April 30, 2016

Swearwords, blasphemy and contemporary political silence

David MacKenzieRebel Columnist

I remember an interesting cultural moment during one of my first visits to a Montreal restaurant after arriving for study at McGill University. After giving strong consideration to ordering a milkshake, or something similar, I was summarily informed by my server that, “la machine est fuckée.” By all the rules I can remember from my high-school “frammar”, at least, I’m assuming there’s a double “e” on that ending.

In any case, it needs be said that my server wasn’t angry to see me. In fact, she didn’t even flinch as she gave me the news, but looked at me— post pronouncement— in all sincerity and perhaps even sympathy.

Je comprends.

To my shame, I’m still not very proficient in French, but that sentence was not too hard even for me to understand. I swear I probably looked stunned. I was, after all, a young theological student at the time. Meanwhile, my thoroughly bilingual anglophone host smiled all knowingly. I think he rather enjoyed that moment, before slowly working his way around to explain that similar words carry different weight in different languages.

Real French swear words, I am told, tend to be religious in nature rather than bawdy like the worst of the English language. Beyond your basic and predictable English blasphemies, one has to go far back in the language to find more thematic parallels to French expressions like “sacré bleu”— and most people are likely oblivious. The English exclamation, “gadzooks”, for example, is actually derived from “God’s hooks”— a reference to the nails of Christ’s cross. If you find yourself rather unoffended by this last profanity, it’s not because its meaning is lost to anglophone culture, but likely because our zeal has been lost.

Earthly profanity, technically, is always aimed at the heavenly. Indeed, the Latin “profanum” originally meant “outside the Temple”. Hence, when culture holds a commonly-held perception of the sacred, it lends considerable rhetorical “shock-value” to any profane language. Long before Marvel comics, journalist G.K. Chesterton once made an astute observation:

Blasphemy… depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion. 

Yet, while I usually agree whole-heartedly with Chesterton, religious blasphemy is only “fading” if you hold to a narrow understanding of religion. Such “fading”, in our culture, actually “brightens” as one broadens.

To look for the new “sacred”, one need only look at what, today, cannot be derided in public. One can judge the degree of political sanctity about a topic by how little is spoken about it. It becomes something like the the absent letter “o” in the word “G-d” that some pious Jewish people utilize. Atheist John Stuart Mill once said in his work "On Liberty" that, “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”. As a theist, myself, I would also suggest that such infallibility is tantamount to political “divinity”.

This thesis holds up quite well in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea — a nation that is, to no cynic’s surprise, neither democratic, nor the people’s, nor a republic. Criticizing Kim Jong-un is most definitely like the hyphen between “G” and “D”, as retribution for any political “blasphemy” in that nation is more than symbolically akin to the flat line of a heart monitor. In general, the smaller the public pool of political critics, the bigger the “personality” in the personality cult. But so much for the far East, how about the middle?

It is clear that criticism of Mohammed is blasphemous to the devout Islamic world — although just how a mere mortal (prophet or otherwise) achieved such a “divine” standing within the fiercely monotheistic context of Islam is actually somewhat mysterious. Islam has, after all, no pantheon to defend beyond Allah. In the strictest sense, therefore, it cannot be theology that would cause Islam to make sacrosanct its mere messenger — nor puritanism — given Mohammed’s own moral failings. It must be a kind of political patriotism specific to the movement. To my knowledge, I have never seen a group of modern Jews start a riot over public criticism of Elijah’s treatment of Baal prophets.

By contrast, however, the West has seemingly turned all such patriotism on its head, making it a near religious virtue to be self-loathing. Recently, for example, a move to make a “Western Civilization” course mandatory at Stanford University was not just defeated, but thoroughly trounced by a student vote of 1,992 to 347. A student newspaper suggested that learning Western Civilization might somehow be “upholding white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.”

Stanford is no third-rate university, yet, sadly, even the best of the west is now ashamed of the West, at best. Tragically, the same left-leaning political penchant for silencing western culture is also evident in the Oval Office, which steadfastly refuses to utter the expression, “Islamic terrorism”— at one point recently, even appearing to censor another sovereign Western leader in the process. To pinpoint a theme, then, to locate the new dogmas, simply find the new blasphemies.

Some seventeen years ago, palaeontologist Jun-yuan Chen was quoted as saying: “In China, we can criticize Darwin, but not the government; in America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.”

If Chen’s analysis is still valid, it is clear that Marxist authoritarian government is sacrosanct in China. This should hardly be shocking, of course— the phrase “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition” was not exactly coined in Beijing. But to be fair, Chen wasn’t simply pointing out the pontificating pretence of the regime in his homeland, he was also poking fun at the near “sainted” stature granted Darwin in academia.

