Strolling through the landmines of language is a delicate process
Posted November 17, 2016
Language has been on my mind quite a bit lately. And I suspect I’m not alone.
It’s been a topic of conversation on talk radio, it’s been the subject of commentary on the web and it’s a running theme in the new movie “Arrival.”
And if we’ve learned anything from the recent election cycle, it’s that words can be loaded with landmines and the process of traversing them is delicate. It’s better to enter the fray thoughtfully and to be circumspect in the language we use.
Personally, I find it especially disturbing that even in light of overwhelming evidence that the words we use can be hurtful, hateful and damaging, intentionally or unintentionally, so many people don’t seem to think that using profanity and vulgarity to generally express themselves is any big deal.
In the past, the profanities we’ve heard uttered by politicians have mostly been caught unintentionally on hot microphones. Or from sports figures because you had seats directly behind the bench. And from Hollywood stars in outtakes that were never intended for the general public.
Not anymore, of course.
In fact, many of our most popular entertainers consider it some kind of badge of honor when they can slip offensive language into their movies and TV shows. Hence the popularity of subscription cable television programs where the F-word is so redundantly used as an adjective, noun, pronoun, verb, adverb and every other form of grammar, that some of us would like to send each Hollywood filmmaker a thesaurus.
Right now, I suspect, before even finishing this column, some internet trolls out there are already sharpening their metaphorical knives to send off sharp comments accusing me of being a prig or a prude for even bringing this up.
Everyone seems to agree that it’s not cool to use pejorative terms for classes and cultures, or to toss off insulting racial slurs, or crude slang for various private body parts or anything else that maligns or diminishes or dismisses any particular segment of the human family. (Well, everyone except perhaps those aforementioned angry internet yowlers.)
But what about just swearing, cussing, using expletives, blaspheming or generally being obscene or profane, whether in rage or off-the-cuff?
Civility in the public square is in decline, but it’s also in decline in the grocery store and at family reunions.
And I’m not just talking about trying to protect children from such language. There was a time, and it doesn’t seem so long ago, when adults aspired to have a touch of class, to rise above such language, to reach for the stars as they spoke instead of groveling in the mud.
Why, for example, does Hollywood feel that every PG-13 movie must use the F-word at least once? Is this in the contract? Is there really a feeling that it will diminish the audience if it gets out that the F-word is not in a particular film? Are there walkouts when that word doesn’t show up by the halfway mark in a PG-13 movie?
This came to mind once again with “Arrival,” where it seems particularly unnecessary given the plot. This sci-fi thriller is about the efforts made by various governments to communicate with aliens that have landed spaceships all around the world. It’s about words, language, communication. It’s about the discovery of a means of conveying thoughts that is new to humans, and it’s about learning how to use it productively so that things won’t go awry due to misinterpretations.
There’s a lot of discussion in “Arrival” about language in general and specifically how words can be good or bad, depending on how they’re used. They talk about how it’s important to be certain the nuance of your wording conveys the meaning you intend. Which is something that’s even more difficult in written terms than it is verbally, a lesson that has to be learned by the scientists, politicians and soldiers, and which the central character, a linguist (Amy Adams), is trying to demonstrate before it’s too late.
So it was a surprise to me that fairly early on in this movie, someone has to drop the F-bomb. And it’s another case of the person’s face not being on camera, so it may have been added as an afterthought.
I’m picturing the director working with the editor to assemble all the footage and at some point realizing that — horrors! — they forgot to insert that word. Hey, no problem, just loop it in later with audio.
Recently, during a radio interview, Stephen Colbert was talking about how much more freedom he had with his election night TV special since it was on pay cable Showtime rather than network TV CBS. And how did he plan to use this freedom? With foul language that is prohibited by network television. In fact, a profanity was in the title of that special and he and the host held it up as a source of pride.
In another radio segment, a linguist offered a commentary about how difficult it is for journalists to accurately quote public figures when they use profanity, and he pointed out that swear words lose their impact if they are no longer taboo, and therefore civility in public discourse is preferable. But it’s his reasoning that’s noteworthy here: civility is preferable so that we can preserve the impact of swearing.
Right. But if there really are any verbal taboos anymore, you wouldn’t know it by the TV shows and movies being gobbled up by the general public, and, yes, also by our children.
Once, as a collective society, we aspired to a touch of class; now we aspire to a touch of crass.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.