Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Watch Your Language!

I ended up having an interesting discussion with a teacher at my kids' school the other day I thought I'd share with you.

First, I want to ask a question that I'd like you to answer honestly. Since you will be answering it to yourself, to prevaricate would be only to lie to yourself ;). Have you ever used a swear word? Doesn't matter how minor or major, have you ever used any one?

How did it feel? Did it help relieve some of your tension or stress, did it let you get the emotions out of the way and clear your mind for managing whatever happened next? Did it serve any purpose at all?

Okay, maybe more than one question.

Basically, languages are living entities that adapt and grow to reflect people's needs. When the first computer was invented, someone had to name it. Same with the first knife or the first time a person saw a horse. While some words have outlasted their purpose except within reenactment societies, every word in common, everyday usage has a purpose. Aquarius was delegated to a zodiac sign probably once the need for a water bearer vanished with the introduction of plumbing. So why have swear words persisted? Why is it that swear words exist in every human language I've ever heard off, often with commonalities such as the potty words? If my assumptions about language growth and word persistence are valid, then there's a reason, a true purpose, for swear words.

Now back to my conversation with the teacher.

The topic began with the overreaction to the use of certain terms by both teachers and students and the failure to recognize cultural influences putting these words into people's common vocabulary. Imagine someone told you not to use the word sleep. Now imagine having to remember to check every sentence before it comes out of your mouth to ensure you haven't used the word sleep. Further imagine suffering disciplinary action of various levels if you should slip up because it came up within context and you didn't think fast enough to recognize what you were about to say. A profuse apology and immediate retraction of your statement is considered irrelevant in the face of your failure to avoid mentioning *that word*.

Now, I am not in any way advocating the random use of swear words within the school system. Nor am I suggesting slip-ups should be allowed to pass unnoticed. However, I think things have gone a little too far. Swear words are a way to express emotions and sometimes even an alternative to violent action.

My husband is a tense, aggressive driver (he's going to love that description :)) to the point that he got annoyed when people cut me off (who I didn't notice) when we were caravanning. To counter road rage, he swears at other drivers, under his breath now with the introduction of little ears and more recently a chorus of "Daddy, watch your language." While I would not advocate this method, for my husband, it lowers his stress and makes him a safer driver. How does this work? Well, he has expressed his emotions.

Emotions are dangerous things when bottled up and have been known to burst out all out of proportion if not given voice or at least appropriate consideration. The use of swear words is one, non-violent method of expressing and validating the emotion so its urgency passes.

Let's go back to the school system for a moment. Whether you have kids, are currently in school or have a pretty good memory of your own experiences, I think most of us understand school is a stressful environment where social and academic pressures clash together with students crushed in between. Hmm, perhaps comparable to a bumper-to-bumper commute with a critical meeting or appointment at the other end.

So, we hope the students will relieve their stress through positive physical activity during recess time (which, by the way, gets shorter as school becomes more intense until you're left with only a little time after lunch and then only if you gobble your food). And what about the students for whom recess is the most stressful part of all where they must endure the active ridicule of the other students and exclusion from all group activities?

Now counter that with the proscription of emotional interjections (which is basically what swear words are). I'd think the stress level would intensify without an outlet. And before you say, "Well, only 'real' swear words are proscribed," let me point out my son was talked to for using "pissed off" as in "This really pisses me off." A swear word? Maybe so since it falls into the potty language category but it is also an adamant expression of emotion, a legitimate phrasal verb according to the American Heritage Dictionary (http://www.bartleby.com/61/4/P0330400.html).

Say, "This really upsets me."
Say, "This really pisses me off."

Do they feel the same to you? Do they serve the same purpose? Maybe so, but then I'd ask, what's next to join the list? Will students be limited to only politically correct forms of expression and all come across as if in a new age love fest? And if they're not allowed to express these more complex and pressing emotions in a way that allows them to manage them, will we see other consequences.

I have an 11-year-old stress case. Well, honestly, he comes by it naturally since I was one at the same age, but still, it seems to me my children need all the tools in their language arsenal to handle the stressors put on them at every age. Are we helping or harming by trying to box them in to proper behavior all the time? Shouldn't there be a time and place for expressing themselves even if it involves swear words? When my guys get rowdy, I tell them that's outdoor behavior. When they use bad words, I tell them to watch their language. I must be ever diligent against the explosive expression of emotion because if they slip up at school too many times, there are consequences. I wonder what the consequences of the constant repression of emotions might be and when we'll see them...or have we already?

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

What's the difference between books and movies?

Censorship. Okay, that's a big, nasty word that on the surface I don't agree with at all. However, I realize as a mother, I censor what my children are exposed to every day. I actually let them read practically anything with the understanding if something makes them uncomfortable or they don't understand it, they should come and talk whatever it is over with me. This probably makes some parents cringe and, I'll admit, when Sean spouted back a synopsis of one of the books I'd given him, the heavy material shocked me. He wasn't bothered and understood what was presented well enough for us to have a really good conversation. This speaks well of my intention not to shelter my children but bring them up as thinking beings despite the small number of years they've managed to accumulate.

