(Un)Civil Discourse


I’m hamstrung.

It doesn’t help that I took the knife to my own tendons in accepting Canadian Cynic’s “The CC ‘Canadian Dumbfuck Wanker Challenge.'” Yes, I know I’m not Canadian, and thus could have thrust my nose high in the air and proclaimed, “Well, I’m an American, so that doesn’t apply to me.” I’m a cynical liberal who likes to cuss a blue streak, and that’s all the reason I needed to accept this challenge:


For one day — Monday, March 31 — I challenge every single member of Canada’s progressive blogging community to be polite.

That’s right — from midnight to midnight, over the course of Monday, March 31, I’m defying every single left-wing blogger in Canada to be nice. Be genteel. Be suave and urbane, and refrain from calling anyone a numbskull, retard, imbecile, cementhead, stupid cunt or dumbass motherfucker, even when they clearly deserve it, just to prove that, yes, we can play nice when we feel like it. I don’t think it’ll be that hard. 24 hours? I’ve gone longer than that without a beer so I’m pretty sure my willpower is up to it. (And, yes, playing nice includes comments as well. No getting around this on a technicality.)


This is just too great an opportunity to pass up. I’d wanted to say a few words about words anyway, and then here’s CC, challenging us to use family-friendly language for 24 hours.

It comes at a time when some folks over at ScienceBlogs are wringing their impecably polite hands over PZ’s succinct use of the f-bomb. (Word to the Wise: if you visit the first link there, the true gold is in the comments.) There’s also an article exhorting liberals to make more liberal use of fighting words. It’s a debate that comes up with depressing frequency: should we, or shouldn’t we, be more polite when we call someone a fu dumba ret person who’s not using his or her mental faculties adequately?

I have to admit something: I used to come down on the side of civility. I thought you’d get your point across far more elegantly if you didn’t use – um – “strong” language to make it. Set the example by using reasoned, decent language while the unwashed masses were slinging shi poo at each other. Don’t sink to their level. Yada yada bulls whatever yada. Granted, I was a veteran user of the euphemism for intercourse, an expert in alternatives to “excrement,” and a blasphemer extradordinaire in private life, but I’d never stoop so low as to use such words injudiciously in a written piece unless it was dialogue or a direct quotation.

You can refer to my previous posts to infer that I have changed my mind.

There is such a thing as being able to use vulgar language in a sophisticated way. I indulge in that at times. Sometimes, it’s good to just let yourself go, and I indulge in that variation as well. There are times when you could use flowery phrases to state a position, but you could use a single curseword to much greater effect.

One example of that has stayed with me for decades.

So no shi kidding, there we were in DARE class, back when I was in high school and (according to creationists) dinosaurs still roamed the earth. We’re sitting there bored as a Home Depot overstocked on lumber, and our DARE officer is yammering on and on about the dangers of drugs. I can’t tell you what he was saying, and I was a law enforcement buff who was less inclined to tune out and start thinking about fu sex than most. You can imagine how little most others were hearing. But then, he says in this deadly serious voice, “I want to tell you something.” He leans over his desk, knuckles planted, and gives this furtive look around the classroom and door for lurking administrators. We all perk up. What’s he got to say that’s making him look like Deep Throat about to spill Nixon’s secrets?

“Drugs are shit,” he says.

I can guarantee you that if you polled the group in that classroom today, that is the only thing they’ll remember. It’s the only thing they needed to remember. Here was an authority figure, a cop no less, speaking naked truth in the starkest terms possible. It wasn’t just the word, although that was powerful stuff coming from a representative of authority in a suffocatingly religious community. It was the tone. It took an attention-getting word and made it stand for every harm drugs could do to self and society.

There are times when one naughty word is worth a thousand civil ones.

There are times when sinking a level or two is the right thing to do. Sad to say, many Americans (and I’m sure plenty of Canadians and British and other assorted speakers of the English language) aren’t appreciative of sophisticated wit. That doesn’t mean you don’t use it. That means you sneak it in with a heaping helping of vulgar tell-it-like-it-is language-of-the-streets in-your-face verbal smackdown. The pure intelligentsia and literati may gasp in horror, but they’re drowned out by the rest of the audience gasping in appreciation. And you reach a broader swath of people that way. Talking over someone is just as annoying as talking down to them, if you ask me. There’s a difference between being learned and snooty. A judicious use of colorful language makes it easier to avoid the snoot.

