When Obscenity is a Virtue

Those of you who comment on this blog site are doing your job exceptionally well. Thank you. You inspire good thinking. And you give me ideas for new article topics.

This one will be a little difficult because I am going to deal with obscenity head on. If you would rather not have your values scraped raw by bad words or bad ideas, you might wish to skip the read.
If you choose to skip the blog, maybe you can help Joe work on his slate of presidential candidates. Go to the latest edition of the 2016 Presidential preview and let me know if you have reservations about any of the people listed. Or if you have additions to make to the list of First Class candidates, either for President or other roles.
What is it? When is it bad? When is it good?
What is it?
When I think of obscenity, I can’t help but think of the late George Carlin and his word lists. Carlin was one of the edgiest comedians of his time, the 70’s through 2008 when he died. In 1972, he launched into a monologue about  the seven words that you can never say on television. Then he said them. They were:  “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits”. Later, he built the list into 100 words.

 But it is not just individual words that are deemed obscene. Jonathan Swift, Irish satirist most popularly known for his story Gulliver’s Travels, a story frequently adapted for children, wrote an essay called “A Modest Proposal.” In this essay, Swift proposed that the Irish eat their extra babies to help solve the extreme poverty problem. The outrage was like nothing heard then or since.
And we have a recent contribution to this blog site from the inimitable Mariano Renato:
  • The Church do not need women. They need men and children to fill their sexual appetite. That is why hunchbacks can be found only in the church because The Priests do it in the back.
Obscenity according to the Humpty Dumpty New World Dictionary is“any expression that undermines the values of the nation”. It is a legal term, in its ultimate application, because laws ban obscenity in certain circumstances. Indeed, this blog may be seen by some as pressing against the recently passed “Cybercrime” bill because it is done on computer, published on the internet, and uses words associated with sex.
But I tend to think, if a courtroom addresses the words frankly, as it must to rule on their obscenity, why would I not be permitted to address them frankly here? I am not advocating their use or using them in a derogatory context. I am talking about them.
But I digress.
Most of our values in both America and the Philippines are founded on Christian morality. Using bad words is a sin. Accumulate enough sin and you go to Hell. Directly. No hand basket required.
When is obscenity bad?
Obscenity is bad when it causes behavior destructive to the well-being of the community.
Obscenity is a variable, which is why it is difficult to define when it exists. Public nudity is not allowed in the U.S. It is more common in Europe.
Almost everyone agrees that one ought not present “adult” material to children who are too young to weigh its meaning. But “adult” material is not of itself obscene if presented to adults who have the ability to sort out fact from fiction and right from wrong.
Churches and other morality based institutions that do not trust in the ability of adults to discern fact from fiction and right from wrong have a narrower range of acceptance as to what is allowed than a rationalist. You would not find many priests appreciating this blog.
When is obscenity good?
That is the odd thing. George Carlin’s seven words were pounced on by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulator of radio and television stations in the U.S. A station that broadcast Carlin and his words was threatened with sanctions by the FCC. The station took the matter to court and, after several switches in court decisions, it finally reached the Supreme Court, which sided with the FCC. But the Court also pointed out the variability of obscenity and this led to the rule whereby language deemed “indecent” (but not “obscene”) could be broadcast between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.
George Carlin’s words resulted in moral clarity: obscenity is a variable. And practical rules: save the dirty stuff for late at night. George Carlin’s words were in effect declared “indecent but not obscene” if uttered late at night.
Most U.S. broadcast stations keep themselves within the rules to avoid problems with their audience and their sponsors.
Carlin’s words were good in the sense that they provoked a robust legal discussion that led to rational laws protecting the most vulnerable citizens, children.  Plus he entertained millions, made them laugh. That’s good, too.
Similarly, Jonathan Swift’s outrageous proposal resulted in enactment of new laws to fight poverty in Ireland.
What about Mariano’s comment? Where is the good in that.
