Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Dick” is a four-letter word (On Vulgarity)

Vulgarity appreciated by the non-vulgar
MSNBC Suspends Halperin Over Obama Slur (New York Times)

vulgar |ˈvəlgər|adjectivedated characteristic of or belonging to the masses.

     OK, so now we hear that reporter Mark Halperin got suspended from his MSNBC job because, during an appearance on a generally jokey and informal morning political talk show, he said that the President, during a recent news conference, acted like “kind of a d*ck.”
     Now, I doubt that the President, a well-tempered gent, acted badly during that press conference. But let’s not get into that. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the President did act badly. Please understand that I want to talk about Halperin—or, rather, about Halperin’s statement—not about the President.
     How did he act badly? Well, let’s say (for argument’s sake) that he was a bit of a jerk. That is, he was “contemptibly obnoxious,” for that is what “jerk” means, according to my Mac dictionary.
     What if Halperin had opined instead that the President acted like “kind of a jerk” at the press conference? I think you’ll agree that, in that case, few would have objected. He might be criticized for (supposedly) opining about the President’s character—that's not his job, they'll say—but not by many and not for long.
     I submit that, in some sense, “jerk” and “d*ck” are synonyms. When I’m talking among friends, I sometimes convey the jerkitude of a person—in an anecdote or whatever—by saying that he’s a “d*ck.” In my mind, I would convey almost exactly the same assessment (or accusation) were I to use the word “jerk” instead.
     “D*ck,” when it isn’t someone’s name or a reference to a detective, is a four-letter word, and “jerk” is not. (You know what I mean.) “D*ck” is, or can be, a profanity.
     But what does that mean?
     Uh-oh, this is liable to be complicated.
* * *
     Obviously, this use of the word “d*ck” is vulgar. Let’s focus on that.
     To say that a word (or person, etc.) is vulgar is to say that it is “lacking sophistication or good taste”; it is “unrefined” (my Mac dictionary).
     Yes, yes. But I have known lots of people, and I’ve known the sophisticated and the unsophisticated. Roughly speaking, in my experience, sophisticates do not observe dictionaries’ “vulgarity” rules. Many of these people—well educated, mild-mannered, usually thoughtful—are happy to spout so-called vulgarities, though, in their mouths, such words do not drag them, or the moment, or the company to some mean or lowly state.
     Sophisticates love “The Sopranos.” That show was loaded with profanities and vulgarities. Bumpkins love stuff like “Walker: Texas Ranger.” Dang.
     My view is that many of us, an apparent minority, recognize the power of much “vulgar” language. And so we are attracted to these words. No one who loves words (as so many writers do) hates “vulgarities” and that is because vulgarities often say so much and sometimes say things better than their refined correlates. They tend to be loaded with lots of nifty “extras.”
     Naturally, some vulgarities say things, or are tied to attitudes, that are intrinsically ugly and wrong. Perhaps some vulgarities are beyond the pale. (Think of the “c” word used against women.) It is possible that there is no way to detoxify some vulgar words or phrases. If we “use” such language, we do so while manifestly adopting a persona. Decent people don’t just use them, unless they're at the end of a twenty-foot pole.
     But it’s one thing to call your girlfriend a “c***.” It’s quite another to describe some jerk as a “d*ck.” I’m here to defend d*ck, not c***.
* * *
     Most of us are multilingual in the sense that we speak differently to different audiences. For instance, the way that one speaks with one’s parents and the way that one speaks with one’s close friends are often very different.
     Such multilingualism is appropriate. I can tell my best friend that Mr. X is “kind of a d*ck,” but generally I can’t use that word to, say, dress down an obnoxious student in class. I can inform my brother that, owing to recent events, “I’m f*cked,” but I can’t make that point in the same way talking to my dean. It just wouldn't do.
     Notice that, despite my making these adjustments, I can manage to be myself and to be open with people. For instance, I might tell my dean that my new circumstances are decidedly unfortunate—communicating the same thing I told my bro, though without the assumption of closeness and deep mutual understanding that prevails when I’m with my bro. I might prefer to convey my point as I do with my brother—for that way conveys more and manages a more severe punctuation—but there’s liable to be trouble if I do that, since my relationship to my dean is (mostly) professional.
* * *
The vulgar prefer vulgarity eschewery
     So what are we to make of Mr. Halperin’s remark?
     Remember, we’re assuming (for the sake of discussion) that the President really did act like “kind of a d*ck.” And suppose that Halperin observed this and was asked by friends what he made of the President’s press conference performance.
     Well, says Halperin, he was “kind of a d*ck.”
     Well, OK. 
     It makes a difference that Halperin was (it seems) among friends. The particular program in which Halperin made his remark tends to bring friends and colleagues together for informal chats about politics. Its charm (I’ve seen it a few times) depends to some extent on chumminess and informality. It generally eschews dead seriousness. 
     So (asks Mr. Host): Halperin, friend-to-friend, what did you really make of the President’s performance yesterday?

     Well, to be honest, he was kind of a d*ck.
     Sure, whatever.
     But there’s more. The hosts of this program seemed to be egging Halperin on. “Go ahead! Tell us what you really think! We can bleep it out!” And so he said it.
     But, for some reason, they didn’t bleep it out. (Somebody should talk to the man with the button. He's a screwup.)
     Given the nature of this program and the nature of this particular conversation (between friends), Halperin’s remark strikes me as utterly unobjectionable.
     —Except that it was broadcast on TV. So, in a sense, the conversation included all those ears out there in the dark, hundreds of thousands of ‘em. Given that circumstance, it really won’t do for this journalist to call the President a “d*ck.” The journalistic community does best when it presents its members to the world as though whether or not the President acted like a jerk just isn’t important. It does best when it presents its members sans vulgarity.
     And here’s journalist Halperin saying that the Prez acted like a d*ck. Oh my.
     Journalistic professionalism is not fostered by presenting absurd fictions—e.g., that journalists do not notice jerkitude when it occurs or that they do not use vulgarities. It is, however, fostered by journalists’ suspension of these things when they present themselves before the world. Halperin, insofar as he was “before the world,” messed up.
     That judgment is understandable, even inevitable. It’s a little dishonest. It reeks of marketing and piety and similarly unseemly pursuits. And yet we understand it. Anybody with half a brain can see that journalists can “be professional” despite noting jerkitude and even calling the President a d*ck. But we don’t want to get into all that. It’s too complicated. Better to insist on certain standards to avoid all this complexity and distinction-making. Keep it simple. Act like this. Wear this mask. (The teaching profession is similar in this regard.)
     So Halperin messed up. Is that a big deal? I don’t see how. Still, everybody now needs to go through the motions of upholding the “standards of objective journalism.” Yes, yes. Halperin will be immediately suspended. MSNBC will issue an apology. Yadda yadda.
     But let’s hope that this Halperin guy is back in the harness after a few days.


Shripathi Kamath said...

Here's the rub: MSNBC did not suspend Halperin because he called Obama a dick, but because when he called him a dick, he was still on air, and they could not get to the seven-second delay in time.

Moral of the story: If you want to call Obama a dick, just wait seven seconds.

That is the difference between crappy, biased journalism and objective journalism.

Speaking of vulgarity:

Speaking of vulgarity in teaching (no, not Corbett):

Do you use vulgarity in your classroom, Roy?

Bohrstein said...

As per the norm, I enjoyed this article. I still can't stand the censoring though. I was raised by George Carlin in this regard.