Wednesday, December 10, 2008

a written descent into madness

As none of you know, I've spent the last few months reading The Stuff of Thought (hey, it's hard to get through a book when you're functionally retarded) by my word idol, Steven Pinker. He's a very cunning linguist! (Just admit, much like songs about sporadically jizzing in your pants, that "cunning linguist" bit never gets old. Uh, or something.)

Oh snap! Two lewd references in the introductory paragraph?! What am I? A DC teen, speaking unnecessarily loudly on the Metro about inappropriate activities said teens are much too young to engage in?!

Although my sense of humor may lead one to believe I'm 14, I'm actually pretty thankful I'm not. Mainly because I was even stupider back then. But seriously, when did the concept of inside voices go out of style? Especially when you're a kid talking about sh*t I really, really don't want to hear spewing from anyone's mouth. I just don't get it. But, honestly, considering I'm not the most eloquent of assholes (a concept I demonstrate daily), I at first thought the loudness offended me more than the language. I mean, after all, this year's holiday e-card to my friends and family is going to be this:




Which means I'm probably not one to talk about what's appropriate to say when and to whom. Or am I?

Dr. Pinker is making me rethink what I thought I knew, which means maybe I'm not actually smarter than my 14-year-old self...

Although I curse at a frequency that rivals how many times a Hill staffer checks her BlackBerry in an hour, I still don't cuss in front of my mom. Or at least I try not to. Moreover, even on this sick bitch of a blog, I self-censor four-letter words using asterisks. And now, after reading chapter 7 of The Stuff of Thought, "The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" (a title Pinker borrowed from an infamous George Carlin bit), I'm beginning to think maybe it wasn't just the decibel level of the conversation (if you can call it that) that bothered me, but the crude language. Pinker writes:

The persecution of swearers has a long history. The third commandment and Leviticus 24:16 spells out the consequences: "He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord shall be put to death." To be sure, the past century has expanded the arenas in which people can swear. As early as 1934, Cole Porter could pen the lyric "Good authors, too, who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words / Writing prose. Anything goes." Most of the celebrity swearers of the twentieth century prevailed (if only posthumously), and many recent entertainers, such as Richard Pryor, Eve Ensler, and the cast of South Park, have cussed with impunity. Yet it's still not the case that anything goes. In 2006 George W. Bush signed into law the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased the fines for indecent language tenfold and threatened repeat offenders with the loss of their license.

Taboo language, then, enters into a startling array of human concerns from capital crimes in the Bible to the future of electronic media. It stakes out the frontier of free speech in liberal democracies, not only in government control of the media but in debates over hate speech, fighting words, and sexual harassment. And of course it figures in our everyday judgments of people's character and intentions.

Interesting. Would I hate DC's obnoxious teenagers just as much for shouting about, say, rainbows and unicorns on the Metro, opposed to repeatedly dropping such biting words as what Pinker describes as a "gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance"? (The man's seriously a word genius).

More importantly, though, in the megalomaniac world that is The Anti DC, does my decision to insert an asterisk into such words as "sh*t" and "f*ck," two of the seven words you can't say on television (the others are piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits -- really?), mean I'm engaging in some kind of self-imposed judgment as to how decent of a human being I am? Would I be less of a writer to simply type "shit" and "fuck"? More poignantly, would I be worse person for it?

Considering I'm already hovering at the bottom of the proverbial asshole barrel, I have a hard time thinking my decision to, in essence, censor myself reflects on my value as a person. After all, it's just a vowel. But why do I do that? In my mind, I suppose, it takes the edge off of the word; it makes it less serious, perhaps, even less emotional, which is exactly why, according to Pinker, dirty words are so taboo in the first place.

The ubiquity and power of swearing suggest that taboo words may tap into deep and ancient parts of the emotional brain. We saw in chapter 1 that words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the world literally refers to, as in "principled" versus "stubborn" and "slender" versus "scrawny." The difference is reminiscent of the way that taboo words and their synonyms differ, such as "shit" and "feces," "cunt" and "vagina," or "fucking" and "making love." Long ago psycholinguists identified the three main ways in which words' connotations vary: good versus bad, weak versus strong, and active versus passive. "Hero," for example, is good, strong and active; "coward" is bad, weak and passive; and "traitor" is bad, weak and active. Taboo words cluster at the very bad and very strong edges of the space, though there are surely other dimensions to the connotation as well.

Perhaps more intriguing, Pinker describes how dirty words light up a part of our brain -- the amygdala -- that neutral words do not. According to so-called "science," the amygdala helps to meld emotion and memory and produces the involuntary shudder that occurs when we see or hear something we're not supposed to see or hear.

The involuntary shudder set off by hearing or reading a taboo word comes from a basic feature of the language system: understanding the meaning of a word is automatic. It's not just that we don't have earlids to shut out unwanted sounds, but that once a word is seen or heard we are incapable of reacting to it as a squiggle or noise but reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation. The classic demonstration is the Stroop effect, found in every introductory psychology textbook and the topic of more than four thousand scientific papers.

And now the topic of one very unscientific blog. So, let's test this theory. Let's Stroop (Stroop ba-doop, Stroop ba-doop, Stroop ba-doop ba-doop ba-doop -- thank you, growing up in the '90s)!

1) Say aquamarine, lavender or burnt sienna (or blue, purple or orange, if you prefer, simpleton) for each item in turn from left to write:


2) Now, do it again.


3) And again.*


If you're a live human being, the task should get progressively harder with each set of words, according to Pinker.

The psychologist Don MacKay has done the experiment, and found that people are indeed slowed down by an involuntary boggle as soon as the eyes alight on each word. The upshot is that a speaker or writer can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes.

I, on the other hand, found the second one the hardest, which only validates that, apparently, I am indeed a robot who can't feel emotions. But wait a second! Let's turn back to homo sapiens again. Did Pinker just say a taboo word can evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes?! Does that then OK my response to want to muzzle all teenagers throughout the land? Wait. That's not against my wishes because, honestly, I would've gotten smacked in the face several times by adults if I had acted like such a buffoon in public when I was that age. Or this age, which is why I don't suddenly have a voluntary case of Tourette's in public places! Take note, teenagers! You sound like you have a serious disability BY CHOICE. You. Are. Idiots.

But again, more importantly, what does this mean for the megalomaniac e-land that is this blog? Would I make you all cringe even more if I remove the asterisks from my go-to blasphemies?


Did you involuntarily shudder? No?

What? You're just waiting for this gigantic leaping of the shark pseudo-attempt to wax intellectual to be over, you say?


*For the record, or so I can feel like a slightly more decent asshole, these are the words Pinker uses in his example.


I-66 said...

The third test was easier than the second. In essence there were 2 colors to worry about with each word in the second, and only one in the first, even if you were only trying to focus on the color.

Marissa said...

OK, that makes me feel a little less robotic. 11100010100101 that's nllm mlln in binary code.