By Peter Espeut
Language is a vehicle of communication, but sometimes we communicate more than we think. We use language to express approval and disapproval, respect and disrespect, commendation and condemnation. But sometimes the words we use have an additional edge.
The use of the N-word by whites referring to persons of sub-Saharan African descent - a corruption of the Spanish word 'negro' - has become an ethnic slur, bearing connotations of debasement and contempt. The N-word is certainly a 'bad word', because its intent is to be racist and to denigrate black people.
The F-word refers to the act of sexual intercourse in an extremely offensive manner, and carries connotations of violence and abuse. The act of human sexual love in marriage is a beautiful thing - a holy thing - and a source of sanctifying grace to the husband and wife; but the F-word is negative because it demotes sexual intercourse to something dirty and debasing, implying power and domination of one person over another.
Combined with other words such as 'off' and 'you', the F-word becomes an expression of abuse. The F-word is certainly a 'bad word' - vulgar and in poor taste; but the question is: should its use be illegal and a criminal offence? The US Supreme Court, in a 1971 ruling, decided that its use is protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, and cannot be made a criminal offence in any US state.
In Jamaica, we have a class of 'bad words' that involve textiles put to certain ancient intimate uses. Nowadays, we use toilet paper and sanitary napkins, but the use of pieces of cloth to deal with normal male and female bodily functions results in unsanitary and unhygienic items, fit only to be discarded or burnt. The constant use of these textile words by Jamaicans as negative and violent expletives - as punctuation - in ordinary and animated conversation, reveals a disdain and a contempt for the human body and its normal bodily functions.
Indeed, they reveal a profound self-hate, a deep self-denigration, which is not good for the national psyche. Negative as they are, the question remains: Should the use of these textile words by Jamaicans be criminal offences, making users subject to arrest and charge, fine and/or imprisonment?
TRADITION OF PROTEST
Jamaican mass culture has developed the way it has as a vehicle for profound protest against the country's social, economic, political and religious systems which are perceived as oppressive to ordinary Jamaicans. What would Jamaica be without reggae, recognised globally as 'conscious' protest music against imperialism and neocolonialism, and advocate for world peace and "one love"?
What would Jamaica be without Rastafarianism, a rejection of the white god projected by traditional Christianity, and a celebration of blackness, negritude and Afrocentrism? (Included in this is a rejection of social norms of dress and grooming). What would Jamaica be without Revivalism, Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, protest in a different way against restrained and sedate traditional Christianity?
And as for verbal communication, several Jamaican languages have emerged as protest against Standard English, seen as part and parcel of the system of oppression.
The Rasta language seeks to place the 'I' at the centre, and so we 'I-ditate' rather than meditate; and English is corrected, for we are not oppressed but 'down-pressed'. The delightfully expressive Jamaican Creole is preferred to staid schoolbook English - even by teachers. And ghetto-speak is littered with expletives, which are effective in expressing strong or intense emotions such as anger, frustration, annoyance and fear. The oppressed will prefer to use 'indecent language' to cuss off agents of the State, considering that by doing so they are twice putting the axe to the tree. And the State will criminalise the use of 'bad words' because they recognise them for what they are: an attack upon the State.
As I said above, people who use the F-word are communicating that they think sexual intercourse is fundamentally dirty and exploitative. The constant use of textile words by Jamaicans as negative and violent expletives - as punctuation - in ordinary and animated conversation reveals disdain and contempt for the human body and its normal bodily functions, and a profound self-hate, a deep self-denigration.
As we move to the second 50 years as an independent nation, we need to get on a mission to socialise ourselves along more positive lines, to create a society with less oppression, less alienation, less violence, less corruption. Making 'bad words' illegal won't help; what we need to do is work hard to make them socially and psychologically unnecessary.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.