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Jan 16 2007

Rudeness on the web

The mass media tends not to probe too deeply into sacred cows (like religion and patriotism) and when it does so, seems to carefully select only those targets which will not alienate the majority of its customers. People writing on the internet, however, are much more likely to skewer a broader range of ideas, which is something that I welcome.

While public figures have long been fair game for ridicule even in the traditional mass media, a trickier issue arises with the internet, which has created a whole new class of what might be called semi-private individuals. We now have people who are not public figures in the traditional sense of the word writing in personal web pages and blogs which are, in effect, public but often the material is intended for a limited audience. When people write about the minutiae of their lives, their meetings with friends, their children’s achievements, etc., they are in a different class from a politician who makes a speech that is reported in the newspapers or broadcast on TV. While the politician is clearly a justifiable target for close scrutiny and their ideas are open to ridicule, should the same hold true for the average poster on Facebook or the obscure blogger?

In my wanderings around the internet, it seems as if a consensus has emerged that the answer is ‘yes’, that anyone who posts on the internet is seen as being fair game for the kind of treatment that was once reserved for public figures.

But while the people in the mainstream media (apart from the silly talk shows) tend not to use ad hominem attacks, people on the internet will resort to name-calling and obscenities at the slightest provocation. I am often amused at how quickly people get angry and resort to abuse on the web. If one reads the comments sections on many blogs, they rapidly degenerate into name-calling. (This is not true of this blog where commenters are generally very polite and thoughtful.) It is interesting to see why this is so.

I think this may be because before the web people had few options for being part of the public discourse. If one wrote to the papers or called in to a radio show about some issue, there were filters that prevented people from using language likely to offend or from saying outrageous things. That left only private conversation where the rules of language were fairly clear and where people generally instinctively knew how to express themselves in each situation. In private conversation, people generally feel free to use much coarser language than in public, if they are with people whom they know will not be offended.

With the web, one suddenly has the ability to address the whole world while still having the anonymity that provides an illusion of privacy, and this may explain why discussions can degenerate so rapidly into mudslinging and obscenities.

I personally do not get offended by the kind of language one finds on the web. After all, it surely cannot be a secret that people at all levels of society know and use expletives. It surely is no secret that journalists and politicians and even people who act like pillars of rectitude use coarse language in private.

Although I do not use expletives on a routine basis, I am no innocent and know the words. And yet in 2005, when I reproduced an important article about hurricane Katrina, I felt obliged to do some cleaning up of the language. In the article, one person was quoted as saying “Get off the f——- freeway.” Now the original report did not have the dashes, which were inserted by me. I am certain that all readers of this blog know what letters they stand for. In doing this, I was following newspaper conventions of using euphemisms and dashes to replace words that are considered offensive by some, and thus practicing a form of self-censorship.

But my doing so really made no sense. Both reader and writer know what the word is so why does inserting dashes make it less offensive and more acceptable? What exactly was gained by me replacing the last letters of the word with dashes? The only reason I can come up with is so as to avoid offending someone who had led a very sheltered life and did not know the word (and these days that would probably mean a child who has barely learned to talk) and who happened to come across my blog, read the uncensored word and had to ask someone else what it meant, thus causing me to be the cause of that person’s loss of innocence. This scenario is unlikely, to say the least. Such a person is also likely to ask why there was a sudden outbreak of dashes, creating a similar problem. Any reader of my blog is almost certain to know the kinds of words I know, so there really was no reason for my self-censorship, except that by abiding by this quaint convention, I had used a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card to escape censure by some language prude out there in cyberland.

It is hard to explain why I felt obliged to do this kind of editing. It was not because this blog is hosted by a university website and therefore I felt a sense of obligation to act with some propriety. I would have done the same thing on a commercially hosted site. The only reason I can think of is that this is a relic of my upbringing, the sense that using words like that is not appropriate in polite company or in public. I just feel a vague sense of discomfort in writing those words, which is why my blog entries do not use them.

But my sensibilities can only control my own writing and not what I read or watch or hear. I am not offended by, and have no problems with, people who use expletives freely and I have little sympathy for those who reach for their smelling salts and tut-tut about civility when what they seem to be really objecting to is criticism of their cherished ideas or policies. As I said before, I agree totally with Salman Rushdie that no ideas should be immune from scrutiny and what words one uses should be left as a choice for the user. For example, the Rude Pundit writes political commentary that is very incisive but his language is often very rude!

Ultimately it is the quality of the argument and the ideas that matter, not how one says it. But how one says it has an effect on one’s ability to influence others. If used judiciously vulgarities and profanities and expletives can be very effective in making a point, but used indiscriminately or routinely, they can lose their punch. Just as good actors do not use gestures unthinkingly but carefully select their movements to enhance what they are trying to convey, so should writers view language.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Heidi Cool

    My mother has always said that swearing implies a lack of imagination. She also says it suggests that the speaker is too impolite to respect those around him—whether or not they are familiar with or attuned to such language.

    As a result of this, someone with my mom’s beliefs, will initially have less respect for those who commonly swear, both because she finds them rude, and because she feels they may not be very bright. Or if they are bright, she feels that by not broadening their vocabularies they are not making full use of their intellect.

    While this may sound uptight in 2007, I think it was a common viewpoint when she was growing up. It didn’t mean that she held all swearing people in disdain. My friend Kate cussed like a sailor, each conversation replete with the “f” word. Mom usually chuckled and said something like “Kate, you’re such a sharp girl, but no one is going to figure that out if they only hear you swearing.”

    Needless to say I don’t swear in front of my mom, and not much in general, because I do realize that people may make assumptions about my character or intellect based on what I say. I think your censorship of such terms implies respect for your reading audience, no matter what their feelings may be in regard to such language.

    I also agree with what you say about expletives “losing their punch.” Because I don’t swear very often, people take note when I do. If I even use “s**t they’ll perk up and take note because it implies something seriously ticked me off. Were I to use such words all of the time, they would become mere white noise.

  2. 2
    Mano Singham

    Heidi,

    I do think you are right that people who swear like drunken sailors tend to be taken less seriously, which seems like a good enough reason to be very sparing in their use.

    And you can never, ever, escape the influence of your mother’s admonitions. . .!

    Mano

  3. 3
    Norm Nason

    Thanks for that thoughtful piece, Mano. Your considerate and gentle nature shines through. I agree; I am certainly familiar with all the “bad words,” and sometimes (rarely) use them myself. But to me they are a form of yelling. Even if not spoken at high volume, the words carry a distasteful emotional emphasis that can be offensive. I prefer quiet clarity to needless verbal distraction. Consider these two phrases:

    “I hate shopping at the store.”
    “I hate shopping at the f–king store.”

    Even in print, the last sentence carries an air of contempt that is difficult to define but nonetheless unappealing. Swearing doesn’t only say something about the the words being spoken, it says something about the speaker as well. When I talk or write, my objective is to be clearly understood. As you say, needless swearing can often destract the listener from understanding one’s true intention.

  4. 4
    Bruce

    Your piece raises a dilemma I enjoy raising to new parents; given the following reactions to a day at school, which would they rather hear their child say.

    “I done good at that school test today.”
    “I did pretty fucking well on that test today.”

    Poor grammar can raise even greater conerns to one’s perceived intelligence.

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