Almost everything I know about bad language I learned from George Carlin—the stand-up comedian who, in 1972, explained in a now-legendary monologue that there are seven words that cannot be said on television.
In case you forgot, those words were “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker” and “tits.”
While Carlin revised and expanded his initial list of “dirty words” over the years—when I saw him perform live in 2007, I purchased a wall poster that listed 2,443 of them—the essence of the original bit has lost none of its power or relevance in the 46 years since it debuted. We might quibble about which (and how many) words belong on such a list in 2018, but we agree—if only implicitly—that there are, in fact, certain words that cannot be said on television or in any other public space.
And last week, we had a spirited and rather unexpected argument about whether the list still includes the word “cunt.”
This argument, you’ll recall, sprung from an episode of Samantha Bee’s TBS program, Full Frontal, in which Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for doing nothing to stop her father, the president, from separating immigrant mothers from their children after crossing the Mexican border into the United States. Whatever the merits of Bee’s gripe—valid and cutting as it was—the mere presence of the so-called “C word” drained the entire rant of its substance in the eyes and ears of the Twitterati and briefly threatened to derail Bee’s entire career.
As a regular Full Frontal viewer—and a fan of Bee’s since her days at The Daily Show—I was neither surprised nor offended that she would (and did) feel compelled to call Ivanka Trump the most disparaging name a woman can possibly be called. Beyond the small fact that the word itself was bleeped during the initial broadcast—this is basic cable, after all—I have long taken the view that women can employ sexist invective to their hearts’ desire in a way that men don’t (and shouldn’t) get away with, and a certified comic like Samantha Bee is hardly an exception to the rule.
Just as black people can say “nigger” and gay people can say “faggot”—while white and straight people, respectively, cannot—women, as an historically oppressed group, are entitled (and, as far as I’m concerned, encouraged) to assume ownership of the language that has been used by men to keep them down since time immemorial. Apart from ironically blunting the negative impact such words often have on their targets, co-opting rhetorical slurs enables you to disarm and disorient your would-be oppressor by showing him how meaningless such words ultimately are. It’s a double standard, but a necessary one—a means of ever-so-slightly rectifying a history of patriarchal misogyny that cannot possibly be repaired in full.
So if Samantha Bee wants to sling a see-you-next-Tuesday at Ivanka Trump, that’s her privilege. And if Ivanka wants to respond in kind—or not at all—more power to her. Why on Earth should it concern anyone other than the two of them?
It shouldn’t. Yet, it does.
At the moment—and for the last many years—the American culture finds itself locked in a hysterical feedback loop of offense-taking, in which an objectionable comment by a member of one ideological clan publicly wounds the moral sensibilities of the other—until roughly 36 hours later, when the roles reverse following some fresh outrage by a representative of Team Number Two. Samantha Bee today, Roseanne Barr tomorrow.
Broadly speaking, if we are to escape this corrosive, cynical war of political attrition—as we should, if only for our collective mental health—there are two types of societies America can choose to become: One in which no one is allowed to say anything that might offend someone else (today’s de facto status quo), or one in which virtually anything may be said because everyone has decided not to be bothered by it.
From all I’ve written so far, you can probably guess which scenario I’d prefer. Speaking as someone who hasn’t lost his temper over anything for at least 20 years, there is something to be said for not walking around all day with your hair on fire because a minor celebrity uttered a naughty word in public.
This isn’t to suggest that every controversial statement of recent vintage is of equal moral weight—or, for that matter, that we should abandon our sense of right and wrong in the interest of being a little more agreeable with each other on social media and in real life. Some things really are worth being outraged by, and it’s up to each of us individually to decide where to draw the line.
All the same, my advice—informed in no small part by the wit and wisdom of George Carlin, one of the happiest and most well-rounded Americans who ever lived—is to allocate your indignation sparingly and judiciously, and—when at all possible—to err on the side of just letting things go.