Friday, 28 May 2010
Sticks and Stones...
A few years ago, I had an argument with a friend who used the word "faggot" aggressively to someone on the street at the end of an admittedly drunken evening. Now, unlike my good friend Kerry, I'm not always particularly PC - in fact, if anyone heard my frequent conversations with my friend Scarlett, I would probably be lynched. I was once reprimanded by a tutor for referring to the leaders of the French Revolution as "equal opportunity sluts." Equally, anyone who saw my play of last year, "Appeasement," could justifiably claim that I played prejudice in all its many forms for cheap laughs through the character of the martini-swilling aristocrat, Lord Tristan Ormonde-Moncreiffe, who progresses through bon-mots about suicide, alcoholism, racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, sectarianism, adultery, bullying, evangelical Christianity, sex and drug addiction in much the same relentless way as he ploughs through his friend's self-esteem and the waiter's mental health. But, on the night of the faggot outburst, the intention behind my friend's words was not humorous. It was aggressive, unthinking and, worst of all, impulsive. I didn't say anything then, although I should have. But we're constantly told to turn the other cheek, to "rise above it" and to believe that a response "lowers" us to the levels of our opponents. However, it's worth remembering the adage attributed to Edmund Burke, the 18th century British politician, who, when he heard of the terrible execution of Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, declared that for evil to flourish, it was necessary only for good men to do nothing. So at times, taking the high road necessitates taking the low road - much like Burt Hummel in the scene below.
Words matter - anyone who says otherwise is either vacuous, stupid, deluded, dishonest or malign. The old adage that it's only sticks and stones that cause damage is nonsense. The damage caused by physical wounds is - pray God - often only temporary; it has the potential to heal. But the damage done by words is something far more insidious and often irreparable.
I got to thinking about this when I saw a scene from this week's episode of "Glee," (see below.) It's an incredibly powerful scene and one which I wanted to share here because there is a tendency amongst us all to try and act as if we aren't offended by taunts, jibes and "buzz words." We seek to pretend that we're permanently laid-back, calm, collected and impervious to insult. My own personal neuroses is that if I object to a particular word or sentence once in a blue moon people will think that I have no sense of humour, or that I'm a hypocrite. I even hesitated about writing this post, because I didn't want people to think that I was offended by risque jokes. I'm really, really not. Jokes, curiously, don't bother me at all - I have an impossibly high threshold about what offends me, in the context of a joke. In fact, the meaner the better, frankly. After all, what was tasteful or respectful about the scene in "Appeasement" where I had the character of Tristan gush about what fun he'd had at last year's Nuremberg Rally? Nothing. It wasn't supposed to be tasteful; it was supposed to be funny. Nor was there anything precious about the time I laughed so hard I nearly snorted Diet Coke out my nose when the Roger the Alien told a Christian in American Dad: "Ah, I love your religion - for the crazy! Virgin birth, water into wine; it's like Harry Potter, but it causes genocide and bad folk music!"
The main difference - I've decided - is not so much the words, but the sting in their tail.
And what is the sting? Is it its history? Well, hardly - given that "carrying your faggot" originates from the days of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, when reprieved heretics were paraded through the streets with bundles of wood, to remind them and everybody else what would happen to them if they lapsed again. The sting in the tail, if you like, is not the word or its etymology - be it a homophobic, racial, sexist or sectarian slur (and I'm not focussing only on the former, it's just that it happened to be the case I remembered most clearly) - but the tone behind its delivery. The tone, in the end, is everything and once we understand that, I think it helps balance out the charge of hypocrisy that many (myself included) face.
By all means, laugh and cackle until our sides split at something risque or bitchy or naughty if that's what makes you laugh. God knows how dull the world would be without it! And if the intention is humour and not cruelty, it it's supposed to bring mirth and not pain, then I tend to part company with those who say certain topics should always be off-limits. I am un-PC, I do laugh at things I probably shouldn't and we need to avoid becoming so precious about being PC that we ruin humour - much of which has to derive its punch from being slightly (or very) cruel. People will always react differently to different types of humour; that's half the fun of it. But there's a world of a difference between someone turning to a friend and making a slightly teasing joke about their sexuality or their religion, and some shouting the word "faggot" in anger. Whether or not the person is homosexual in that case is, as this clip points out, pretty much irrelevant - the problem is that, in the heat of anger, the first word, the first concept, a person could use which they thought was sufficiently insulting was one which labelled their opponent gay.
The scene takes place between the character of flamboyant Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and his friend, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith.) The two boys' parents are dating at the moment and the speech I was so intrigued by is delivered by Kurt's on-screen father, Burt (played by Mike O'Malley.) The clip - as with everything from the fantastic "Glee" - belong to FOX.
(If you're interested in reading another assessment of the scene, Hollywood News has this article.)