Etiquette of Fingering

Here is a heart-warming story left over from the holidays.

A woman in Denham Springs, Louisiana, suspecting a neighbor had kidnapped her dog, erected a Christmas-style light display on her roof in the shape of a giant middle finger, directed at said neighbor.

The woman, Sarah Childs, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, is currently suing the city of Denham Springs, after being told by police that she must remove the display, which the authorities said constitutes “disturbing the peace” and is not protected speech under the U.S. Constitution.

In the English language—nay, in all languages—few mysteries are more vexing than the existence of profanity.  How very odd it is that we would invent words only to forbid their use.

The comic George Carlin explored this curiosity to great effect throughout his career, most famously when he singled out the seven most frowned-upon words of all—these being “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “motherfucker,” cocksucker” and “tits”—later expanding the list well into the thousands.

The whole concept of words being offensive might have long died out by now, except that enough of us Homo sapiens have opted to be co-conspirators in this dance by being offended by words.

The middle finger—rather, the extending thereof—is more or less a silent variation of this same concept.  We, as a culture, have decided such a gesture is offensive—an affront to decency—without quite being able to explain why.

A central question in the Denham Springs case—and a worthy question in general—is whether “the finger” is merely rude and disrespectful or is, in fact, obscene.

This distinction is not without precedent.  In 1976, an appellate court in Hartford, Connecticut ruled that raising one’s middle finger at another person is “offensive, but not obscene,” the judge reasoning that “for the finger gesture to be obscene it must be significantly erotic or arouse sexual interest.”  The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the decision.

As the appellate court noted at the time, “flipping the bird” can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece, where the gesture did indeed carry an explicitly sexual connotation, appearing in the work of Aristophanes and elsewhere, in both playful and contemptuous contexts.

In America, anthropologists trace use of “the finger” to Italian immigrants, with the first recorded instance in the States occurring in 1886 during a baseball game between the Boston Beaneaters (later known as the Braves) and the New York Giants.

The other crucial consideration as to whether Sarah Childs should be made to remove the light display from her roof is the all-important quandary as to when speech can be defined as an action, and therefore restricted.

In the seminal 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., popularized the hypothetical scenario of “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” as an example of “words used […]of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”

In point of fact, Childs was informed by police that her unsightly roof message could be interpreted as threatening toward her neighbors.  While it is undeniable that the display’s intended and perceived message is one of hostility, I find it difficult to entertain the proposition that one could then come to feel physically threatened by it—unless, of course, Childs rigged it to snap off her roof and tumble onto her neighbor’s driveway as he walked out to get the mail.

My own quaint view is that the right to free expression must include expressions that are rude, disrespectful and—within the boundaries of local laws—intimidating.  Displaying a giant, illuminated middle finger might not endear one to one’s community, and may well incite some kind of a backlash, but that is hardly grounds for prohibiting such behavior.

Letting your entire neighborhood know that you are an immature, sociopathic nut is what freedom is all about.

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One thought on “Etiquette of Fingering

  1. Nice ending! I have often pondered where, and indeed why so-called profane language was invented and who decided it was profane? We continue to be offended by such words and yet have no idea why we should be. In today’s society I think they represent a degenerative idleness particularly in the use of language. Good choice of topic.

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