Monday, July 24, 2006

A View Of There's No Use Talking At All

"Something has to happen to change the direction/What little filters though is giving you the wrong impression/'It's a sorry state,' I say to myself...."
-Missing Persons

If you've ever read about Lenny Bruce (or like me, took the easy way out and just watched "Lenny" when it came on cable), then you're aware of a basic point behind many of his hilariously raunch monologues. The movie shows a stand-up monologue he performed at a club where he tossed around every possible racial slur you can think of, aiming them at random people in the audience, which flows into a racial slur auction (ending in, as best as I can recall, "...sold, one American."), then winds down into a mini lecture on how the use of "dirty" words can be neutralized by simply using them openly without fear - words, he argued, lose their power when they are allowed into everyday lexicon and not hidden.

Click on the picture for some famous Lenny Bruce quotes, including the monologue I mentioned above.

(I'm not doing the scene or the monologue justice, by the way. Go to your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster/Hollywood Video/whatever, or update your Netflix queue and check it out. It's a very good movie.)

He had a valid point, but I wonder sometimes if the point has become perverted after reading this story that originally appeared in the New York Times. It was recently republished in the Detroit News. The story is about how the word "slut" has devolved from a damning slur into a term of endearment in some teen circles. The fact that the Detroit News, a traditionally conservative paper, ran such a provocative story is a perfect illustration of Mr. Bruce's point - exploring the use of, and the meaning behind, seemingly taboo words and phrases helps take away the power of language to demean or disparage a person. At the same time, the idea of two 12-year-olds happily greeting each other with, "Hey, slut!" or even remembering the famous (and funny) "Jane, you ignorant slut..." line Dan Ackroyd uttered many a Saturday Night can't help but make me feel as though we're becoming a more callous and cold nation. Don't even get me started on my attraction to and repulsion by the actions of Samantha Jones, or performers like Lil' Kim, Madonna or Beyonce (who isn't slutty per se, but comes quite close to the line occasionally). I admire their confidence and grasp of their sexuality, but find it hard to reconcile their flaunting sexuality for sexuality's sake. Can there be a balance or do words get in the way of the message?

Lucy the Slut from Avenue Q - Is she humorous or hurtful?
Click on the picture to learn more about her and the Tony Award winning musical.

Then there's the debate over the use of the word nigger, especially in the black community. A word that was so demeaning at one point, the most detestable insult one could use against an African-American, is now used by some - especially the young - as a term of endearment. Why is it so shaming to hear two young black men greet each other with, "What's up, my nigga?" yet so funny and transendent when listening to a Richard Pryor routine? When does a word cross the line from being a source of comedy to a source of shame? Mr. Pryor famously did a 360-degree turn on the use of the word after a visit to Africa, saying he could no longer use the word after becoming so acutely aware of his roots - his newly discovered racial pride would no longer allow him to be so loose with the term. More recently, Dave Chappelle, Aaron McGruder, and Randall Kennedy have explored the power of the word and whether or not it should be used - each coming to their own distinct conclusions. Mr. Chappelle walked away from a multi-million dollar entertainment deal because of his own internal struggle with the way his humorous take on race and race relations was being received. Mr. McGruder defended his use of the word in a highly controversial episode of his show, "The Boondocks" on Cartoon Network, and unapologetically plans to keep using it - his reasoning being close to the reasoning Mr. Bruce used to defend his performances. Mr. Kennedy explored the history of the word in a controversial book, "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" - one that was and is hard to find in some bookstores because of the fear and anger the word continues to generate. When does a word shed its image as a weapon and become merely a word?

Others in society are struggling with the power of coarse language in its many forms. The use of swear words in modern society was explored by correspondent Steve Hartman yesterday on CBS Sunday Morning, and I had to chuckle at the thought of Charles Kuralt spinning in his grave every time a swear word was bleeped out during the report. I also chuckled at the idea of "Jiminy Crickets" being a swear word in the 1800s. It's now okay to say the word "damn" in mixed company - one could dare say that the word is as harmless as Jiminy Crickets is now - but are we a better society because of this? Just think of the words we say out loud daily in front of others - elderly, children, you name it - and ask yourself if the loss of the impact behind them has made us better as a community or worse.

Click on the picture to learn why this innocent looking little guy was once a dirty word.

I came across another report about how a more recent exploration of the power of swear words, the film, "The Aristocrats" has been released for broadcast, but only HBO has stepped up to air it, and only after 10:00 p.m. The film will never be screened on network TV because of the language and themes it explored. It's also the only film in American cinematic history to receive an adults only rating without any nudity or graphic violence. I saw the film when it was released last year - with my cousins and mother. I laughed out loud, gasped, and then cringed ever so slightly, leaning over to my cousin to ask him if it was appropriate to view such material with my mom sitting next to me. I can't remember what his reply was, but I kept watching and laughing with my mom and in spite of my mom's presence.

I later noted the hypocrisy of the fear television outlets have nowadays broadcasting this film, or anything that could be deemed offensive or obscene - one slip of a nipple (and really now, weren't we more shocked with how low that nipple hung more than we were the nipple being exposed?), one word in the wrong context may bring on the wrath of the FCC. Except, that is, when the President lets the s-word fly with his mike on. Some cable and satellite outlets ran with his slip of the tongue, while most broadcast TV and radio shied away. Only NPR's "All Things Considered" sent out the full, unedited story for broadcast, and even then some affiliates debated the appropriateness of airing it. If the POTUS says the s-word for the world to hear, does it not make a moral mess upon the ears that hear it?

Or, if you don't mind the scatological reference, is this nature of this debate Shinola or a big pile of shit?

I still can't reconcile it. Wonder what Lenny would make of this today?

More to come later, if I'm not fined by the FCC.

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