Monday, June 13, 2011

"Lenny Bruce died for your sins"

-- that's what a friend of mine said to me back in the 1980's. I think it may have been his way of telling me that I had an amazingly dirty mouth. I did. I do. Or maybe, as I thought at the time, he was merely making a remark about freedom of speech in general. I only know Bruce through Bob Fosse's wonderful movie about him,and I suspect the same may have been true of my friend. I don't know how much the Lenny in that movie actually resembled Lenny Bruce, but the guy in the movie was pretty deep on the subject of words, given individual words and their ability to hurt. He pointed out that they hurt and shock more when they're forbidden.

He was quite right about that. But lately I've been thinking that he died for nothing. I'm thinking about the complete contrast between a beautiful scene in the movie, when Dustin Hoffman, playing Lenny Bruce, talks some sense into a crowd who came to see his stand-up comedy act, and a public-service announcement that's currently playing on TV. Both pieces have to do with certain derogatory words -- almost exactly the same list of words in both cases. Hoffman/Bruce's point about these words is: they're just words. He starts off his schtick saying, "Hey, there's some ----s here tonight!" -- using a word I'm not going to type out because, one, I don't need the aggravation, and, two, you can pretty much imagine what I'm talking about anyway, which is just one more thing which shows how silly this all is. Bruce says "----s," and some people gasp. And he goes right on, cheerfully rattling off more offensive words: "Yes, and some ----s, and some ----s, and some ----s, and some ----s! I'm a ----! I think that guy over there is a ----. I know this guy here is a ----." (I'm paraphrasing from memory.) And people in the audience start to relax and laugh. And it's not hateful laughter, it's just pure relief. Bruce ends up that routine pointing out, "Hey, nobody died because of those words, did they? And it doesn't mean that I hate any of those people. They're just words. And they only hurt if we let them." The relief of sweet reason contained in that scene is truly magnificent.

I wonder how much relief this new public-service announcement could possibly be spreading. It consists of head shots of representatives a series of oppressed groups, each one saying in turn: "It's not okay to call me a ----." Identical sentences except for the "----" at the end. Then at the end of the announcement it is solemnly declared that one more word is being added to this list of words that are not okay.

(I am not using the word "oppressed" here in a sarcastic way, not in the slightest. The groups in question most definitely are oppressed. But this chickenshit PC silliness isn't helping them. It's a waste, a waste, a waste.)

The sooner we all figure out that these words are not even the point, that a person can use each and every one of those "bad words" on a regular basis and still approach everyone he meets, representing each and every one of those oppressed groups, with love, and that someone else can scrupulously avoid all of those words, and even industriously hunt for still more words which must be forbidden, and not love anyone at all, the better off we will all be, and the more capable of addressing other problems.

It is telling that it seems to be mostly comedians who understand such things. (I myself am not a comedian, that is a talent I do not possess, as I pointed out in a recent post on this blog.) It reminds me of medieval courts where only the jester had the privilege of speaking the goddam truth! This whole nonsense with our fixation on individual words, the way we give them the power to hurt by insisting that they hurt, is a thoroughly medieval stupidity. I hope I live to see it decline and wither and die.

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