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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Insults, Privilege, and Power Language: a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout report with VIDEO

This is a report on the hangout we held last Thursday, which turned out to be a fascinating discussion! I was joined by Reggie Lutz, Lillian Csernica, and Karen Rochnik - thank you all for being awesome and taking the topic on.

We started out on a light note, talking about insults. Lillian mentioned how great Shakespeare's insults were - mumblecrust, flibbertygibbet, cot queen, lightskirt, etc. Occasionally, you'll see Shakespearean insult lists floating around Facebook and the internet, because they are just so much fun.

Shakespearean insults are often fun because they are so full of meaning, but a word like "fuck" is almost meaning-free. It conjugates, and it can be used in almost every situation... but though we do see it used in its semantically meaningful form, that usage is only a small percentage of its total usage. It's much more of a social posturing move, an alignment move to associate us with one group or another, or even a magic spell to give a child the power to cause adults to freak out!

Lillian mentioned the film "Hope and Glory," where to join a gang, a kid had to say a swear word. The kid in question said "fuck," and was told, "that is a special word." Karen mentioned that swearing can be very satisfying.

I mentioned here, as I mentioned in my post on editing "Mind Locker" for profanity, that we can identify hierarchies of power within the arena of insults and swear words. Fuck is near or at the top - because I would argue that words that are more potent but uglier are more constrained in their usage, leaving fuck as the most important (currently). In a way, swear words are the magical words of our time.

Learning politeness words is very important, and learning swear words is, also. They are both potent, though they have different purposes. Lillian spoke about her son John, and how he was very polite in elementary school. He might not have grasped the semantic content of the words, but he knew how people would respond to them. She mentioned something she'd noticed when critiquing "Mind Locker," which was that Hub Girl doesn't swear in front of her dad - not because she is at all afraid of punishment, but because she's come to do business with him, and doesn't want to invoke the father-daughter relationship as she would if she swore and provoked him to scold her.

Reggie talked about how the potency of swear words varies greatly based on the surrounding context. Swearing is incredibly shocking in Catholic grade school, but in the music industry, it's so normal that the words have lost their power. Some contexts call for these words to be controlled, and some don't.

I talked briefly about Discourses, and encouraged people to go look at James Gee's work on the subject. The kind of language we use - and the kind of language that has power - depends a lot on social context. The example I gave was from English as a Second Language. Language learners in the US tend to pick up the socially valuable English usage that occurs on the playground most quickly, but playground grammar is not the same as classroom grammar. The problem that arises is that in classwork, teachers reward only language use appropriate to that discourse, yet are likely to assume a learner's English is better because of his or her knowledge of casual conversational English.

Using language appropriate to one discourse in the context of another one can sound very strange - or it can be incredibly effective. I promised the group that I'd give them references, so here are two:

Smitherman, Geneva. "Soul 'N Style." English Journal February (1974): 16-17. Print.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. "How to Tame a Wild Tongue." Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999. 53-64. Print.

Reggie talked about alignment, which is a very important concept. Whether we speak plainly or colorfully marks us as belonging to, or standing with, particular social groups (e.g. academic, music industry, playground clique, etc.). Reggie told us she doesn't swear when she's angry - that that's not okay. It's okay to swear when being playful, though. A very similar rule operates at my house!

Lillian talked about how we make choices about our language. "Bitch" is a terrible word in some contexts, but in others, it has become a greeting. Any single word can have a spectrum of meaning. We also talked about Reclamation, when a group of people who has been subjected to a particular insult (such as women with "bitch" or African-Americans with the "n" word) will try to reclaim it and make it empowering within that group. Lillian mentioned a comedian who had said that "bitch" stood for "being in total control of herself." I mentioned Chris Rock and how he was in a special position to discuss and critique the "n" word through comedy. Comedy is an interesting topic, because often it's  boundary-crossing and transgression that makes something funny.

We also talked about the kind of playful banter where friends insult each other. Reggie told us the term for that was "verbal jocosity." It's true that sometimes we see friends insult each other and wonder if they are really friends. This kind of joking can really turn bad if it crosses certain types of boundaries - and often when it crosses genders. But inherent in the idea of jocosity is a kind of declaration that "I feel safe with you," i.e. that we can insult each other without fear of reprisal because we have confirmed our alignment.

The internet has its own types of rules and discourse conventions. For example, YELLING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. It's easy to find people who haven't yet been exposed to this "rule," but who think that having caps lock on is insignificant. Swearing on the internet can be hateful and scary, or it can be hilarious, depending on how it's accomplished. (I should try analyzing this sometime!)

I talked briefly about dog-whistle words. The term itself is a reference to "whistles that only dogs can hear," but it is now used to mean words which have a common meaning and are understood by all members of a community, but which have been infused with an additional, coded meaning by members of a subgroup of that community. One example of a dog-whistle word is "urban," which to the general community means "associated with cities" but to a certain type of listener automatically implies "black." Dog-whistle words are used specifically to avoid the dangers of direct insult, but to invoke fear, hatred, and antipathy in insider listeners.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the attendees if they had any thoughts to share from their personal experience.

Reggie said that she' been told that swearing showed a writer had limited imagination, but in her mind, if your story world resembles our reality, you can't dance around your swear words. That would be a disservice to your character and to your art. In the dragon novel she is writing, there isn't much call for insult among dragons. Gay, for example, has no pejorative meaning associated with it. The more important distinction among the dragons is whether they are shapeshifters or not.

Lillian noted that you don't have to say your swear words "out loud" in order to include them in your work. In her Japanese novel, she has a refined, dainty and elegant girl living with a masterless samurai who is in exile. He swears - but he curses under his breath. Lillian can achieve her effect by showing the girl's reaction and implying the social context without actually spelling out the swear words.

Karen talked about working on a story with a future society that was post-religious, and struggling with how many easy contexts there would be for "Jesus Christ" or "God" to be used as oaths. We talked about how much the language might have shifted. There could be alternatives to those oaths, but the oaths themselves might also stick around and lose their semantic content.

I talked about the importance of labeling. When you are worldbuilding, you should keep in mind that people label each other in various ways. Any single social group can have multiple labels depending on who is referring to them - something they call themselves, a pejorative or admiring term that people give to them, and then an official term. In my world of Varin, the undercaste are called Akrabitti officially, trashers as a pejorative, and they call themselves "the Patient Folk." I also mentioned a recent conversation I had about an alternate history project where emancipation had been more effective and former slaves had quickly taken on positions of importance - but for some reason, her readers weren't noticing when characters were dark-skinned, in spite of specific description. I suggested that even in such a situation, the emancipated slaves would be seen as their own social group, and needed a label... but a label that would demonstrate to readers the regard in which they were now held.

The last thought that came up was that people can often get really worked up about the use of swearing, but that it pales in comparison to real atrocities, and often, good behavior/politeness can be used to cover up horrible atrocities. Keeping the surface rules lets you ignore the deeper rules.

Thanks again to everyone who participated! I hope to see you again very soon.


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