Disclaimer: This is not a political post. Sorry to disappoint those that are searching for yet more anti-Trump vitriol on the Internet. This blog is still about language.
The other night I was watching the documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” on PBS. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/maya-angelou-film/7533/) I had tuned in just by chance about half-way through the program and am so glad I caught at least some of it. I had read and very much enjoyed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings many years ago, so I knew something about Angelou’s childhood and adolescence. And, I knew that she had written and recited a poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, but that was about it. Turns out that in addition to her many artistic and intellectual accomplishments and awards, she had kind of a wild
and colorful life–some of it rather on the unsavory side. Nonetheless, she put her great talent, insight and love of language to use to rise above much adversity and succeed on many fronts. In interviews she came across as a very wise, dignified yet fun-loving lady with an immense curiosity and appetite for challenge.
What struck me, especially, in light of a few recent events, which I will describe shortly, was her admonition to other blacks about the use of the n-word and other vulgarities. In an interview, perhaps her last before her death in 2014, Angelou recounts how she took Tupac Shakur aside, not knowing or caring who he was, on the set of a movie she was making to have a little chat with him about why he was so angry and stomping around yelling a blue streak of obscenities. As Angelou put it, the n-word was coined to demean people, and therefore, no matter who uses it or why, it is unacceptable. In addition, she said about bad language in general, vulgarity is vulgarity, and you know it’s wrong.
Her words struck a chord with me because lately I’ve been feeling somewhat besieged by linguistic vulgarity. All right, those of you who know me know that I am not above swearing like a sailor myself on occasion. I grew up hearing some pretty salty language from my dad everyday, although my mom tried hard to keep it clean and on more than one occasion washed out my mouth with green Palmolive soap. Maybe that’s why I do still try to follow certain conventions of “polite” society when I use vulgar language. For example, using such language mainly in private among adult friends and lowering one’s voice if in public so as not to offend others, using vulgar words for humorous effect or as intensifiers, not merely gratuitously. Does that make me a hypocrite at worst or just a prudish old woman at best, or are others reacting the same way and just not saying anything?
I work in the court system, so I’m exposed on a regular basis to people that are upset, angry, outraged, hysterical, crazy and just plain rough. I hear the f-bomb all the time in the hallways outside of courtroom, from people talking loudly into their cell phones about the injustice they have just experienced, or adults talking to each other while their kids run around at their feet, and sometimes from lawyers speaking with their clients–maybe they think it lends them street cred to be vulgar. I’ve noticed over the last 10 years or so a decided slackening of the tabu around the use of the f-bomb. I use it more, my peers use it more, even my dad has now used it in when talking to me, something I never heard out of his potty mouth in 58 years. And, of course, rap music is laced with it and probably has been for longer than I know since I don’t listen to rap if I can help it.
That leads me to the first of the recent incidents that got me to thinking more about this topic. For Christmas last year, we were guests at the Santa Cruz, CA home of my stepson’s partner’s family, most of whom we had met before and who had graciously included us in Christmas festivities two years prior in Los Angeles. It was the end of a lovely Christmas Day filled with good food and drink, good cheer, present-exchange, football in the yard, etc. Music had been playing for much of the day, some of it Christmasy, some not, but mostly “classics” that everyone could enjoy, from the 75-year-olds to the 14 year-old. Everyone had supped aplenty, the dishes were done, the hostess could finally unwind, the cook was asleep on the couch, others were watching T.V. or occupying themselves with their new gifts–you get the picture. The music turned up-tempo, the dining table was moved aside, and some of us started to dance and sing. The host and hostess danced beautifully together. The rest of us did the best we could. It was fun.
After a half-hour or so of that revelry, the 20-somethings got hold of the music source and opted for a more “contemporary” sound–so I sat down to rest. It was still fun to watch them. That is, until the rap song “Fuck Donald Trump” by YG and Nipsey Hussle (all heretofore unknown to me, would that they had remained so, and I leave it to you to Google the lyrics if you haven’t had the “pleasure” as I do not wish to afford them one more hit than necessary), whereupon the eight or so family members that were still dancing, still ranging in age from 75 to 14, formed a sort of mosh pit in the dining room and commenced jumping around with fists pumping in the air and gleefully shouting the refrain “Fuck Donald Trump.” I was left speechless and still am–almost–although Maya Angelou helped me find my voice.
The next time I felt a little unexpected f-bomb explosion was upon our return to Wisconsin from California. I get a weekly email about entertainment events happening around the Madison area for the upcoming weekend and following week. In this particular email, perhaps over New Year’s weekend, there were two events the titles of which each contained the word “fuck.” Really? I showed my husband. Still somewhat dumbfounded by our CA Christmas experience, we asked ourselves when it became okay to use that word so cavalierly and in a public forum. Are we just fossils, or do we have reason to question this new linguistic license?
The last incident I want to report on occurred at Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado in early February. I was skiing with my sister and friends of hers, a married couple. We were getting on the chair lift when I heard my sister’s friend, Michele, tell the lift operator she didn’t think the music he was playing was appropriate. I perked up my ears. Guess what aforementioned rap song he was playing over the loud speakers? The liftie’s response was something like, “Well, we don’t have any policy against it, so too bad.” With that, the chair whacked us in the knees, we sat down and were whisked up the mountain. Unfortunately, the ride lasted long enough for us and hundreds of other lift-ticket-buying guests to hear FDT all the way up from loud speakers attached to the top of each tower. Michele was steamed, and though her husband encouraged her to “let it go,” I agreed with her that that not only was the playing of that song completely inappropriate, but so was the young man’s response. Michele and I each filed complaints with the resort independently. I don’t know what response she got, but I received an email and a phone call from Lift Operations. At least, their representative agreed with me and assured me that the lift operator had been identified and “re-educated” as to what’s appropriate for a family resort and what’s not. While I might lament that such “re-education” is even necessary, I was glad that someone, apparently, took the time and interest to teach the young lift operator something about societal norms regarding vulgar language. And, I really hope it’s the last time I hear that damn song.
I’ve considered carrying around packets of Palmolive liquid soap to dispense as needed when the public f-bombs start to fly, but probably Maya Angelou’s approach is better. Don’t lower your standards and speak up (politely, but firmly) when the forces of vulgarity rear their ugly heads.