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Posts Tagged ‘obscenity’

The newest “atheist gender clusterfuffle” (a phrase I’m finding myself using with saddening regularity) has at least turned up one point of fun: Jen McCreight’s “Cunto” game.

If you were lucky enough to miss this one, it involved people using the word “cunt” to describe other people in an unfriendly manner, and other people being offended by this, and a slew of excuses being proffered as to why it’s not something anyone should get offended over. Jen’s Bingo-style game brings a bunch of those responses together onto one handy scorecard.

And I’m feeling obliged to attempt another opinion. Because, while part of me wants to defend any enjoyable use of creative profanity, many of the people doing the swearing are just terrible.

The thing about most of these discussions is that they don’t even really need to be about gender. They certainly don’t need to be about feminism facing off against the patriarchy. It’s not like there are really any different rules here than in any other form of human interaction. Context is key, and always err on the side of compassion.

A number of words in our language come with a great deal of historical baggage for a lot of people. That baggage varies from person to person, but when it’s shared by a significantly large number of folk, you have no excuse for not being aware of it ahead of time, considering how it might affect your audience, and choosing your words carefully as a result.

There are some instances in which I will use the word “cunt”. A discussion of the word and its impact on my own blog is one such instance. A public speech in which, for whatever reason, I don’t care if people take offensive to that particular word use, might be another. A casual conversation with any of my neighbours, whom I don’t know particularly well, is not.

My use of the n-word is even more limited. I’ve used it when discussing the word itself, or quoting somebody else who I’m deliberately portraying unsympathetically, to people who I know how they’ll react. But that’s about it. I know how it can affect some people, and I don’t want to do that to anyone.

(I really don’t think any of this is that difficult so far, is it?)

I use more minor curse words and blasphemy a lot, because it’s a natural way for me to talk, and few people seemed particularly bothered by it. If I was having a nice chat with someone new, and they asked me politely not to take the Lord’s name in vain, I’d be surprised, but I’d most likely comply. (I’d then either steer the conversation away from religion or directly into it, depending on how playful I was feeling.)

If their limitations on what they deemed acceptable language became too restrictive, I’d suggest they leave the conversation. If they were trying to stifle me more generally or publicly, I’d advise them to tune out and leave me and my non-offended listeners alone. But laying off the god-swears for a while is not a request that significantly puts me out.

And you know what, “Please don’t call me a cunt” is also not something to get flag-wavingly, First-Amendment-fappingly, free-speechily defensive over. Words mean things, and they don’t always mean the same things to everyone else as they do to you.

The times I’ve called a woman a cunt in the past, they’ve been good friends of mine and I’ve been damn certain they wouldn’t take it the wrong way. (The only person I can think of who I’ve publicly called a cunt and meant it harshly is Danny Dyer, and I’m pretty sure he won’t be hurt by it because he can’t read.) But if you do offend someone with it, and they protest, it’s sort of impossible to dig your heels in and defend your right to use that word with no apology unless you’re being either deliberately malicious or immensely oblivious to the culture you live in. If you’re paying any attention, you should appreciate what it can mean.

If a lot of people tell you that they’d prefer you didn’t so casually use a certain heavily loaded word which demeans some people, and your only response is to assert your freedom by stubbornly repeating it over and over, you know what you are? You’re Dr Laura.

I apologise for my use of that offensive term, but I believe it was justified by the context.

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If you weren’t following the big Obscenity Trial at the start of the year, it’s worth catching up on, either through the defense lawyer‘s own account or that of David Allen Green for the New Statesman.

It concerns the sale of some particular styles of hardcore pornography (described more explicitly at the above links than I’ll go into here), which the Crown Prosecution Service apparently deemed obscene under a 1959 law.

The acts depicted in the DVDs being sold were not illegal. More to the point, they weren’t anything the law has any place passing such judgment on. What concerned the CPS was the potential of the content “to deprave and corrupt” the people who viewed it – referring, presumably, to those unsullied innocents who approached a former sex-worker and specifically requested “extreme BDSM and fisting material”.

The defendant was acquitted on all charges, but it’s dismaying that this law under which he was prosecuted is still in place, and that prosecutors still consider smut-peddlars useful and important targets of their time and resources.

