Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No Cuss, No Muss

Yep, while our backs were turned, feverishly reading my ever thought-provoking piece, Bar None, on the proposal to ban cussing in bars in St. Louis...South Pasadena, California snuck in like a cat burgling rapist and officially declared an annual "No Cussing Week."

AP Article via MSNBC

My conclusion, as before, Pasadena, California is now off of my tourism list. In fact, since the town went the step further to actually implement the idea, I may have to take a step further and march a million people to the Rose Bowl parade to scream out FUCK in unison every ten seconds, just for families and cameras.

Unlike the St. Louis idea, I don't read any criminality in Mayor Michael Cacciotti's move. The official week reads more like a Breast Cancer Awareness Day or a Great American Smoke Out. In a way, that might be considered endearing to have promoted civil discourse on an official level. However, it is again the subtractive phrasing of the observance that represents the slippery slope to free speech issues. "No Cussing Week" could have just as easily been called Professional Speech Day or Expansive Language Awareness Month, Pride in Our Civility Celebration or Champions of Maturity Week. With these titles you can build projects at school. Grammar assignments can turn into forensic debates, words-of-the-day contests can be implemented and involve speech games and communications fairs. The point is that recognizing the power of the English, verbal form in a positive light gives one something substantial with which to work. The possibilities, following a positive name, become as boundless as the imaginations of the program's willing participants. All a "No Cussing Week" offers is the restriction, "don't cuss."

I'm not splitting hairs here. To the reader, what the week is called might seem irrelevant. Few may care about the subtractive verses the proactive. Still, the subject at hand is one that deals with LANGUAGE, speech specifically, and therefore should have had consideration toward the language used to promote it. My complaint is a direct outgrowth of that content. The Mayor's people should have considered that the simple function of a negative phraseology on a speech driven initiative is a tool others use to try to undermine free speech. A "No Cussing Week" can easily lead to "no cussing laws," or "no cussing zones," or "no cussing in film." I mean, can we not see a correlation, extreme though it may be, between a "No Cussing Week" and a town-sanctioned book burning? Far fetched? One modern society did it. How are we immune from repeating those mistakes?

Don't take my alarmist word for it. Right in the MSNBC article it already goes beyond the intent of the official week and speaks of "no cussing" as one day becoming a "quality of life issue." That is so short-sighted. The Pasadena week just got approved and already the foul tool is working its dark function. I guarantee there is no family living in a slum with cracked windows, roaches, heat turned off in winter, hungry kids, and zero health coverage that would consider a cuss free environment an improvement on their day.

Not enough? The 14 year-old that started the club, perhaps even a grass roots movement, is quoted as saying, "I don't cuss...If you want to hang out with me, you don't cuss." It's a line in the sand. It's exclusionary. For instance, I don't drink alcohol, but I wouldn't ask others not to drink around me and I would never, ever imply that failure to refrain as I refrain carries with it some sort of punishment, even the simple penalty of depriving others my invited company. This is what happens when you let a 14 year old determine political policy. The kid had a great idea. He showed awesome initiative and objective. He displayed bravery and exemplified the gut American notion that one person, even a kid, can make a difference. I don't expect a 14 year old to grasp the nuances betwixt the subtractive and the proactive. I do, however, expect the full-grown, mature adults in any mayor's office to understand this and to act accordingly. Their mistake came in taking the idea of a 14 year old and implementing it unrevised, untempered with maturity or wisdom.

Inherently, days, weeks, and months made into official declarations of practice or awareness need to do so in the positive. Black History Month doesn't mean that you need to refrain from knowing other ethnically grouped accomplishments, or trickier, refrain from being a skin color. The Great American Smoke Out is called such for a reason. "Don't Smoke Week" might get some poor schmuck with a Marlboro stoned to death in line to see 10,000 B.C. Bring Your Daughter To Work Day would not work if it were called Ignore Children With Penises Day. I jest, but the philosophy persists into every facet of governing, including many far more important than Secretary's Day or Groundhog Day.

For instance, is it any wonder that of all amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the only one that "failed" or required correction was prohibition? Amendments are used to enforce rights, to acknowledge rights newly realized or admitted at the highest levels of leadership. Prohibition instead tried to take away, not to grant. It tried to limit, to control, to have people refrain from. At its heart, it failed because its attempt ran counter-directional to the purpose of a constitutional amendment. It's why I know that a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution preventing same sex marriage would never pass or last long. It too would run counter-directional to the purpose of ENFORCING rights or ACKNOWLEDING rights.

In short, LAWS are meant to prevent, to have folks refrain from well defined practices we as a society view as bad. They operate in the negative as counteragents to those who'd squelch life, liberty, happiness, and free market. That is the function of a law. Hence, nobody can open up an idea in the negative and sanction it officially without also opening the door to that notion one day becoming a law. The two practices are of the same grain. People who do so, even unintentionally, have their hand tipped. What they are saying may sound like a decent and feel-good proposition that everyone can agree upon. Yet, they are bluffing. If what they had at heart was in any way positive or feel-good, they shant have skewed negative in its expression. They shant have opened that dangerous, dangerous door. For what it's worth, with all our millions of laws on the books, chances are (barring new technological innovation) that everything that requires prevention already has a law against it. Logically then, pretty much anything that's existed for 200+ American years which does not have a law against it, most likely should not. It should remain in that grey area between controversy and blind acceptance that teaches us all how to get along and how to see alternate points of view. We are not just agreeing upon these measures as an existent society in 2008, but as a civic society in the broader sense that includes all American citizens from 1787 until now...possibly even into the future.

