Colorful Language

I love slang, and I love cussin’.

But why, you might ask? Why love that which is rude, crude, and lewd?

I hear people complain a lot these days that ‘four-letter’ words and slang are taking over our language. Since the social revolutions of the 20th century, language has become much more casual, more free and easy, less mannered. By the latter, I’m not talking about manners as they relate to courtesy. I’m talking about rules of conversational etiquette that are often arbitrary. Most of these conventions are useful, as they help organize language and assign definitions so that people can readily make themselves understood to one another. But many other conventions seem contrived, imposed by a social elite to lend a patrician air of refinement to the speaker. Sometimes, it works to their advantage: after all, who isn’t impressed when hearing public intellectual Bertrand Russell wax eloquent on current events, the value of philosophy, and the horror of war in his rather delightful, oh-so-aristocratic style? But while this kind of etiquette can lend a certain pleasing elegance to language, it can give it a stiff, stilted, artificial, and to our modern ears, oddly quaint quality. And too much insistence on ‘correctness’ in speech can render a language dead, in the sense that it’s frozen in time, unable to evolve to express new ideas and ever more shades of meaning.

Those who are especially offended by the increasing use of slang and cuss words consider it a sign that we’re becoming lazier, ruder, more selfish, more aggressive, less respectful of one another. These ‘bad’ words, they complain, are proliferating ever more on the internet, in popular music, on TV, and in movies, infiltrating our kids’ vocabulary at an ever younger age, and worst of all, dumbing down our language.

I agree with these objections to a certain extent. People can be rude, selfish, aggressive, disrespectful, and hateful, and express these attitudes through the use of slang and cuss words. But they can and do express all of these with formal, more ‘acceptable’ language as well. Euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language are all classic examples of ways in which we insult, denigrate, and undermine one another while avoiding the use of lowbrow or taboo terms.

Yet I would argue that many types of ‘polite’ speech, such as euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language, can be much more offensive and harmful because they’re less direct and therefore, less honest. The speaker who chooses these indirect methods of expressing offensive ideas are often attempting to evade responsibility for them, giving themselves an ‘out’ they don’t deserve. These sorts of ‘weasel words’, easy to recognize with the uncanny ability most people have at recognizing and understanding innuendo, are so conveniently slippery that they’re a common tool of the self-righteous jerk, the racist, the sexist, and the elitist. The speaker who uses what are generally considered overtly offensive terms, on the other hand, render themselves accountable for what they say by expressing what they think in a way that’s readily understood and open to critique.

So it’s not slang or cussing that should give true offense in these cases, it’s the intent of the speaker and the content of the speech.

I also grant that people can be lazy and dumb down their language with slang and cuss words because they haven’t bothered to educate themselves, because they want to avoid saying anything challenging or of substance, and because they want to pander to the listener. But like the aforementioned forms of ‘polite’ offensive speech, this is true of other forms of speech as well. ‘Folksy’-speak (Sarah Palin is a famous example, and sadly, she has influenced too many of our politicians to pander ever more to the ‘folks’ in that way); psychobabble; obscurantist academic language; politically-correct speech; scrupulously ‘polite’ speech, and so on, can all be to obscure the fact that the speaker has little of substance they’re willing or able to say.

But those who pick on slang and cuss words generally are just plain wrong: they don’t always dumb down language. In fact, they often have rich and nuanced shades of meaning that polite language lacks, and can lend force, humor, and nuance to language. George Carlin’s immortal ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’ comedy routine is not only incredibly funny, it highlights the arbitrariness of so many of our language prohibitions, and how taboo words so often convey meaning that polite language can’t.

That’s why we have positive terms to refer to such language: strong, explicit, and colorful. And these terms point to the reasons why I love them.