I want to do more, though, than just the usual lip service to the standard liberal argument – that what consenting adults get up to in their own lives is no concern of mine. So much of the discourse around this case, discussing these strange people and their bizarre sexual fetishes, who it’s agreed (perhaps reluctantly) should be tolerated because it’s really none of our business, seems reminiscent of how gay people were talked about until quite recently (and probably still are, in some parts of the world): Whatever unconventional things they want to get up to, it’s their own private business, and it’s not for us to pry into what goes on behind closed doors.

There’s often something about the way this argument is made which continues to pathologise any sexual interests that go beyond the hetero and vanilla. We’re past the point where any decent, right-minded human being has any business thinking homosexuality is an inherent evil, but a common expression of the competing idea – that it’s something different but still basically fine – isn’t exactly the culmination of successful humanist thinking.

Perhaps I should be surprised that, despite my increasing recent interest in cases such as this one, I’ve still never encountered the word “heteronormativity” as regularly as I did when living with several humanities students at University. It doesn’t seem to get so much play in the discussions about sexuality I follow online, and yet the implicit dichotomy between “standard” and “deviant” sexual behaviour is one of the more persistent out-dated ideas around.

I wonder whether the distinction that makes more of a difference isn’t between “my healthy sex life” and “other people’s weird kinky shit”, but between sexual and non-sexual parts of our lives.

A lot of what was on the DVDs that got Michael Peacock in trouble would probably be actively unappealing to me. As a (to within a margin of error) straight male, gay male sex also doesn’t generally match my own interests, and isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about over breakfast.

But – with apologies to any parents or in-laws of mine who might be reading this – there are sexual things I am into which would still put me off my Corn Flakes if a graphic image poked my brain at the wrong time, and which would provide an undesirable mental image even to other people who don’t find them particularly unusual or surprising.

The important point is less about people being turned on by things that I’m not, and more about people’s capacity to keep their sexuality separate from the non-sexual aspects of their lives.

The old-fashioned fear of homosexuals depended on the perception that their sexuality was something central to their identity, which affected everything else they did, and infused them with an untrustworthy gayness which meant they might start unexpectedly gaying at you, at any moment. Similarly, it might take a special effort of will to divorce the knowledge that someone sells hardcore DVDs from the rest of their personality.

People with uncommonly expressed sexual kinks or fetishes aren’t often credited with being in command of a sexuality that doesn’t intrude on everything else that defines who they are. But given how rarely I hear about what they get up to, compared with the more mundane sex scandals that are rarely out of the news, I’d say straight people are in no place to criticise.

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“Well, don’t f**k them then.” I forget where I’m plagiarising that from.

Anyway, here’s a story about a C of E vicar who resigned because he swore a lot. And there were allegations that he sometimes drank alcohol. Clearly he had to go.

It’s not like the guy was peppering his sermons with obscenity – it was his preacher mates who complained about him, leading first to a six-month suspension “while his conduct was investigated”, and now to his resignation. Exactly what detailed research they could have been doing that took six months to decide whether a bloke said “shit” a few times, I really don’t know.

But this made me notice that I don’t really recall encountering anyone in the skeptical and atheist-y blogonetosphere who’s really bothered by swear words. Just about everyone in my extended social circle will throw the occasional curse out there. Some more liberally and with less consideration for nuance than others, sure, but I don’t think I know anyone who’s seriously turned off by it.

What’s up with that? I don’t want to make too sweeping a generalisation here, and I know plenty of more moderate godhumpers who certainly don’t have such delicate ears, but it seems like there’s something of a trend, at least. Does one of the bits of the Bible I haven’t actually read say something about this? The good book has its more tasteless moments too, y’know, and I don’t recall it ever speaking out against that kind of fruity language.

Or does it just tie in with some people who take religion seriously following a more old-fashioned or conservative morality in general? It would make some kind of sense if there was a link between people’s attitudes to saying the word “fuck” and when you’re allowed to do it.

I’m just pondering aloud here. And I’m actually now more interested by a link I just saw in the middle of that article to another one, with the headline: ‘Thou shalt shoplift’ vicar hit by bucket of spaghetti.

The Reverend Tim Jones had apparently advised his parishioners recently that the Ten Commandments are more sort of guidelines than actual rules, and that in this harsh economic climate it’s sometimes okay to nick stuff. I’m paraphrasing. Anyway someone took offence to this and neatly rebutted the Reverend’s argument with the classic and elegant syllogism of throwing spaghetti on him.

I can’t really think of anything to add to that; I think it stands up quite well enough on its own.

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