-soaker!” and “I’m gonna tear yer arm off an’ shove it up yer icehole!” (To hear what I mean for yourself, see this youtube clip.)
The point is that whether Big Brother censors the original language, or whether the actors censor it themselves, though the words change, the meaning remains the same. And we all know what they really meant to say. My kids certainly do.
I myself am not particularly against the use of vulgarities, in some contexts. I use them when I lecture, usually to emphasize a point, or to keep the class’s attention. Sure, it’s a cheap trick, but it works. I use vulgarities because they’re emotionally loaded and because they’re extremely concise. (Call someone a f*ckin’ a$$hole, and there is little doubt about your opinion even with just four syllables.) And sometimes I use vulgarities because I know that’s the only kind of language that the target of my vitriol will understand.
Of course, I can also elucidate my sentiments in particularly florid and loquacious ways. I can talk about someone being ankle deep at the shallow end of the gene pool. I can speak of someone’s ability to write at the bleeding edge of grammatical validity. I can talk about something being designed by a squirrel on quaaludes. Or about a fine scent befitting only the very best cesspools. Or of colour schemes that should be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions against torture. Or of the authenticity of someone’s sense of faux (this is particularly descriptive of certain poorly educated media celebrities who pawn themselves off as “interior designers”). Or of being one slice short of a loaf, one bit short of a byte, or deserving of a job at Microsoft.
But that takes time, and effort. And though the results are often more pleasing, sometimes keeping things punchy and to the point is more important.
The point is this: vulgarity, like any other form of language, has its place and its use. Denying its existence is a lot like the Victorian fear of talking about sex: stupid. It’s stupid because it denies a route of self-expression that is certainly valid, and at least occasionally both effective and efficient.
Of course, the trick is knowing when to be vulgar. This is something that requires a certain mental maturity that children lack. Modern society’s solution to this problem is to denounce vulgarity – especially as a language tool of children – as entirely inappropriate. Vulgarity is punished, pushed aside, and ignored.
And as a strategy, it fails miserably. Kids still use vulgarities. And they use vulgarities especially because they’re forbidden. What easier way for a child to get attention than to swear like a sailor on shore leave? It’ll embarrass the hell out of the kid’s parents and make everyone within earshot stare disapprovingly.
It’s hard to explain to children that there’s a time and a place for everything. But that’s what parenthood and teaching are: hard. By trying to outlaw vulgarity, we’re doing exactly the wrong thing: making vulgarity attractive for its own sake rather than as the tool that it can be. And we’re taking the easy way out, which is not an honourable way to treat our children.
And all this is, of course, a horrible hypocrisy. When the kids aren’t listening, adults (except for certain prudes and religious zealots) use vulgarities all the time. These people will often hide it with something even worse: denial. They’ll say they’re hiding their use of vulgarity from their children for the benefit. That’s just crap. They’re doing it because it’s expedient, and easier than having to teach children about vulgarity and its place in the language. They’re just lazy and selfish.
Sometimes, I really think adults are far more childish than children, and that the only real vulgarity is the hypocrisy of parents.