As a fan of slang and cuss words when used right (no, you pedant, not ‘rightly’), I give the metaphorical finger right along with Carlin when I hear people complain about ‘bad’ language without bothering to understand and address the content behind the words. I suspect that most people who single out strong, explicit, and colorful language for criticism are mostly unfamiliar with the terms used, only enough to identify them as taboo. They assume that because these terms are sometimes used out of simple ignorance, crudeness, anger, or cheap desire to offend, they’re always used these ways. It seems, then, that the complaints often result form a simple lack of understanding. As restless and rebellious youth so often say of their parents, whose ability to understand is subject to the often self-imposed limits of their own experience, they just don’t get it.

Advocates for the exclusive use of polite language in public discourse usually claim that everything can be expressed in those terms, so long as a person possesses an excellent vocabulary. I’m here to tell you that just ain’t so. (My tiny little homage to Mark Twain, among the great innovators who introduced slang, colloquialisms, and other colorful language to great literature, as he illustrated better than anyone how the strictures of polite language so often hold us back.) Since slang and cuss words spring forth and evolve outside of the regulatory realm of polite language, the’re quick to fill in the gaps where there were no expressions for those exact ideas. For that reason, I submit, slang and cuss words are often much more nuanced and expressive than their much fewer yet more polite approximations.

This was brought home to me especially as I was reading (and commenting on) the the delightful Assholes: a Theory, and the many times I watched one of my favorite simultaneously very funny and informative documentariesF*ck. While you might immediately think ‘what a crude person that Amy is’, well, you’re partly right. Humor that is heavy on the use of strong, explicit, and colorful language tickles my funnybone like nothing else, but only if it’s simultaneously very witty. That’s because, for one thing, these terms reveal the wonderful nimbleness of language, when freed from its social constraints, to express just about anything our creative minds can come up with. It’s also because such terms generally concern themselves with the down-and-dirty (pun intended) realities of everyday human experience, for which laughter is the best cure, and humor the most accurate commentary. Strong, explicit, and colorful language chosen for nothing but its shock value, on the other hand, leaves me not only cold, but deeply annoyed, as it does nothing but justify the narrow stereotypes of the self-styled language police.
When it comes to strong colorful language, there’s a time and a place for everything. Formal language is great for the workplace, where strife needs to be avoided and the tasks readily made clear to everyone. Academic language can be great for academia, where highly technical, narrowly defined terms are needed to more efficiently discuss complex ideas. (Steven Pinker, however, very astutely points out that academic language has just as much of a tendency to become ever more obscure and confusing, even to other academics.) Likewise, jargon can be most suitable for professional conferences and talks, polite language most suitable for family and other gatherings of mixed age (since standards of politeness change over time), and so on.

But strong, explicit, and colorful language are also the best ways to express ourselves sometimes, and to avoid using them when they can best express what you’re trying to say is as foolish and self-defeating as refusing to use any tool that’s best for the job. Biting social commentary, humorous examinations of the human experience, expressions of just anger, getting to the bottom of how and why ‘douchebags’ and ‘assholes’ exemplify different ways of people failing to be decent… there are countless ways in which colorful language is the most excellent mode of expression. After all, ‘jerk’ or ‘louse’, while polite, are lame and far less nuanced terms to describe a person who behaves in such loathsome, or more accurately, ‘shitty’ ways as the douchebag and the asshole. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Carlin, the discerning and true lover of language will recognize that polite terms often just don’t cut it when we need terms that will really help us get to the heart of the matter. Prissy fastidiousness or squeamishness about language can cause the listener to miss out on something interesting or important in what’s being said, and hamper the speaker in their efforts to express themselves as fully as they otherwise could.

So use language vigorously, creatively, and wittily, whatever form it takes, and it’s only proper to take offense at its use when the intent of the speaker, or the content of what they have to say, sucks.

– To Thomas Pyne, professor of philosophy at Sacramento State University, and his always fascinating and erudite lectures in Philosophy of Language, delightfully spiced with a little colorful language here and there

Sources and inspiration:
Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005

Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language”

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014., Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. 2014, New York, NY: Penguin.

On Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

I was listening to an episode of Inquiring Minds podcast the other day, and in it, cognitive scientist Paul Bloom discusses his and others’ research on the earliest manifestations of morality in human babies, a hot topic in psychology and neuroscience these days.

