Sunday, November 20, 2011

Raging Characters

Who are the raging characters? The man who has arrived home late and drunk. The driver who goes through the stop sign and shouts at the pedestrian to watch where she's going. The student who leaves the door unlocked and then discovers her necklace is missing. The key to their rage, and why they are furious, not merely irritated, mad, or angry, is that they have each done something wrong and they know it. And often, they swear about it.

Language has always been connected with this rage. Often, very cruel language. What we used to call "foul" language, we could now just call foolish language. George Carlin's 1972 comedy routine Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television (yes, he is performing them at that link) is still funny, but the tameness of the words themselves is almost quaint today. Still, people are offended by some or all of these words.

The words are commonly used in magazines, on later night television, and flame online across the web. If someone complains and says that using these words is "unprofessional," say, in a conference presentation, the comeback may be "well, then you are not my audience." It's a defense. It must be your fault that you are offended, and if you are, go away and don't criticize my manners. Oh, wait. What was that? That last part was unspoken. If you tell someone not to use certain language they may feel you have criticized them. In this case, whether or not they know consciously that they are wrong, the rage rears up and you get a splattering mess of language all over you. The language has power partly because of the rage that accompanies it, partly because we continue to allow it to have that power.

But using the seven dirty words in a professional talk?
Would you show up for a professional conference in a bikini? Okay, I know.
It depends on the conference. Context, my dear, context.

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Veering in a slightly different direction, but related: a friend just recommended I listen to Nikky Finney's acceptance speech (min: 16-22) for the 2011 National Book Awards for her book of poetry called Head Off & Split (something the fish seller said). On my way to finding the video I ran into a critical article that contained a quote that sounded a bit angry and as bitter as those opposed to affirmative action. But the U.S. can't run from the miserable, embedded history of slavery. The criticism seemed to be implying that we should get over slavery, that somehow we have gotten over it, that black women writers are now the mainstream, and therefore, when we give awards to black writers, feeling smug is a stock reaction "like laughter when yet another stand-up comic says f--k," and we should stop congratulating ourselves. Is that what we are doing? In the words of SNL's Weekend Update routine: "Really?" Does the article writer think we are overcompensating by giving awards to black women? That white males are being swept under the rugs? (As a counterexample: I look at The New York Review of Books and count how many women contributors there are each month. Not even close to half. Not even a handful.) Ultimately, if you watch the speech and read the interview with Nikky Finney, you can see how good a writer she is. Why be mad about giving her an award?

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People are maddest when it's their own fault.
They are mad at themselves. They feel criticized, knowingly or not.
Remember that when someone projects and launches their rage at you.
Use it in a story and it will feel very, very real.

iBook, 2008

1 comment:

Velma said...

good to contemplate, and the icing on the cake: your iBook!