By Daniel Thwaites
The court will have to decide exactly what happened to pregnant Kay-Ann Lamont. What we can say is that the tragic events have caused the Jamaican public to hold their collective jaw corner and cuss a claat in disbelief and anger.
The disproportionality between the generally minuscule infraction of cursing and a shooting death is difficult for even the most hardened conscience. The spectacular escalation is shocking. The idea that more than one person ended up being shot, and that another could have been, over such triviality is horrific.
In response, there have been sensible proposals for amending the Towns and Communities Act. There's also been Howard Mitchell's searing meditation published as The Gleaner's Letter of the Day calling for collective self-examination.
However, other letter writers have urged the repeal of the law prohibiting obscene language altogether, and established commentators have authored other lesser tragedies against common sense, including the laughable nonsense that bad words are an attack upon the State. But this matter of bad words is too important to abandon to shallow moralism - or really, moral exhibitionism.
Let's come at it from The Gleaner's thoughts about how students have been dressing to go to school. Editorialising on that issue on Saturday, September 5, 2012, the paper says, "The wearing of uniforms is associated with values such as social order and discipline." To my mind, the rules about indecent language are nothing but the same idea taken from clothing and applied to self-expression.
In terms of the linguistic 'uniform', the idea is that some words are like 'b... riders, p...p... shorts, and see-through spandex. However wonderful they may be in some situations, they are not always appropriate. There are times when we don't want to be seeing that.
Then, like men in tight pants, some words should probably never see the light of day. Racial slurs and language that specifically demeans women, upon this rendering, are the tiger-skin briefs and tight pants of the language - they should be abolished and forgotten.
Bad words perform an important psychosocial function. I certainly wouldn't want them to vanish forever. But they are against good taste in many circumstances, and the law should reflect that. Not all self-expression is good or worthwhile, and some of it is quite undesirable.
Anyone who has ever been out with his children when some social misfit decides to 'express' himself with every kind of claat knows how ridiculous it can be. I think the police should have the capacity to ticket for that, and there are even circumstances where officers should have the power to remove people who are being abusive or disruptive with their words.
The deeper question is whether, as a society, we have decided to dispense with concepts such as 'vulgarity', 'indecency' and 'obscenity'. There are, it seems to me, advocates of doing exactly that. Whether they actually believe what they say is another matter. Then there is the rest of us, who believe that ideas of vulgarity and indecency may have to be adjusted so that they shed vestiges of classism, but that it's preposterous to think of society without them.
POWERFUL BUT OVERUSED WORDS
All said, the Jamaican 'bad wud' is a powerful thing. At least it used to be. There is some danger that it's becoming overused to the point of abuse, and so common as to be unshocking, predictable and boring. In some parts of the city, it's getting to be the case where if you want people to pay attention, you absolutely can't curse because that's too easy. You actually have to dial it back and use regular non-obscene words to shock people into paying attention. In fact, that's how I remember high school.
Put that aside for the moment. Quite apart from having adopted many of the popular curse words from overseas, we embroider and embellish them with our own inventiveness, but we also have home-grown expletives. Anyone who has ever felt nostalgic in a foreign city will understand how warmly welcomed a claat can be to the ear. Of course, context is everything.
Also, the idea that 'bad wuds' are used by the inarticulate is a big mistake. In fact, some of the most articulate among us are notorious for their cussing. Michael Manley is remembered for being able to belt out a string of strong uniquely Jamaican expressions. Apparently, to hear Daryl cuss is like a symphony.
I'm a novice in wording capability, which I attribute to lack of practice. Perhaps there will be opportunity to redress that in the future, at which time I'd like the police to consider issuing me a ticket if necessary, but not a bullet.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in Westchester and Bronx counties in New York. Email feedback to email@example.com.