IN MY OWN WRITE: What’s deemed obscene

Profanity, it seems, is defined by what offends a culture.

Israeli Knesset members arguing in parliament. (photo credit: KNESSET CHANNEL)
Israeli Knesset members arguing in parliament.
(photo credit: KNESSET CHANNEL)
Following a recommendation by a close friend whose judgment I value, I tried then became hooked on an American crime drama TV series called The Wire, set and produced in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite not winning any major awards, the series has been described by many critics as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time; and having watched three of its five seasons so far, I am inclined to agree. One critic went so far as to compare it to “the great English novels.”
During a punchy YouTube video discussing the series, I had to smile and shrug at the narrator’s observation that one scene (which he reproduced) contained no less than 37 uses of the F-word. True enough – and the copious swearing throughout is something to get used to – but one does quickly come to accept it as a realistic part of the gritty, multi-layered world depicted in The Wire.
AWAY FROM the drama of television, what about profanity in our own lives? Most parents will disapprove in no uncertain terms of any obscenities tried out by impressionable offspring. And adults who aspire to a respectable self-image try to keep their language reasonably clean.
But what is clean and what is foul language has varied enormously over time, and words whose utterance would once have created a scandal in polite society are quite harmless today.
When Clark Gable said “damn” in the 1939 movie of Gone with the Wind, it was considered a big deal.
Further back, in Victorian England, conflicting views of sexuality – the idealization of female purity combined with oppression on the one hand, together with the objectification and fetishization of female body parts on the other – led to the popular myth that piano legs were covered up for the sake of decency and young people’s morals. Mention of the word “leg,” however, was frowned upon, “limb” being preferable. Chicken thighs were called “dark meat,” and few would have dared ask for “a breast.”
I remember our high school French teacher telling us about a time even further back when polite French people would have died of shame at a reference to anyone’s behind, which was instead obliquely called “the part where the back changes its name.”
All that is laughable considering today’s highly relaxed attitudes to verbal expression, anticipated by Cole Porter in his lyrics for the 1934 Broadway Musical Anything Goes: “Good authors, too, who once knew better words, / now only use four-letter words. / Writing prose, anything goes.”
Last week, I went to see Amy, an impressive new documentary about the rise and fall of the great, ill-fated jazz singer Amy Winehouse, dead at 27 from drugs and hard drinking. A fan of her music, I was taken aback at a line in one of her songs that was more sexually graphic than anything I have heard to date, shocked that it had been deemed fit for general consumption. Perhaps I oughtn’t to have been.
Linguistics professor John McWhorter, in a New York Times article titled “Why do educated people use bad words?”, explains that in modern society, “The definition of profanity is constantly revising and evolving based on what a culture is offended by, and because of the recent epidemic of sexual exploitation, there is no more controversy or shock toward it. It has become so natural that such words can be comfortably used by educated people. Permission to use profanity comes from culture, because culture defines what profanity is.”
In brief, as someone memorably said: “Why bother telling someone why you are angry with him, when you can say “F--- you and be done with it?” THESE REFLECTIONS were sparked by a recent item in The Jerusalem Post titled “Ethics Committee warns lawmakers that it will not tolerate profanity,” in which the committee referred to “several recent incidents that scandalized the Knesset.”
Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On called Yisrael Beytenu’s Sharon Gal a “screw-up” and refused to take it back or step down from the podium, which led to her removal.
And that night, Joint (Arab) List MK Haneen Zoabi “pointed her middle finger at the Likud’s Yoav Kisch.”
In the wake of these and other antics, the Ethics Committee warned sternly in a letter to lawmakers that it would not tolerate “profanity, defamation, slander and degradation of individuals and population groups.”
Such speech, which “cheapens the discourse, personally offends MKs and severely damages the Knesset’s dignity,” would lead to harsher punishments, including suspension from plenum meetings.
It’s hard to disagree with these sentiments, since most of us would love to see a higher standard of discourse in our national legislature than unruly exchanges more characteristic of the schoolroom. Apart from instilling a sense of pride, it would give ordinary citizens a standard of behavior to aspire to.
IN BRITAIN’S House of Lords, should a member express himself in a manner deemed unbecoming, the “Standing Order on Asperity of Speech,” dating from 1871, can be requested.
The Clerk of the House then, slowly, reads: “To prevent misunderstanding, and for avoiding of offensive speeches...
it is for honour [sic] sake thought fit, and so ordered, that all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborn, [sic] and whosoever answereth another man’s speech shall apply his answer to the matter without wrong to the person: and as nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill taken, if the party that speaks it shall presently make a fair exposition or clear denial of the words that might bear any ill construction; and if any offence be given in that kind, as the House itself will be very sensible thereof, so it will sharply censure the offender, and give the party offended a fit reparation and a full satisfaction.”
In other words: Make nice, or suffer the consequences.
BRITISH MEMBERS of parliament have traditionally exhibited a unique talent for insulting their opponents in the classiest way, providing a source of amusement to admirers and even (occasionally) detractors. “Clever rich people punishing each other with the full extent of the English language,” was how one commentator put it.
Such as the spirited retort by the 18th-century MP John Wilkes to the Earl of Sandwich’s “Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows, or of syphilis”: “That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress.”
In 1990, responding to a speech by Conservative MP Terry Dicks opposing government funding for the arts, the late Labour Party MP Tony Banks famously declared Dicks to be “living proof that a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick can be elected to Parliament.”
During a debate on poisonous chemicals in the 1980s, Tory MP Edwina Currie remarked that everything is a poison in the right quantity – and that if she were to spread-eagle the MP who had just spoken on the floor and pour enough water into him, even that would kill him. To which the MP retorted that if he were spread-eagled on the floor by Edwina Currie, he would welcome the chance of a quick death.
Perhaps it was the Tory MP’s reputation for forthrightness that prompted Labour health secretary Frank Dobson to tell her a decade later: “When you go to the dentist, he needs the anesthetic.”
HEBREW BEING a blunter language than English, Israel’s MKs might find it hard to rival their British counterparts in elegant political insult and innuendo.
The Israeli temperament too is hotter, like the climate, more conducive to flashes of emotion than to carefully crafted irony. Finally, the issues here seem so much more urgent – many of them, indeed, are life-and-death ones – that there is less time to spend on devising clever parliamentary put-downs.
Yet were Haneen Zoabi, who often seems to side with Israel’s enemies, more subtle in her political pronouncements, she might incur less animosity from those who love to hate her and call her traitor.
On second thought, maybe it’s just as well that in her case, what you see – and what you hear – is what you get. Better to know exactly whom you’re dealing with.