It requires a bit of a stretch, I suppose. It is beneficial for the Catholic Church to understand the anger that her doctrines provoke. If the Church were to ask “why” rather than simply condemn Mariano’s remark, maybe something beneficial could come out of it. Just as Ireland would have not implemented anti-poverty programs had legislators not reached to understand exactly what it was that Swift was saying. Short of that, maybe Mariano makes a few people laugh.
If we can determine that an expression has value to its audience, then by definition, it is no longer obscene. At least to that audience.
Condemning Obscenity Can Be Damaging
Based on the Swift and Carlin examples, if obscenity has good outcomes, then I suppose condemning obscenity may be damaging. 
The proper audience for harsh and shocking language is adults who are rationalists rather than moralists, and who understand the difference between fact and fiction, and between right and wrong.
George Carlin was popular because his audience was smart (usually college campuses) and his audience considered his pushing of boundaries enlightening and entertaining rather than obscene. The general American prudishness about bad words made Carlin’s jokes work.
Jonathan Swift had a huge audience of well-read people who looked forward to the next excerpt from one of his stories the way we look forward to next week’s edition of American Idol. They welcomed his strange but enlightening ideas.
Mariano’s views have to be taken in the context of all of his comments. They are blunt, they are insulting to many, they are insensitive to the people attacked. But the entire range of his comments is worth reading. JoeAm welcomes them whereas other blog sites routinely ban Mariano. Here is an excerpt from JoeAm’s response to a complaint about Mariano’s hunchback comment:
  • Mariano and I go back a few years. He writes in attack mode, outrageously sometimes. But beneath what I would call his “literary venom” are ideas that are important. I often don’t agree with him or his ideas. For instance, I like President Aquino but he calls the President benigno-the-Turd. But more often, I find within them striking truths. So, if I delete the part I don’t like, but leave in the part I do, what kind of honor is there to that? On balance, he contributes to the marketplace of ideas in a good way, even if the medicine sometimes tastes worse than cod liver oil.
As Humpty Dumpty opines, “a word means what I choose it to mean”. And if Humpty says a proper contextual expression of “fuck” is beneficial, the listener should seek to understand the speaker’s context, and why his intent just might be good. We ought not simply bounce an offensive remark off our moral mirror and not consider why it was made.
So we are back to the definition. Obscenity is a variable, and the greater argument is not about a particular expression, but about the variable morality by which it is judged. And, in the end, this comes down to the question of is it good, in certain circumstances, to be closed minded?
I personally think that the less closed-minded we are, the more we grow.
One more look at Mariano:
  • Vatican is against stem cells harvesting. So, people, stop talking about tweaking Filipino DNAs. When I get married, I will have my children marry a white foreigner so MY corrupt genes will be diluted by goot genes and have them live abroad. Because living in the Philippines overwhelms the goot genes and made it into bad genes.
There is a style to this kind of perspective, from the satirical taunt of Filipino values to the intentional use of bad Engliches (“goot”). Mariano is rather a JoeAm on steroids. He can say things that I would not dare. And that is why his comments are not deleted. He pushes all the way.
If he pushes to far, I reserve the right . . . etc.etc.  But right now, he offers a sharp and extreme counterpoint to the Catholic morality that has brought the Philippines to its present condition. And he rejects the enduring cultural traditions that are holding the Philippines back. Read him as you would read JoeAm, with healthy elasticity of reasoning that says “don’t always take this guy too seriously” but reflect on what he is saying.
A comedian who uses swear words is not using the swear words to insult. But to get a laugh.
A blogger who uses shocking ideas is not using the ideas to swear. But to make a nuclear intellectual point.
17 Responses to “When Obscenity is a Virtue”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Funny timing, JoeAm. Yesterday, counted 4 "fuck-" words in Teddy Boy Locsin's article in Interaksyon, "more fun standing up by putting down", taking you're first-class Pinoy, DOT Sec Jimenez, to task for saying Pinas has "zero image". Hahaha. Funny also are commenters at professionalheckler and sowhatsnews blogs never getting the joke. I get Mariano's joke. I suppose Mariano can be a good stand up comic, like Carlin. DocB

  2. I rather suspect Mariano is a sit-down comic when priests are around.Yes, he has Carlin's biting insight.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Here's a parallel-if Carlin on the stage says "fuck, motherfucker" that may be virtue but if he takes his clothes off that would be obscene. Hehehe. That would be the other way round if it were Madonna. Hey, JoeAm is not above punning, I noticed.DocB

