Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Words Have Signification

We all should be able to blush. Dignity is not real apart from the possibility of shame.

Not too long ago I wrote about bad Christian art. Apparently lot of people share my distaste for the genre—in fact, four bloggers I follow have written on the same subject. Their critiques were all along similar lines; and while I differed with some of the detailed criticisms I found myself nodding my head, chuckling, and rolling my eyes with the other bloggers—in short, I agreed with them.

But. But but but but but. To agree in substance is not to agree in style or method. There is a reason I'm not linking to any of those other articles (and it's not because they're better than mine, although at least one of them was). It's because one of the four critiques used a particular word to describe bad Christian art. It's a word that all four of those bloggers have used before—though three of them, for whatever reason, eschewed applying it to the productions of their fellow Christians, however taste-impaired. It's a word I'm not going to repeat here, but you've all heard it. Growing up I called it "the s-word"—a phrasing which I now avoid, since there are probably far, far worse words out there beginning with "s".

The word I am referring to is a synonym for stinks. Bad Christian art stinks. Bad Christian art s----.

A big fat lot of nothing, you say? Admittedly, there are more offensive vulgarities; admittedly, no one seems to mean a thing by it. I have friends who drop the word so often in conversation that I hardly even blush when I hear it. Nice people say it; nice Catholics say it; nice Catholic girls say it. What's the big deal?

I took this one to my dad. My dad knows everything about (1) Straussian political philosophy, (2) American politics, (3) men and boys, and (4) etymology, especially the etymology of dubious words. I put it to him.

"What's so wrong with the word s----? Why is it the sort of word you'd shrug about if it came from a sports figure, but the sort of word a politician, say, would avoid?"

"Unless the politician is Joe Biden." We agree that Biden doesn't count. My dad goes on: "You do hear it more and more often now, and it's gotten to be used so casually that for a lot of people, it doesn't mean anything any more. But you're right that it's the sort of word that someone in public office won't use. Because while most people don't think about it any more, it can suggest, or used to suggest, a certain type of perverse sexual activity."

At which point the imagination takes over and tells the rest.

Oh, well. Huge surprise there. Really, the word that rhymes with the f-word also is, as Mrs. Gilbreth would put it, "Eskimo"? I'm so shocked.

So why do "nice people" continue—increasingly—to say things s---? Is it like "damn," that lost nearly all its meaning, and therefore its offensiveness, among the English nearly a hundred years ago (while "bloody" inexplicably retained its shock value, at least among certain classes of Britons)? I have to assume so, because most if not all of these nice people I know would not be saying "s----" so frequently if they knew the word, well, s----d. If it made them think of what it now almost inevitably makes me think of.

If the word means nothing to you, then using it is mere laziness. "Christian art s----" is a way of avoiding having to say in greater critical detail what is wrong with Christian art.

If the word means something to you, it's an open question whether you are morally justified in using it. "Christian art s----" can be a way of making your readers sit up and take notice; this is laziness in another form, the same sort of cheap attention-getting that's deployed in the headlines of The National Liar. Or perhaps, if the word does mean something to you, there is a certain titillation in using it—or, on the flip-side (pun intended), a certain pleasure that comes from shocking people merely for the sake of being shocking. This is lowest form of pride.

Let me suggest an alternative to the increasingly frequent use of the word in question. Let me suggest that the next time we are tempted to say "That s----" we instead incline our heads to the side, and shake them solemnly. Then, when everyone's attention is directed our way with sufficient curiosity, we can say:

"Dear me. That's terrible. Why, that's so bad it makes me think of the translation of the marital act into a mode in which God and nature never meant it to be performed."

Then, when they all look at you like you're crazy, you can say, smiling: "Excuse me. I mean that really s----."

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