Then there’s the ridicule factor. You can patiently trot out the facts, correct erroneous arguments, plead for reason, tolerance and civility, and make a scrupulous example of yourself as a fair-minded, kind-hearted, open and friendly defender of science/liberty/justice/Mom. Some folks might listen, especially those on your side. But when you salt the above with some salty language, you catch the attention of those who might not have been listening otherwise. Do you think I give two tugs on a a flying fu a darn about Canada’s right wing? I do now, but it’s not because of some excrutiatingly polite liberal moan about the horrible lies and why can’t we all just get along and this is so terrible! It’s because Canadian Cynic’s snark is so delightful. And because of said snark, I now know that they have a Bush II clone in office, they have a right wing that gives ours a run for their money on lies, corruption and destructiveness, and that if progressives everywhere don’t grow a pair, this is all we can hope for the world over: that the authoritarian sadists will allow us a dab of Vasoline before they bend us over.

Snark breeds awareness, my darlings. Don’t you forget it.

“But we need to set an example,” I hear some folks whine. Of course we do. That’s why some of us will be iconoclastic, outrageous, generally, perhaps charmingly but above all relentlessly offensive.

This accomplishes several things.

It gets attention.

Far from drowning out the voices of moderation, it can highlight them. I can imagine some folks turning to the likes of Nisbett, Moody et al in relief after getting their ears sandblasted by PZ Myers, Dawkins et al. Face it, friends: if you didn’t ha
ve radicals to blush about, how much would you have in common with the moderates on the right who are busy blushing over the shenanigans of their own embarrassing relations?

It shows folks that you can stand out from the crowd and survive.

That last bit’s important, and I’ll tell you why: Bob Altemeyer. He did a study on authoritarian followers (i.e., the 30% or so who swallow every lie the neocons and theocons feed them and keep swallowing no matter how many times wiser folk have proven they’re drinking poison). You should read it if you’ve run out of horror novels. But anyway, he did some studies, and found that a good majority of us will follow authority. And if there’s not someone else there setting an example in defying said authority, that majority gets scary huge.

However:


Often one person can steel another, and another and another, until many are working together. You don’t have to form a majority to have an effect. Two or three people speaking out can sometimes get a school board, a church board, a board of aldermen to reconsider authoritarian
actions. Lack of any opposition teaches bullies simply to go for more. But it takes one person, an individual, to start the opposition. [The Authoritarians (pdf) page 244]


See there? We need to act out for the good of society!

All right, so he has other points that tend to counter mine in that list of suggestions for changing hearts and minds, but he’s talking about courting the 30-percenters, and I’m talking about swaying the people who aren’t sure which voice to follow: the one that says “You must obey authority!” or the one that says, “They’re [expletive deleted] getting us killed, you [asperation on addressee’s intelligence deleted]! Sod this for a game of larks Forget them!”

John Dolan has it just about right in his article “How to Humiliate – and Convert – a Right-Winger”:


A good first step would be accepting the fact that language is a weapon — and then start using it effectively. Most liberals affect scorn for mere words, in the way that I affected scorn for mathematics after flunking algebra twice in high schools. And most of the hardcore academic progressives I’ve known have tin ears. Their sheer awfulness is adaptive within the academic ghetto, in the way that a lack of any olfactory ability is adaptive for carrion eaters; but it’s disastrous when they try to talk to people outside their guild.


He goes on to say much the same thing John Douglas did when speaking of serial killers – when we give more respect than is due, when we elevate them by calling them “John Wayne Gacy” instead of “that sick bastard who killed all those kids,” when we don’t denegrate, we make them glamorous rather than horrifying. He advocated digging through their past for humiliating nicknames and using other such means to minimize and despise them.

Yes. Yes! Granted, right-wingers, creationists, theocons and neocons and all of the other plagues on democracy and reason aren’t serial killers, but they are bullies, and you don’t win a bully’s respect by whining about fairness and decency. You put a stop to him by putting him down. PZ Myers has it right – point and laugh. Ridicule. Debunk. It’s a sad fact that people respond to negative attacks more readily than reasoned discourse, but they do. The bards in Ireland were feared by kings because of their power to make people laugh. Reducing your opponent, destroying his prestige, works.

I plan to use the language as a weapon. I’ll use all weapons at my disposal: satire, parody, reason, rhetoric, logic, and the foulest of foul language. Let others be the diplomats. I’ll even be diplomatic, when the situation calls for it, but diplomacy without fighting spirit comes across as being a snivelling pansy, and we all know how much that impresses people, don’t we?

There are times when a judicious application of (un)civil discourse can go a long way. These are those times. And I cannot fuc friggin wait until April 1st…

Comments

  1. says

    Just watch, this is CC softening the blow when on Apr. 1 he’ll reveal that he has cancer of the spleen, and if he swears any more he’ll expire. Just a hunch.