The fundamentalisms of our time cannot possibly be confined to the religions of old. When television commercials subtly put their spokespersons in lab coats for added public “trust”, rest assured, there is a new cult in town complete with holy vestments. At times, ours looks like the “Age of the Unassailable Academic Pronouncement” — the Theorem Sacrosanctum. Shout the phrase, “research-based”, long enough, and the plebeian public is supposed to prostrate itself at the feet of all this academic prowess. What is not as readily articulated is the ease which which research objectivity can be warped by political subjectivity. After all, if it tends to be one’s friends or ideological “clones” who review one’s work as peers, then even peer-review is subject to a form of confirmation bias. Is academic research always representative of the relentless pursuit of truth, or (in some cases,) is it mere obeisance to the lesser gods of academic homogeneity and career inertia?

One group fast approaching culturally beatified status is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Recently, the American Attorney General admitted that some consideration has been given to the idea of pursuing civil action against companies that exhibit a penchant for climate change denial. Environmental missionaries like Al Gore even stated that:

we cannot continue to allow the fossil fuel industry or any industry to… mislead the public about the impact they have on the health of our people and planet. Attorneys General and law enforcement officials around the country have long held a vital role in ensuring that the progress we have made to solve the climate crisis is not only protected, but advanced.

Just 29 days elapsed before the judicial system, as I mentioned in my last Megaphone blog, began to make manifest Al Gore’s “divine” will. And yet, as sociologist George Yancey states, “When debate is truly over there is no need for political pressure to declare it so.”

As we briefly glimpsed last fall, it was Angela Merkel’s will to control those pesky critics of European immigration, even advising Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to work on the issue. As more recent history will confirm, the subsequent additional policing of social media did absolutely nothing to alleviate the multi-cultish State silence in the days immediately following the rape-revelry in Cologne square. Considering the Left’s deference to the sexual revolution, there’s enough politico-sexual silence in certain sub-categories these days to rival the prudish pretence of Victorian England.

Recently, the World Psychiatric Association stated that all homosexual or gender-reparative therapy was “wholly unethical” because it attempts to “treat something that is not a disorder”. Still, therapy is not without its synonyms. Should the State outlaw all marriage counselling because marriage is not a disorder? Here’s a remarkably libertarian idea: why not allow the “market” to determine whether a form of counselling or therapy is worthwhile? Would one continue to go to a hair-stylist who uses pinking sheers? In any case, social conservatives like me have ample reason to love the delicious irony that sexual liberation has now become so politically entrenched that it seeks to eliminate all “unrighteous” alternatives in the name of its own infallible “sanctity”.

All this is to say that, in culture, the gods don’t really go away; the cults merely change form. Political convictions, it would seem, drive both political correctness and ultimately political silence. Zeal for politics is never very far removed from religious zeal. Hence, to locate the latest State religions, one need only identify the new blasphemers.



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commented 2016-05-03 00:06:55 -0400
I thought it was excellent.
commented 2016-05-01 03:09:31 -0400
What a long winded article. It could have been summed up by saying that political incorrect terms are the new swears, all in an attempt to control society.
commented 2016-05-01 01:58:05 -0400
Decent column. One thing I’d like to bring up in disagreement with your choice of theme, however, is support for Western Civilization being a mandatory class at Stanford. Fair enough, I don’t know enough about Stanford’s background and customs, but if I were to go there for a major or minor in engineering, medical science, or even the arts, I would be against having to spend any time and money outside of my chosen purview. If they voted against its availability I’d be ready to show some outrage, but making it mandatory? I would vote no, too.
commented 2016-05-01 01:49:30 -0400
HAHAHA, fat old ladies. This prissy. Do not swear in front of them or you will have a face of mace and a purse KO.
commented 2016-04-30 21:11:22 -0400
Yes, very thoughtful observations. Thanks for this, David MacKenzie.

I was thinking about blasphemy against “the divinity” and blasphemy against the merely human. In the anglo culture I grew up in there were so many mild crude expressions of the name Jesus Christ: Jimney Crikets, Jeepers Creepers, Geez, and Jesus H. Christ, before the taboo against just saying the name was lifted and people today can say “Jesus Christ” as a mild curse. Someone pointed out to me that immigrants to Canada are often astonished to find the name Jesus Christ is used often here, but as a mild curse.

But then there is the Virgin Mary. If Muslims will insist on respect for the Prophet Mohammed, they will also insist on respect for respect for Holy Mary. The sacredness of Mary is emphasized in the Qu’ran but has extended far beyond that in time and culture. Protestants, too, even wanting to emphasize that their downplaying of the role of Mary in Christian salvation was characteristic of their branch of the faith, rarely “blasphemed” or used her name as a curse.

Considering she is portrayed in statues more than any woman in history, and how dangerously close to the divine Mary has been described, is it not strange that she rarely enters our lexicon of curse-words?
commented 2016-04-30 20:55:32 -0400
Although , born in Montreal, I could care less about that dying language. If the West separates , it means SE LEVIE to Grampa Trudeaus expensive bilingual laws.
commented 2016-04-30 18:35:54 -0400
Thoughtful observations. Thx for this.