Colombo Telegraph

Obscenity, Profanity, Epithets, And Great Novels

By Jagath Asoka

Dr. Jagath Asoka

Our diction—the words that we choose to communicate with others—say a lot about our attitude towards others, our state of mind, and our depth of spirituality.

When I was a student in Ukraine, I realized that every male in the former USSR used the Russian word “blayath” (whore) so often; they are still using the word “blayath” as if it were a punctuation mark—comma or period—in every phrase or sentence that they utter. We all know that the racial slur “nigger” is the nuclear bomb of racial epithets, and the expressions, such as “I will F*** your mother,” or “Mother F*****,” are the nuclear options of insults. Sri Lankans have their own version or a modification of “blayath.” Most Sri Lankans use the word “Hu**hi,” one of the worst insults that I have heard used by Sri Lankan men against their wives, girl friends, or other females. These words denigrate and lacerate the souls of the recipients. Obscenity, profanity, and racial epithets are ubiquitous; is it necessary, effective, and useful to use obscenity, profanity, and racial epithets? Do you think we must use obscenity, profanity, and epithets as often as we feel, or is it an indication of our level of erudition, education, spirituality, and compassion?

I know a plethora of Buddhist monks who use obscenity, profanity, and epithets as if they were some Buddhist sutras. I bet there are Hindu and Christian priests, rabbis, and imams who use obscenity, profanity, and epithets just like the Buddhist monks that I know of. Our politicians, even our current president, use obscenity, profanity, and epithets in certain occasions as if they were some Buddhist sutras; sometimes even on TV, Radio, or over the phone. Why do these people use vulgar language? Did they inherit this behavior from their parents?

When my son was eight years old, I gave him Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels, a coming-of-age tale for young adults: the story of seventeen-year-old Richie Perry: just out of his Harlem high school, Richie volunteers for the service and spends a devastating year on active duty, because he could not go to college. This story is full of profanity because Richie and his friends—they believe that black troops are given the most dangerous assignments—come face-to-face with the Vietcong; amidst violence and death, Richie struggles to find virtue in himself and his friends. Of course, when a teenager is in a scary situation like this, he or she is going to curse a lot and that is the norm. My son read this book so many times with cheerful enthusiasm. I know that most parents would not have given a book like this to their teenage children, let alone to an eight-year-old son. My attitude is totally different. My only condition was that he could not talk about this book with his grandma, which he would not have done anyway. But recently while having a very lengthy conversation with his maternal grandmother, a Catholic of an American-Italian descent, I told her everything that I had not told her about my son, particularly his wide interest in reading and writing, which includes books with a plethora of profanity; my son is allowed to write anything that he desires, with no restrictions at all. He is allowed to read any book he desires, with no restrictions at all. After reading this book, my son has lost his interest in profanity, and he never asked me to buy a similar book. He keeps reading things that I have never heard of. It was part of my plan.

I do not usually use obscenity, profanity, and epithets; so, I firmly believe that I have created an environment where using obscenity, profanity, and epithets is not the norm, but I have a story to tell.

When my son was around two years old, one day, he was at home with me, while his mother had gone shopping. I rarely watch TV, but on that particular day, I was watching TV because George Bush was having a news conference about the war in Iraq. I got so agitated and used the “F word” to express my dissatisfaction and frustration. Since my son was less than two years, I did not think anything about my spontaneous verbal reaction to Bush. A few minutes later, my son kept repeating the “F word” like a mantra of some yogi from the Himalayas. Well, I thought the best approach was to ignore him because he was like a parrot; he just kept repeating what he had heard. When his mother came home, she was furious. I explained it to her: It was my stupid behavior; our son was just repeating what I had said. It did not matter to her; she washed his mouth with soap; my helplessness was indescribable; I said that I would take his punishment vicariously, but she did not budge and continued with her punishment; so, I took some soap and put in my mouth; well, it was not that bad. But I still do not think that was necessary; however, our son stopped using that word. Later, I found out, my son’s mother had the same punishment when she was little; her mother had given the same punishment to her when she had used the “F word” when she was a child. Since that day, I have not used any profane or obscene language in front of my son; I have never used any racial epithets, ever.

