Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Have You Heard The One About The Zen Master?

By Jay Stringer

This one's for Joe Strummer.

One of the very first pieces Russel wrote for the site was about swearing in crime fiction. I want to return and dig away at the topic, but it hasn’t come from any thoughts about craft.

This weekend saw an historic moment in the UK, with the campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to Christmas number one instead of the latest X Factor single. I blogged about it elsewhere, and I’m not going to go on a long rant about it. Suffice to say, it was a fun thing to watch and there was a lot of shouting on both sides.

It got me thinking about profanity (Not that I need much of an excuse, as you can tell from previous entries.) Now, for those who don’t know the song –and I’m sure there are about six of you out there- it builds in intensity until reaching a crescendo, as the phrase Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me is shouted repeatedly.

It’s loud, it’s immediate, and it’s a direct connection to an emotion. I think that whether you love or hate the song, or even the use of the word, you instantly get the message. Job done.

But the fact that the song contains such language, and such angry usage of it, seems to create more debate than the meaning of the song itself. Never mind that the lyrics references police officers who were members of the KKK, or that it uses that link to attack right wing corporate agendas. Never mind on the other hand that it’s still a song on a major label and way overplayed. It has a naughty word in it. A lot.

This seems to make it an easy target. ‘you only like it because there’s a swear word’ is something that was levelled at me many a time in my youth. ‘They just swear to get noticed’ is another. These things are used to weaken the message of the song, or this week, to weaken the message of the chart sales.

I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with defences for this. Some of them have been witty and insightful, and would come with footnotes. Others were short, sharp and snarky. But I’ve come to the realisation that they were all pointless. Why defend something that I don’t think needs defending? And what exactly is wrong with swearing for effect? Anything I say or write, I hope, is for effect.

I had a conversation with some family members recently who were appalled at my potty mouth. They argued that it was a sign of weakness -that I didn’t need to swear when I could make the same point with other words. And they were right; I could have made the same point with other words. But it would have taken longer.

I think a well-placed swear word (or sometimes 14 well-placed swear words) shows far more intelligence than most grammatically correct and verbose speeches. Being able to swear effectively should be akin to reaching the level of Zen master of language, and is not a sign a sign of weakness.

If some crazy war of the words broke out, and I was needed to enlist in an army and fight of the alien invaders through the use of big and weighty wordage, I could hold my own. I’m not the cleverest man on earth. I’m not even the cleverest man in the room (that room currently being empty aside from myself…damn….I had to explain the joke). But I am reasonably well read, I can come across as semi-literate in conversation and I have a few thick books on my shelf.

I guess for many people, intelligence is marked by showing how many words you can fit into a sentence and how long those words are. That’s fine; they’re welcome to that view.

But I’m a storyteller and I need to be quick. My tastes in reading and writing are the same; I find skill in getting a point across in the purest form. And it’s often hard to find a purer way than to swear. Fuck it.

And wear does this whole idea of swearing being wrong or base come from? Is it, perhaps, a hold over from days when the ruling classes controlled the written word? When big words, long words and scary foreign words –spooky language, as George Carlin would say- was used to intimidate, control and marginalise everybody else? If you can’t use the right words, you can’t be in the club. Isn’t it time we moved past these ideas?

I do still believe there are times when the use of profanity in music, books and films is gratuitous. But I come at it from the opposite direction. If the point has already been made, there is no need to force an extra word in. If you’ve found a purer form of language, then roll with it. Don’t add in an extra word just to seem cool, and that includes swear words.

Get in, make your point, and get out.

And don’t fuck it up.


Steve Weddle said...

Looking forward reading your story about the time the Earth was saved from the aliens by a curse-tastic young Brit.

John McFetridge said...

Is it, perhaps, a hold over from days when the ruling classes controlled the written word? When big words, long words and scary foreign words –spooky language, as George Carlin would say- was used to intimidate, control and marginalise everybody else? If you can’t use the right words, you can’t be in the club.

I'm going to vote yes on this one.

But the attempt to marginalize comes from all sides, not just from "the ruling class" (remember, here in the New World we don't have a 'ruling class' - I don't know the little icon thingy for sarcasm, but please imagine it here).

And I think you're right that people want to fixate on the bad word rather than what the song is really about.

So, given that we know that about people, does using the word in a pop song help get it past, "preaching to the choir," and does anybody care?

Dana King said...

I'm no prude; I own all three seasons of DEADWOOD and love every fucking minute. So I'm not going to complain about profanity too much, if at all, unless it's used badly, or inappropriately. Like in a Spongebob Squarepants cartoon. That would be bad.

The only comment I have derives from the above example: people who may be offended shouldn't have to worry about being confronted with some language against their will. If I go to an R-rated movie, or buy a crime novel, or listen to a RATM CD, I know what I'm getting into. That's different from someone who might hear this in an otherwise innocuous setting. It used to be commonplace for two versions of such songs to be released: one for the CD, and one for airplay. I don't listen to enough radio to know if they still do this, but it seems a reasonable solution.

To be clear, I'm not advocating censorship. A little courtesy to those whose fucking sensitivities are different from ours is all.

Mike Dennis said...

I have a slightly different take on this, Jay. You're right when you say that a well-placed swear word can be the perfect thing at the right moment. But I believe that is precisely because society places sanctions on the use of profanity.

For whatever reasons, good or bad, reasonable or ridiculous, society has attached a certain taboo to profanity. And I believe that it's this taboo, this restraint, that gives profanity its power. This power is what makes the "well-placed swear word" so well-placed. It's the REFRAINING from profanity that makes it so effective on those occasions when we choose to use it.

That's some pretty insightful shit, ain't it?