This was the vision of our founding fathers. They knew that the pursuit of people driven government and equality would rest upon a body of laws enacted by said people, specifically so that no one person with a myopic mindset could seek office to screw it up. They acknowledged that volumes and volumes of laws might be created in this pursuit and made room for that to be okay. Yet, at the same time, they created a structure and a list. No matter how many preventive laws might ever come to be in their future, every single one of them would be held accountable to, held subjective to this pervading structure and to this pervading list of acknowledged rights. The ability to prevent, to exclude from freedom, would forever be measured against this higher purpose, this documented inclusion or admission into American freedom. The negative would be governed by the positive.

“No Cussing Week” sounds pretty good. It’s not unlike a makeshift Lenten practice or a really good diet. I bet nobody ever explained to the youth that, phrased as such, it is also unconstitutional. Implemented officially, it is therefore a cause for concern. It means there is another upwardly mobile politician holding office in the U.S. who would forego the U.S. Constitution for either his own purposes or for lack of the two seconds of concentration it would take to change the name. His most likely accidental blight on our nation’s governing structure and on our rights masquerades under the guise of ceremony, holiday. If that’s to persist unchecked, why not KKK Appreciation Day? Open a present, burn a cross. Why not a Torturegiving holiday? Turkey, stuffing, and water boarding while we watch a parade.

Look, there are plenty of reasons not to cuss. Variant ethics aside, I like to refrain from cussing as often as possible because I think it means that much more when I do choose a cuss word in the craft of writing.

Refraining from cussing on the regular is also an exercise that elevates intelligence. One stretches the mind by always searching for alternative expressions to aptly describe anger or dismay, sort of the way an improvisational artist, while near boundless in presentation style, can keep a performance PG-13. It’s her/his boundaries that create the intellectual challenge until such time s/he would again artistically choose to reintroduce the blue language.

It almost goes without saying, even in a post-industrial, psychology-aware nation, that cussing in marriage is antithetical to what both people wish to achieve via marriage. Cussing interrupts real communication and thus partnership and slows the journey to common goals with innumerable, needless pauses to marital momentum.

Perhaps refraining from cussing can be used as a tool to set examples for young children, new comedians, etc. We all do it. Nobody would cuss in a job interview or a convent. We have no problem choosing alternative wording and tone when running for office, broadcasting news, or critiquing literature. There is a merit to practicing language in the subtractive from time to time, circumstance to circumstance. It’s a type of extra-sensory deprivation that achieves particularly coveted intellectual results.

However, theoretically that merit cannot be achieved if not for the greater prevalence of the explicative in common usage. A metaphor…the viceroy butterfly. The viceroy butterfly looks exactly like the more prevalent monarch butterfly and is named accordingly. The monarch butterfly is poisonous to birds. Birds have evolved to “recognize” monarch butterflies by sight alone and therefore steer far clear of them as food. The viceroy butterfly contains no such poison, but has instead evolved to look like the monarch butterfly as a form of defense against being eaten by birds. It’s an amazing interrelationship that deepens our understanding of the evolutionary process. Yet, as with all evolution, a delicate balance had to be struck and maintained for us to not yet see further changes in the viceroy. Meaning, the viceroy population must always remain in the minority to the monarch for the subterfuge to work. Once the viceroy might gain numbers over the monarch, the odds of a bird grabbing a poisonous insect go down. Without knowing an iota of math, birds would slowly begin partaking of the food again when fewer resources exist and fewer of their own kind die off in turn. In fact, to exist, the viceroy must always be limited in numbers as compared to a completely different species. Guess what, they don’t know math either.

The same holds true when we examine the relationship between the merits of not cussing and the pathology of cussing itself. The countless merits there are to be found, several of them enlightening in nature, cannot be achieved if there is nothing more common to refrain from. Challenging one’s self to use language empty of swearing would fail to be a challenge unless swearing itself not only existed, but existed to a far larger degree than the unique, individual choice to refrain from it. Cussing, like any other word or word group, MUST be far more commonplace in raw numbers than the personal choice to refrain from it in order for us to procure virtue in the attempt to subvert it. We can neither alleviate the need for the one nor the practice of the other without denying ourselves the rewards to be culled in the contrast. Picture it. How much more expansive would your vocabulary and your speech become if you honestly attempted to refrain from using the word “the” for a year. That would be quite the journey. “The” is throughout common usage in numbers too great to count. Your attempt to the contrary would be a grand challenge with who knows how many intellectual and disserting rewards? Now picture trying, instead, to refrain from using the word “otolaryngology” for a year. It would be far less of a challenge specifically because it is nowhere near as common in usage as “the.” Its raw numbers pale in comparison. Less of a challenge means less of a mental journey, less of an intellectual reward. In a Cartesian sense, we require vast platitudes in mere order to doubt them properly or advantageously.