Near the end of the (fascinating) interview, Bloom discusses the difference between compassion and empathy, as he sees it:

‘..I’m writing a book on empathy now, and I’m against it. I’m arguing that empathy’s a poor moral guide. And it’s… it’s like saying you hate kittens, or you’re in favor of Ann Coulter… it just sounds really weird. But I would make a distinction between empathy and compassion, where empathy is putting yourself in someone’s shoes and feeling their pain. And I think empathy can do good in the short term, but it tends to distort things. It’s racist and parochial, it’s a lot easier for me …to feel empathy for someone who looks like me and is adorable, than someone who scares me or lives far away and doesn’t look like me.

Empathy is innumerate, it tends to focus on the plight of individuals, not on groups. It’s because of empathy that societies like ours tend to care much more about a little girl stuck in a well than we do about global warming. Because I can empathize with the girl and her family. Global warming is some abstract thing. Yeah, it might kill billions of people, but show me one… and if you can’t, empathy has no moral pull. Compassion is valuing people, it’s valuing human life, and in a distant sort of way. And I think in every possible way, compassion trumps empathy. Even at the local level. So it’s not just contemporary doctors, but it’s actually Buddhist theologians [who] have long pointed out that feeling empathy for suffering people will exhaust you and will burn you out and make you useless, while a more distanced compassion, where they [people] have value, and you care about them and you want them to be better, but you don’t feel their pain, is actually better to be a good person.So I’m a big champion of compassion and very down on empathy.’ – Paul Bloom, ‘Babies and the Origins of Good and Evil’, Inquiring Minds #60, 46:38 – 48:24

I was edified by Bloom’s remarks: a few times over the last several months, I thought over what I’d written in a previous mini-essay, ‘Empathy for Immigrants‘. In it, I appealed to those who take a hard-line stance against amnesty for illegal immigrants, challenging them to imagine having to choose between obeying the law and trying to procure health, safety, and access to a better life for themselves and their children.

While I continue to think it important to be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to take their emotional perspective, to realize that their interests are just as important to them as ours are to us insofar as we can feel with them, I’ve been doubting that this is of primary importance. To think it is, is to imply that if we don’t feel emotionally attached to others’ interests, then they might not be important. Empathy, it seems, is too narrow, too dependent on us happening to feel like being good to others. What leads to empathy in the first place?

As I was thinking about it, over time, I realized that what I was really calling for in that piece was more like sympathy, or compassion. But let’s take a moment here to consider an objection that probably already arose in your mind, or was about to: isn’t it just a question of semantics to be picky about the meanings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion? Aren’t they more or less interchangeable terms? Or aren’t they close enough to the same that the differences aren’t worth worrying about?

It’s true that they are often used interchangeably, and in some cases, it doesn’t matter which term is used, if what’s being said comes across clearly enough through context. Other times, though, they’re used interchangeably and confusingly, as in the Wikipedia article which seems to mix up the meanings of ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’ multiple times in the first paragraph alone, and the article which contradicts psychotherapist Stephen Crippen. In any case, it’s not the semantics of the words themselves which are so important (though for clarity’s sake it helps to distinguish the differences, and use accordingly), of course: it’s the ideas these terms are meant to convey.

So how do these three terms differ, and why is it important to understand the difference?

Keeping in mind that it’s the ideas behind the words, not the semantics, that are important, I’ll be using the word empathy in the way that academics and researchers such as Bloom, Rebecca Saxe, and Steven Pinker tend to use it, to refer to a state of internalizing anothers’ mental state, of ‘putting yourself in their shoes’, of experiencing, if only for a moment, another’s pain, joy, or perplexities as your own. Sympathy, while a related concept, is more often used (according to my own experience and my admittedly rather perfunctory research) to refer to a state of general concern for or identification with anothers’ experience, without necessarily internalizing it. Pinker describes it as ‘aligning another entity’s well-being with one’s own, based on a cognizance of their pleasures and pains’ (576). In other words, when we sympathize, we still identify with another’s internal experiences and care about them, but it’s enough to know they have them: we don’t necessarily have to feel them ourselves. Sympathy, then, is more like compassion, which is to care about the well-being of others and desire to help them as a result of our convictions, regardless of whether we feel like it at the time.

