Saturday, February 13, 2016

On Vulgarity

Donald Trump called Ted Cruz a pussy. Or, to cite his weasel words on the topic, Donald Trump “retweeted” this vulgarism with reference to Cruz after a woman in his New Hampshire audience shouted it out to him.

This is classic Trump. Obnoxiously aggressive one day, and ready the next day with protestations of his innocence. The man, of course, is frighteningly creepy, but he’s nothing compared to his followers. 

Who are these millions who want to support this guy?

The short answer is that they are frustrated and frightened, and they are incapable of thinking their way out of their fearful predicament.

In critical thinking, underdeveloped they are (as Yoda might say).

The word pussy itself deserves some attention. If we leave aside its traditional reference to adorable kitty cats, it’s fair to say that it has two vulgar referents in modern English: female genitalia and men who are deemed “womanly” by virtue of cowardice or lack of physical prowess.

Where the second referent is concerned, I would point out that we have lots of terms that describe men who don’t measure up on the John-Wayne-o-meter. We can call them wimps or weenies, or, to dredge up an old expression now seemingly little used, “candy asses.” Candy ass (does anyone still use this term?) resembles pussy in that it not only denigrates men for failing to be masculine enough, but it does so with that extra punch with which vulgarity endows it. To call a man a candy ass or a pussy is to both describe him as weak, and to do it in a way that signals heartfelt contempt – contempt that “wimp” does not always imply.

There is a book out there titled Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but I’m sure we will not soon see a book titled Diary of a Kid Who is a Total Pussy.

What makes the insulting word “pussy” particularly pointed is its association with “pussy” in its other vulgar embodiment, the one that construes females as mere sex objects.  

Views on Donald Trump’s use of this vulgarism are mixed. For some it’s a positive sign, a mark of his “tell it like it is” quality. For others it’s just crude. I’m with these others.

Dirty words have their place, but it is one of the rules of our society (and others) that people should only use dirty words if they are truly angry or if they really like each other. On this latter point, I recall that one of my graduate student pals and I occasionally addressed each other as Dickhead, as though this were our shared given name. Youthful bromance.

Vulgarisms are often used to mark boundaries. Couples may freely toss around obscenities when alone (I’m told), but refrain from doing so when others are present – unless those others are their very best friends.

When I was about twelve years old, my friends and I entertained the fiction that we used dirty words (when adults weren’t around, of course), but that our parents refrained from such vulgarity. I learned differently when I began to accompany my Dad on the golf course. My parents seemed to entertain the same fiction about me until that day when my mother was shocked to find a scrap of paper in my jeans pocket in which I had attempted to illustrate the phrase “fucking bastard” with a simple rebus incorporating 1. a couple in flagrante, 2. a fish, and 3. a human derriere dispensing ballast.

This was actually part of a spontaneous game I had been playing with some of my buddies in which we induced general hilarity by constructing these ingenious messages for each other, each one more obscene than the last. I think I might have won that round, but, as I recall, our buddy Dan outdid us all when he let loose a series of flatulent bursts, like a rapid-fire mortar, each of which he followed up with a cry of “Safety!” As males of my generation may recall, you have to call “safety” after you fart, lest someone call “slugs” on you, thereby earning the right to punch you sharply on the shoulder.

I bring up this adolescent world not only for the gentle nostalgia it induces, but also because it reminds me of Donald Trump and his admirers. I think for many of them, their lack of skill in critical thinking has trapped them in a kind of adolescent limbo. When they hear him heaping contempt on Mexicans and suggesting that Muslims should be treated the way Jews were treated in 1933 Germany, their response is not, “Oh my God, what is wrong with this man?!” Rather it is, “Yeah, finally we have a leader who is willing to blame somebody for my troubles – and, best of all, he doesn’t care about political correctness!”

As though political correctness were the only thing keeping normal Americans from accusing Mexicans of being rapists and Muslims of deserving official discrimination.

And this is where public vulgarity comes in. For Trump’s followers, vulgarity seems to suggest a willingness to disregard customary niceties and “tell it like it is.” But, in fact, rules of public propriety don’t amount to a wimpy failure to speak the truth. They are designed to encourage reasonable and fair-minded discourse.

Donald Trump has clearly decided that vulgarity and bigotry are better vote getters than is fair-minded reasonableness. This is troubling, of course, but what’s even more troubling is that so many citizens seem to be caught in an adolescent frame of mind that validates Trump’s strategy. This is the ultimate curse of American anti-intellectualism: teeming millions who never learned to think like adults.