Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bad Language

By Kelly Cogswell

802 words

There should be limits on the limits we put on speech. So Isaiah Washington called Grey's Anatomy co-star T.R. Knight a faggot. Big deal. We've all heard the word before.

It's easy enough to distinguish from the tone whether "faggot" is a brain fart from an asshole, or an alarm bell, the last word you're gonna hear.

And Washington wasn't about to pull out a baseball bat and whale away at T.R. He just had an attack of the stupids, flapping his bigoted mouth in front of reporters and video cameras. He's like a turkey that goes outside in the rain, looks up at the gleam of the sky and drowns to death.

There are plenty of more dangerous homophobes around, they just speak softly, avoiding the necessity for Washington's endless flood of apologies for "inappropriate" and "offensive" language.

I'm not saying he should get a free pass, but what about proportion?

In a world where queers can still be ruled outlaws and sent to jail (Nigeria), banned from marriage and civic life (U.S.), not to mention hanged by the neck until dead (Iran), doesn't it seem wrong that a simple "faggot" said by a grinning idiot gets so much air time by comparison?

And what about free speech? Controlling it is a delicate matter. Sure, public gaffes are an opportunity to educate about the likes of homophobia and racism, but in the long term, focusing on language may impose not change, but silence.

Even worse, our war on bad language implies we have the right, the obligation even, to censor speech, sheathing the primary weapon we American queers have in our fight for civil rights and social change.

Better that we stick to the old ACT UP motto. Silence = Death. It's like the little black dress of democracy. Sometimes you wear it with pearls, sometimes with combat boots. And it can't apply just to us.

I've thought about it a lot in regards to Cuba. Since the revolution and its extremely long demise, Cuba's been a place where dissent mostly takes the form of shrugs or whispers. I was there four years ago for almost a month and nobody ever finished a sentence.

I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when I heard some intellectuals had actually criticized the government media. They had to.

It's the beginning of post-Castro jockeying for power and the Stalinist ghost of bad times past, Luis Pavón Tamayo, had been pulled out of obscurity for a TV special.

Suffice it to say that in the Seventies the gentleman headed up the National Council of Culture whose rumored motto was the punning: "If you don't listen to Council, old age won't be a problem."

At his direction, hundreds of artists and writers were sent to concentration camps, exile, or professional Siberia and "inxile," joining Jehovah's Witnesses, garden variety homos, and black power types like scholar Walterio Carbonell.

It's worth noting that words like "inappropriate" and "offensive" were then on the other linguistic foot, directed at us unrepentant queers for muddying up the purity of the revolution by our very existence.

If you're reading the Cuban tea leaves, Pavon's recent resurrection was clearly a sign that the far left (far right) wing of the Communist Party is winning at least some battles for control, which is not good for us.

Which is why the Cuban intelligentsia spoke up for once. Many suffered first-hand in the purges. In emails and letters they condemned not only the resurrection of Pavón, but the silence of intellectuals in Cuba during the Seventies.

Desiderio Navarro, literary critic and editor of journal Criterios, reminded them what the bad old days were like.

"... the heterosexuals (including the non-homophobes) ignored the fate of gays; the whites (including non-racists) ignored the fate of militant blacks; the traditionalists ignored the fate of the vanguard; the atheists (including the tolerant) of Catholics and other believers; the pro-Soviets of the anti-Social Realists and Marxists whose beliefs weren't in accord with the most recent line from Moscow; and so on.

We have to ask if this lack of individual moral responsibility can be repeated today among Cuba's intelligentsia."

Sure it can. Silence is easy, if not safer, than speech. And as Cuban revolutionaries found in their first years in power, censorship is a great temptation after being embattled for ages.

We activists have to consider that flipside in our war on "inappropriate" and "offensive" language.

Maybe a couple of decades of taking offense at offense has played a role in swamping American politics with propriety, civility, "non-partisanship" and silence that helped get us Bush as a President in 2000, and Iraq as our war a few years later.

As Audre Lorde wrote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

ACT UP, Fight Back.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.

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