Mr. Mayor, my fangs would retract if only you’d positively alter the name of your newfound, annual observance. Until then, in my mind, I have to question what you understand about this democratic Republic. Your intentions seem honorable, but your fitness to govern, suspect. It’s like when Katie Couric called freedom of speech a “privilege” or when former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer claimed people should “watch what they say” in response to Bill Maher’s firing from ABC. I’ll give you that cussing can be viewed as bad. However, to whatever degree it might be bad, your official “NO” week is far worse.


The Exterminator said...

Maybe we should hold a national cuss-in.

In any case, please send my wife and me our airline tickets for Pasadena next New Year's Day, and we will be happy to participate in your "Get Out The 'FUCK'" event.

bullet said...

I hate the term "cuss." When did we all turn into seven-year-old Alabama girls?

They are called curse words because you use them to curse things. They are cuss words if you have a speech impediment. How did people get so mother-fucking stupid?

Anonymous said...

Good post. I like your idea of taking an idea like this and re-stating as a positive ideal rather than a negative one.

If all of the the curse words that are currently in use disappeared from the language, others would be created to serve the same purposes. Such words exist because they fulfill particular expressive needs.

Pockets said...

LOL! Yes, I agree that "cuss" is derived from "curse" and I know that you are personally aware of my distaste for words finding their way into our lexicon strictly via improper usage or pronunciation. Nonetheless, I've always acknowledged that this is one of many ways in which language evolves. Plus, "cuss" has been around for nearly 200 years now. I think I can cut it some slack. Personally, for no logical reason whatsoever, in speech I've always preferred "curse" as a verb (as in "stop cursing at me") and cuss as a noun (as in "you miserable, loathsome cuss.")

Pockets said...

For all my complaints, I should mention that a recent study resulted in near brass tax proof that films with fewer curses in them earn almost twice as much at the box office.

While I do not believe that studies like this should in any way, shape, or form, impact the creation of art, I'd be remiss if I did not point out that if one wishes to address personal feelings about cursing in a public forum, ticket sales are a pretty decent and healthy way to do it. Pasadena might be holding No Cussing Week and St. Louis may still be batting around the idea of a No Swearing Law, but simple parental choice of movie tickets is a far louder statement. It is one that asks nothing of Hollywood or the government, but also exercises good judgment in mo/fatherhood. Simple dollars and cents are a passive statement, one worthy of study, without pontificating.

Pockets said...

Also, in fairness to the kid that started the No Cussing Club, I have since seen several more articles phrasing the title of the official week as "Cuss Free Week" as opposed to "No Cussing Week." While a little more positive to the ear, that is still thinly veiled. Again, the importance of Black History Month could not persist if it were White History Free Month. I still wholeheartedly believe that the lot of club members and Pasadena "Cuss Free Week" supporters, as well as Americans on the whole, would be better off calling it something like Maturity Speaks Week.

The kid has since been on Dr. Phil and I've heard tell of other T.V. programs. Not too shabby for a youngster who wishes to inspire. I do hope they follow up when this kid reaches college age, see if it's the same story.

Not to mock him, but I had a difficult time becoming a better poet betwixt this kid's age and college age. Sure, that's to be expected just as vocabulary and education expands. Yet, my particular difficulty stemmed from the fact that in junior high in the 80s, it seemed the only "poets" getting published in our school rag were introspective, Goth, necrophiliacs. All the pieces were about black tears, the decaying corpse of society, and amateur devil worship. I had particularly picked up the pen to try to make as much of an impact with a more positive tone and message. I thought my schoolmates had completely forgotten that poetry can be inspirational and thought-provoking beyond images like a chalice of misery.

Years later, still on that positive tack, the quality of my poetry had faltered. It took some heavy reading and study and a few real mentors on the college level to help me to reach a personal conclusion. Both were wrong. Limiting poetry to either the strictly positive or the strictly negative was a blight on the art itself. Poetry, among other infinitive observations, is a celebration of the multiplicity of all thoughts, ideas, and images. It is an acknowledgement that the positive does not exist without the negative and all contributing factors beyond that perceived duality. The challenge was balancing the two, but still making a statement. The book, THE DARK SIDE OF ROBERT FROST, helped me most in understanding this and even to present day, my poetry has turned out pretty darned great here and there.

This kid, McKay, will have a similar dilemma even if he carries the same intentions into adulthood. He is going to find situations where his practice proves lesser by virtue of being a little off balance. He may well succeed at "cusslessness" long term, but the practice will cause other problems, scotoma, and imbalances that hinder education and the open mind. I'm curious to hear about how he'll resolve them as I did.

John Evo said...

Happy to report that you can still attend the New Year's Parade, catch the Rose Bowl Game and "cuss" your fucking ass off.

South Pasadena is an actual city - not the southern part of Pasadena (well, it IS that - but it's an individual city with their own cops, mayor, etc).

I think you'll find Pasadena a bit more cosmopolitan than the sleepy, backwards town to the south.