That's all very well, but why am I bothering to comment about it? Well, today I censored them swiftly and without thought to the possible expansion of their view of the world. They ended up watching a bit of a movie about small time drug dealers being attacked by their neighbors and in trouble with their buyer. Ever other word out of the characters' mouths seemed to be a foul one and the content between drug dealing and use, and murder and assault was extremely mature.

Okay, how is this different than reading a book about an abused child who splits into multiple personalities in an effort to handle it?

Was the problem the television being a more "in your face" presentation? Was it specifically the foul words that could get the kids in trouble if they repeated them at school? Was it hypocrisy on my part to be open in one area and censorious in another?

I don't know the answers to any of those questions, but thought I'd throw this thought up to all of you. Is there a difference when mature topics are presented in a fictional setting between books and television or movies? And what do I teach my children by making that distinction so pointedly. On the one hand, I said, we'll discuss it and figure it out. On the other, I came down as authoritative parent figure "You Shall Not Pass." Right or wrong, I'm uncomfortable with the inconsistency and my inability to come up with a straight answer, not that this will in any way affect my decision to let them read what they want to or to limit their TV privileges. It just means I'll worry the concept in my head until I decide something, possibly just that I'm happy the way things are, contradictory or not.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Where'd my keystrokes go?

Okay, maybe it's not profound, but to a multitasker, there is nothing more frustrating than doing a rapid switch between windows on the computer and typing away only to discover the switch hasn't activated the text box. So, what happened to my perfect sentence or witty aside? Where can I recover those words; restore my thoughts?

So far, I haven't found the keystrokes anywhere. They're not on the old application or the new. They've slipped in between to nestle somewhere in my computer session never to be seen again....

Or are they? Do they build up in some hidden buffer just to spill over randomly and put a "j" in kilobyte or an extra "e" in weird? Do our half-thoughts take on a life of their own and add a new layer to the intelligence growing in our operating systems? What ever could the answer be?

And now, back to your regular programming.

Hey, I promised stray thoughts, didn't I? :)

Monday, January 05, 2004

You say To-MAH-to, I say To-MAY-to, let's call the whole thing off...

Okay, I made my writing goals so here I am back with another stray thought.

My sons, ages 9 and 10, picked up a nasty habit of starting each sentence with "No." I've been trying to tamp down on it especially since they are contradicting opinions rather than facts they know the answer to. Well, I recently realized I do the same thing. It's a chicken and egg, did I pick it up from them or did they pick it up from me? But either way, it's a horrible habit.

The thing is, we're not alone in this. How many times have you heard or participated in arguments over things that have no "true" answer? One I've heard often enough in my family is over colors. You look at a car and perceive color, believed to be an absolute, differently. "It's a green car." "No...it's a blue car." and so on.

So, my "think about it" question for the day is why do we spend so much time contradicting non-facts. Is it not enough to share our perspective? Must we establish through persistence and loud voice our way as the right way especially on things for which there is no right way? Or maybe, by becoming aware, we can tame this beast and temper our responses. Let "No" become once again a minor syllable used most often by two-year-olds or closely followed by "thank you."

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Monkeys and Keyboard Posture

I'm not sure whether I had this thought while writing or when trying to crack the tension out of my back and neck but here is my first stray thought.

Monkeys are natural keyboardists cause they're designed to free their hands while sitting. Humans are built to free their hands while standing, making long term sitting an uncomfortable and potentially crippling decision. Natural selection is dead because of medical advances. If it wasn't, would we humans revert to a more monkey-like physical structure and see instances of carpal tunnel reduced?

This is just a question and/or thought. I am in no way advocating a return to an earlier age or reduced medical care for infants who otherwise wouldn't survive. Even if we could give away medical advances, I don't think we should.

However, in creating an artificial environment, we've distanced ourselves from more than the feel of the soil. You'll hear a lot about how human technology has undermined the natural maintenance of animal populations, making some too strong and others extinct. What I haven't heard a lot about is how we've lost our own forms of natural maintenance and development. With overcoming all that is dangerous and deadly in a more Hobbesian world, have we lost also the good pieces allowing us to adapt over generations to new climates and new situations. Will our children's children be better adapted to our technological world or will we keep passing on the same traits necessary for times before humans gained the ability to control life and death regardless of nature's choices? Simple environmental manipulations such as indoor heating mean someone like me who is better adapted to desert climates can survive anywhere. What other ways have we managed to conquer natural limitations in such a way to make the natural world almost irrelevant?

As a writer, these questions develop an additional element. When designing alien societies, should I focus on what adaptations they have to their current environment or to one far in their past. At what point does natural selection give way to technological manipulation in the world I craft?