By Devon Dick
TWO SATURDAYS ago, 27-year-old Kay-Ann Lamont, who was eight months pregnant, returned from back-to-school shopping in downtown Kingston, and while awaiting a taxi to head home to Logwood, she exclaimed how "dem rob har downtown to b...c..." Police Corporal Dwayne Smart, who was issuing a traffic ticket overheard the 'b...c...' and told her that she could be arrested for using indecent language. She responded by breaking down the two words and asked him what they meant. She was subsequently shot and killed (September 4). This policeman morphed from a traffic police to a 'bad wud' police. A smart policeman would have been more concerned that Kay-Ann was robbed rather than policing the use of language.
To our detriment, we fail to focus on the trigger that influenced this trigger-happy Christian policeman to shoot Kay-Ann. The deceased was smart to break down the two words and ask him what they meant.
In 1843, the Town and Communities Act was passed. The provision governing expletives is to be found in section 3(l) which forbids anyone from doing the following: 'sell or distribute, ... obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure, or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language'.
This provision regulates obscenity in public places. But this is subjective because, for some, Laura Facey's statue in front of Emancipation Park, New Kingston, was described as obscene. And the subjective is also obvious in the interpretation of the F-word. According to Peter Espeut, Gleaner columnist, it refers "to the act of sexual intercourse in an extremely offensive manner, and carries connotations of violence and abuse" (September 7) while others perceive it as an acronym - "for unlawful carnal knowledge".
And since there is no official list of expletives, it is left to the police and the judge to make a subjective judgment. One of Jamaica's leading attorneys said: "In such a situation, the police and the law have regard to community standards as to what words are indecent, profane or obscene. . . It would cover phrases such as 'go s...k you madda' although no bad words as such are contained within that phrase. In cases like these, indecent, profane or obscene are given their ordinary dictionary meaning."
In addition, abusive and calumnous and threatening language are found under two statutes. The first Town and Communities Act in section 3(m). In such a case, the words do not need to be indecent or obscene. They must be words which are abusive (denigrating) or threatening (to box, kill, stab, or do some harm) or both. The second statute is section 30 of the Constabulary Force Act.
There appears to be double standards because in Orlando Patterson's novel Children of Sisyphus, there are words which could be called indecent and students had to study the novel. Furthermore, indecent language can be heard on films in public cinemas and it is not illegal. Additionally, it is widely known that the powerful and wealthy used them and are not charged in a similar manner as persons from the working class.
Dictionaries are not static as new words are added and some words omitted as they become obsolete.
There is a story about the late Anglican bishop Percival Gibson, who rebuked a boy who had shouted expletives to another but began by saying "You is". The headmaster of Kingston College reminded the young man that it was a grave offence against English grammar to say 'you is'. You are was the proper usage. The expletives did not rate a mention. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt from Gibson by all police, judges and the society. It could be life-saving if we consider policing the welfare and development of the people and not the 'bad wud'.
Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church, St Andrew. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.