So to go back to my objection about empathy: it seems too narrow, too contingent, to be more than a starting point, morally speaking. It can give us the original impetus to do good, but doesn’t go far enough. Empathy gives us patriotism, local-sports-team-fandom, a feeling of religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, and ideological identity. These can all be important; David Hume points out how central the passions or ‘sentiments’ are to human morality, including empathy (in his time, termed sympathy). (Book III, Sect 1, Pt 1) Without our empathetic responses first toward our families, then our immediate social circles, then our wider community, morality would probably not exist. Those instincts first show us in life how to care about other people, as it did our earliest pro-social ancestors. Caring about people like ourselves is relatively easy.

That’s because, as Bloom points out and as history shows us, our empathetic response is usually aroused by the cute and the familiar. Just about everyone wants to help big-eyed babies, dimpled little children, good-looking people, and members of our racial, national, religious, cultural, political party, or sports team ‘tribe’.

Yet, empathy does little for us when we encounter people from other groups. We don’t like to think about it, but we rejoice when we watch someone we don’t identify with take a fall; we don’t really want to help them most of the time. This is so common, we take it for granted so much, that we don’t even notice it happening. Gun enthusiasts rejoice when George Zimmerman is set free and mock Trayvon Martin’s defenders, and anti-gun activists feel a thrill when yet another school shooting adds weight to their argument, even as both groups speak regret for the victims. Conservatives gloat over Bengazi and liberals over Iran-Contra, and act as if each occurrence is a ‘proof’ of the rightness of their party and of the evilness of the other; we say little or nothing about the dead unless it serves to bolster our talking points. We beat up fans wearing the wrong sports jersey as we leave the game, ‘our’ team victorious, and we turn up our noses as we find ourselves having to share space with unsophisticated, poor, ‘uncool’, awkward, or otherwise ‘outsider’ people. We can’t, really, imagine what it would be like if ourselves or our children belong to groups who are more routinely beaten, imprisoned, or shot while committing the sort of petty crimes and youthful indiscretions, or having a public outbreak of mental illness, that our group routinely goes through unscathed. We bomb, declare war on, execute, allow to starve and die of illness in refugee camps and across the border, and otherwise treat our fellow human beings with an abundance of neglect and destruction, because we happen to not feel like caring for them. Empathy fails all the time.

It takes that leap of the imagination, inherent in sympathy or compassion, to want to help those who are not like us. Sympathy and compassion make us want to help people not just because we feel like it but because we believe in it for its own sake, for philosophical, religious, or other ideological reasons. Experiencing more kinds of people who are not like us, personally through travel and virtually through media, expands our opportunities and our instincts for empathy to some extent. Hume made this case somewhat controversially in his time, and our experience in our new cosmopolitan, digitally connected world bears this out. Yet sympathy/compassion can extend this capacity orders of magnitude more: it leads us to universalize the kindness and generosity that we naturally extend to our members of our close communities. Sympathy/compassion is the habit of  extending our concern for others based on our beliefs about justice, community, human rights, human flourishing, and so on. When we base our convictions on the right way to treat others on reason at least as much as on our pro-social instincts, we expand our moral characters, and not only increase our sympathy/compassion, we develop and expand our capacity for empathy as well.

*Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

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Sources and Inspiration:

Bloom, Paul. ‘Babies and the Origins of Good and Evil‘, Inquiring Minds podcast episode #60

Crippen, Stephen. ‘Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion 101‘.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human NatureVolume III – Of Morals (online). Originally printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) 

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011.

Saxe, Rebecca et al. ‘Finding Empathy‘, Video

Stueber, Karsten, “Empathy“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

What is the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?‘, Word FAQs.