Cafe Witness

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Fear of Language

When I was in high school, my English teacher asked each of us to close our eyes. Then he said the word "boat." He asked each of us to open our eyes and describe what we saw in our minds. Invariably, everyone saw something different from everyone else.

I might see a schooner. You might see a sailboat. The guy in the next room might see a rowboat. We're all right, within our own context, but none of us is seeing the same thing.

That's because everyone comprehends every word -- and therefore, life -- differently.

The "V" Word

Three honor students at a New York City suburban high school were suspended for using the word "vagina" during a public reading of The Vagina Monologues at an event sponsored by the school's literary magazine.

School officials say this isn't a case of censorship. But, as it says in the article, "Principal Richard Leprine said Tuesday that the girls were punished not because of what they said but because they disobeyed orders not to say it."

So, basically, the girls were free to say anything... except the words they were told not to say. And telling people not to say something isn't censorship, it's...

... um...

Mean What You Say

Let's forget for a moment that these girls may have been looking to provoke controversy by uttering a "taboo" word in public. In fact, they probably were -- and for good reason.

Why are words taboo in the first place?

It's impossible to have open, intelligent discussions if certain words are off the table. That extends to certain concepts, certain beliefs, certain ideals. In essence, if we can't talk about something, then we have a problem.

On one hand, a "taboo" word / concept / belief draws more power than it rightfully should. Think about your own childhood: whenever someone told you that you COULDN'T do something, what did you then want to do MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD?

(Side note: apply that same concept to most of us trying to spin gold from fiber optic cable here in the new media space and you'll see that some of us were born to be disruptors.)

On the other hand, a "taboo" word / concept / belief means we're limiting our possibilities. We're essentially saying, "These options are off-limits. All sensible discourse must be routed around them." And so countless opportunities that could be explored, whether fruitful or not, are never investigated because to do so would be "wrong" -- according to someone else.

Are we not more highly evolved than we were hundreds or thousands of years ago, when concepts like "unspeakable words" would seem to have been far more laughably quaint?

Instead, if we're drawing parallels, the same city that just outlawed the "N" word is now also censoring the "V" word. That's a grouping of concepts that doesn't seem equally inflammatory to me. In fact, it seems quite reductive.

Why should any word, concept or belief system be closed to discussion?

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