Friday, June 23, 2006

Dirty Talk

I just recently discovered the television show Rescue Me. It's the story of life as a firefighter, starring Denis Leary, on the basic cable station FX. The first thing I noticed, to be perfectly honest, is all the dirty talk.

There are, according to George Carlin, seven words you can't say on television, but I've heard several of those very words on Rescue Me. I couldn't believe it at first--I thought perhaps I'd wandered over to HBO, or plugged in a DVD in my sleep. But there they were, dirty word after dirty word, waking me up and serving me notice.

These new language games aren't isolated to deep slots on the television dial. Coarse language and thinly disguised euphemisms are becoming more common in commercial advertisements on the major networks, on billboards, in print and online. I know of a local restaurant that uses slang terminology for an erection as its tagline. Ruins my appetite every time.

Now, I was a junior high boy once, so I know the visceral appeal of dirty talk. And I was still juvenile enough during my constitutional law class in college that I committed to memory the case that protects our right to free vulgar speech (Cohen v. California, in which a young man was arrested for showing up at the courthouse wearing a jacket that read "F--- the Draft"). But most of the drift toward vulgarity in culture is unconscious, with very little circumspection guiding the process. So I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts about
  • why people use vulgar language,
  • what makes it vulgar,
  • how vulgarity shapes our worldview and behavior,
  • how our worldview and behavior shape our approach to vulgarity,
  • and what we ought to do about either ourselves or the world around us as a consequence.

Have fun! Show your work! Tell your friends! It'll be interesting to see how I react to the comments on this one.

11 comments:

Macon said...
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Macon said...

I'm not sure I'm ready to go after all those bullet points, but here's one thought: I think that a post-modern view of language in which words don't really (and by italicizing that, I mean to say, "ontologically") point to anything contributes to the rise in vulgarity.

In this approach to the universe, language is just a big game, no word is any better or worse, and all that matters is you get the desired effect from the word.

Tony said...

i think what comes out of your mouth is a product of what is in your heart. I don't think language is either bad or good, but it is a good predictor of about where your life satisfaction scale is. What I mean is this - people who use vulgar language vulgarly (is that a word? I mean, some people just use vulgar language in certain situations for nothing more than humor) are usually people with a negative view on life. That may be a generalization, but that's what I think.
So, I think the key is not to try to stop vulgar language, but to try and help people experience life to the full. Language is a result - not a cause of the problem.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Question #4: When is vulgarity appropriate?

Pete Juvinall said...

Communicatively, language moves towards a more simple form. People just want to use less and less words as society moves forward. Vulgarity feeds this as the f bomb can take on many meanings from "I don't want to do that" to "That's awesome".

I know it seems like it's a 'duh' but as far as what makes language vulgar, I would still contend that it is societally driven. If you want this displayed in a very real way, go flip someone off in Brazil and see what they do. It just won't mean anything. There's a sense of shared meaning when it comes to vulgarity that only happens in some cultures.

The real problem comes in the effects of vulgarity. If it simplifies language, I believe that it in turn simplifies a person's worldview. You begin to miss the nuance of meaning and, over time, that meaning can be lost. When you drop a sentence like 'Those f___ing Iraqis' it shows your limit of ability to grapple with a politically and culturally unstable situation.

Dave said...

The Why: I believe is the little kid in all of us who tries to act big, so he prove that he is big. As adults we know he is not when it comes to bravado, but language we don't see it the same. Maybe because when we were early-teens, we thought that was cool, and some of us still do. Sad!

What is Vulgar: Something that is intended to be intimate and protected to truly love, is brought out for cheap public display.

Worldview: It coursens, blurrs boundries and causes a lack of respect. This will continue to lead a society that will loose its heros and standard bearers. When that happens, we could end up in a hopeless soceity.

Our Approach: Stand in the breach. Don't let it go unchallenged in either word, a look or action.

Change. Turn from our ways that lead us astray.

Margaret Feinberg said...

vulgar can be an exclamation point on a sentence. Some use it for effect, some as a habit, some because of limited vocab, some because they've never been told theirs an alterantive.

David A. Zimmerman said...

I had a roommate for a while who had graduated from an evangelical institution of higher learning (or "college" for short), where he had taken up the practice of referring to stuff he didn't like as "picking," as in "I'm so sick of that picking guitar player next door!" Sometimes, if he was particularly excited about something, he would use "picking" in positive sense, as in "That nose is picking huge!"

I always thought that was a little silly: two letters' difference somehow made his language more appropriate than, ahem, mine.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Speaking of vulgar, here's the subject line for today's spam of the day:

You step closer to the toilet, we fix it.

Paul Stokes said...

Colossians 3:8?

David A. Zimmerman said...

My friend Scott turned me on to Cuss Control, a crusade by a guy here in Illinois to clean up language in public.

http://www.cusscontrol.com/