Here are my questions to you: Would you give books such as Fallen Angles or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to your teenage sons and daughters? Why and Why not? Do you use derogatory, denigrating language at home? Do you use the word “Hu**hi,” or “F****** bitch” or any other obscene words or phrases to insult your wife? If you do, how are you going to teach your children that using obscenity, profanity, and epithets are not acceptable in a civilized society? Do you call your husband an as**ole or use any other obscene phrases or words when you argue with him? I know that when it comes to using obscenity, profanity, and epithets some women surpass men. Did your parents use obscenity, profanity, and epithets? Is it the reason that you are using obscenity, profanity, and epithets as adults? If your parents had used it, can you put an end to this perpetuating vicious cycle of obscenity, profanity, and epithets? If you use obscenity, profanity, and epithets at home, do you think that one day your children, when they grow up, would use the same words that you had used to insult your spouses, neighbors, and others, against you? Does the frequency of using obscenity, profanity, and epithets indicate the collective attitude towards others, collective state of mind, and the collective depth of spirituality of each person, family, or nation? Please let me know; I am just curious.

Even though I have dedicated the books that I have written to children of my friends,  I have stopped giving books to my friends’ children because children must live by the rules that are dictated by their own parents, not their uncles, aunts, friends, and neighbors. I will not question parents’ decisions and judgments because only they know about their children’s precociousness and maturity, and I do not. By giving books that my son reads at home to other children would be throwing a monkey wrench.  I know that some parents even do not allow their sons and daughters to read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which both my son and I have read, at least, twice. It is banned in certain schools because of its frequent use of the racial slur “nigger,” but the protagonist and the tenor of the book is anti-racist. As I have mentioned before, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds are among my favorite books.

I think each person should read, at least, one hundred novels during his or her life span, because great novels are wonderfully pedagogical and instructive. How many novels have you read? If you do not read even when it rains or snows, why do you expect your children to read voraciously? If you are in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, or even if you are an octogenarian, read James Joyce and Thomas Mann; read everything that they have written in terms of what is called mythological traditions. Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger along with Death in Venice describes Mann’s views on art and the artist as an individual.

In Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Tonio’s father was a good father, a responsible father, a family man, a rich merchant, and an important citizen in his hometown; but Tonio’s father never did the thing he wanted to in all his life. Young Tonio was not interested in mere money making and raising a family like his father; Tonio had an artistic temperament, so he moved to Munich and joined a group of people who shared his views. Tonio and his group felt that they were above the mere money earners and family men, but Tonio was between two poles: his father, the businessman, and his newfound group, who felt that they were above the mere money earners and family men. But Tonio found that, although he thought himself a little superior in an intellectual way to them and could describe them with cutting words, he really loved his hometown people; his heart was nevertheless with them. When Tonio lived with the bohemians, he couldn’t live with them, either, because Tonio found that they were so disdainful of life. So, Tonio left them; he wrote a letter back to a person in the group, saying, “I admire the proud and cold who go adventuring on the paths of great and demoniac beauty and scorn ‘man’; but I do not envy them. For if anything is capable of making a poet out of a man of letters, it is this plebeian love of mine for the human, living, and commonplace. All warmth, all goodness, all humor is born of it, and it almost seems to me as if it were that love itself, of which it is written that a man and of angels, and yet without it be no more sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

When I read the words of Thomas Mann, I felt that Mann was talking about me: All great novels have that effect on its readers. Like Tonio,  when I was a teenager, I lived in the former USSR, where the attitude was—at least, outwardly—there is more to life than mere money making; in my late-twenties, I moved to the USA, where I felt that some people were bohemians: they live and act free of regard for conventional rules and practices.

I get agitated when I see the destruction of our values and corruption of our country and culture, all in the name of development and progress; most people are blind, and they do not see it because those who support politicians are the beneficiaries of corruption and financial skullduggery; others are mere asinine and naive, and they are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka; they are a dime a dozen even among my Sri Lankan colleagues and friends, even among those who have PhDs. To me it does not matter whether you have a PhD or whether you never went to school; what you do for living and how you treat others and yourself matter to me. If you are living a blissful life, doing what you love, then you have a life, a life worth living.

As far as criticizing Sri Lankans, with my cutting words, it is simply obvious: My heart is always with them.

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