Saturday, 14 March 2015

Pee po belly bum drawers

I've always had a problem with the concept of "taboo words", and so did Flanders and Swann. Tell me, what harm has been done to you, or to anyone else, by your reading the word "drawers"?

The law has problems too. In 1960, Penguin Books was prosecuted in the UK for publishing "Lady Chatterley's Lover". The prosecution asked if it were the kind of book "you would wish your wife or servants to read"! The jury, who probably didn't have a single servant between them, returned "not guilty".

There have been obscenity trials since then, but the only ones I can recall were more "not guilty". It does seem to be generally accepted that obscenity isn't illegal.

And so, in the fullness of time, the word "obscenity" has been replaced by the word "inappropriate". I have even more trouble with that word. What is inappropriate, and who decides?

Which words are inappropriate? Recently, Benedict Cumberbatch was force to apologised for referring to "coloured actors", and from what I can gather, the phrase "people of colour" is OK, but "coloured people" is not. Colour me baffled.

Most recently, there was an incident at the University of Oklahoma. A bunch of students from a fraternity (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) were videoed while chanting. I did a bit of googling, and I couldn't find their exact words, except here. This, I'm guessing, is because the words were so taboo that they can't even be quoted. But the used the "n-word" and mentioned lynching.

Let's consider the n-word. This is a word that is currently considered to be so appalling, that it can never be uttered, even to quote what someone else said. So the quotation has to be Bowdlerised and readers are expected to guess what "n-word" stands for.

Most readers will be able to guess. That means that "n-word" is a synonym for the word that may not be uttered. Which surely means that the word "n-word" is equally taboo. And we need a word that refers to the word "n-word". I'd suggest n-word-word, but this leads to an infinite series.

But anyway.

The reaction of the University was to expel two of the students who were videoed chanting. And to close the fraternity. The students have two days to get out.

My American reader probably knows what a fraternity is, but I'd guess that one of my two UK readers might not know the implications here. One of the functions is to provide accommodation. This means that a number of students have been turfed out of their digs, irrespective of whether they were involved in the incident or not. I remember my student days, and I know we did some naughty things (if persuaded, I could relate an incident concerning a coffin and a large quantity of beer), but if we had been found out, I'd have been very surprised if the university evicted everyone who lived in the same building on account of what two people did.

That's collective punishment; the punishment of the many for the sins of a few. I'm surprised that a university would so such a thing. But I'm not surprised that the fraternity has lawyered up - this is America.

But apart from the bunch of innocent students penalised for something they didn't do, what about the two caught on video?

At this point, I'd like to explain about the US Constitution - again, my US reader is probably familiar with it, but not many people outside the US are. One of the great things about the US Constitution, is that you can change it. And the first change they made (which they call the "first amendment") included freedom of speech.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

 So, does this apply to this case? I don't know, but my guess is that it does, The speech might be offensive, but can a public institution punish it? The fraternity is a private institution, so they could expel the boys from the fraternity, but the University is a public institution, so the First Amendment applies. Maybe the US court will decide, because by now, positions have been taken, defences prepared on both sides and compromise is going to be "inappropriate".

In my view, the fraternity should expel (from the fraternity) the boys who were being so offensive. The University should have issued a statement saying that the  boys should be ashamed of themselves, and that should have been the end of it.

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