  4. Cha says:

    It's all in the context. The comment about priests and hunchbacks (had to trace back, missed that one the first time) was one within a thread of responses to Edgar Lores' comment pointing out the parallelisms between the the church (or priests for that matter) and women. If Mariano's comment is to be taken as offensive then Edgar's comment must also be taken as such. But Edgar's comment also did not exist in a vacuum, it's also in response JoeAm's blog that day. So, doesn't that make JoeAm offensive as well? Having pointed this out, can I also be in the running for stand-up comic? (sit-down will also do, as that's all I'd really rather do these days)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Edgar, I think, is better as writer of maybe comic and witty script a stand-up comic can use. Stand-up is a performance, clowning. If you were a stand-up you'd be Woody Allen. JoeAm, if you must know about obscenity in Pinas, look no further than last year's controversial Mideo Cruz's exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. There were priests in there, too.DocB

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry that comic bit was directed at Cha, not Edgar. My bad…DocB

  7. Cha says:

    Thanks for clearing that up DocB, Although I do think Edgar would look more like Woody Allen :))

  8. Yes, the river of thought extends back up to its source. As of today, however, I have re-written my Policy and Terms to make the commenter "own" his comments. Establish a dam, as it were. This is an outcome of the new Cybercrime and Totalitarianism Enhancement Law, as I will explain in tomorrow's writing.

  9. Carlin was a skinny dude when he was young, and his performance garb of 45 years ago looks obscene today, flared pants and sweater. So I guess obscenity has a time dimension to it. Like the short shorts the NBA players used to wear are obscene today, big guys running around in underwear.So if obscenity is such a variable, why don't we just cool it and wait a few years and maybe it will cycle around to being okay.

  10. Ha, I don't imagine Edgar LOOKING like Woody Allen. Only mice can do that. But he would probably WRITE like him.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Is obscenity a variable in the Moslem world?DocB

  12. Wow, what a great question. Does humor exist in the Moslem world? Satire? Forgiveness of human failings? And do we read the actions of extremists too often and overlay them onto the mainstream, unfairly? I frankly don't know. Too big a question for me, here, now.

  13. Cha says:

    Now that you put it that way (associating Allen's look with mice), I take it back!

  14. Edgar Lores says:

    DocB and Cha,I see I have missed some of the fun. I was out cleaning the front yard and doing some gardening. I had to do this to regain some peace of mind after the turmoil of being underwhelmed by the intelligence of mankind in general, and some Filipinos in particular. I do not generally use profanity in either written or spoken forms, or even silently in my mind. I admire the use of polite and elegant language and I find it is more effective in delivering an idea, whether that idea is to praise or condemn.I have not heard of George Carlin before. I am familiar with Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comic who was convicted for obscenity but given a posthumous pardon.I am not against obscenity or the use of obscene words. Obscene words have their uses to express shock or outrage. You will note, however, that the continued use of obscenities is self-defeating. The words lose their shock value, and they tend to characterize the person using them rather than their utterances.(Note: pussy is not a four letter word. And vagina is now in vogue.)If you go back and re-read what Mariano said and I said, I think you will be surprised that we did not use any obscene words. Right? So it was the ideas that were shocking, that could be considered obscene. The juxtaposition of words can be such that they bring the shock of recognition. This is the talent of stand-up comics.Shocking ideas sometimes, but not always, reflect some semblance of the truth. They bring to the fore certain truths that are considered unmentionable. We are not aware of it, but all us are in a state of denial about some truth. That truth could be about ourselves, about the people around us, the state of the Philippine state, and especially about the beliefs we hold most dear and live by.There. I have divested myself of all turmoil. And may I end by saying that, although I am not one, I do not mind being compared to – ahem – geniuses. 🙂

  15. And a most hilarious one, too, I might add. Humility and genius need not ride the same horse.

  16. Gosh, I am humbled, Joe. I feel like a resurrected copy of Larry Flynt.

  17. Well, Larry lived according to his own standards, and so do you. And I'm quite confident you'll get over "humble" the next article I write praising your benigno-the-Turd.

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