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Policing the boundaries of propriety

Clyde McKenzie

Monday, December 02, 2019

The colourful coda to a recent valedictory address at a tertiary Jamaican institution for the arts has brought the important issues of language, identity, and propriety sharply into focus. It would seem that at the heart of this emotional debate is the question of where do we install the behavioural markers or guard rails in order to prevent the society from careening over the precipice into anarchy.

Propriety is a highly subjective concept which is constantly being interrogated and revised. Few of us are usually willing to concede any ground on this highly contentious issue, thus creating the possibility for gridlock.

We must have rules of engagement for the purpose of order and predictability, yet we should constantly review regulations and conventions to determine whether they are anachronistic. We should try to ensure that in setting boundaries we do not allow the placement of the 'rails' to be too restrictive such that it constrains the flow of traffic, neither should we let the position of these markers be so expansive such that it does little to prevent us from going over the edge. It is a delicate exercise that demands constant vigilance, tolerance and balance.

Policing the boundaries of propriety is a process fraught with mysteries and ambiguities. A few years ago one of the major networks in the US was fined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) for the airing of indecent material. This censure came as a result of a broadcast with Bono of U2 using what is euphemistically called the 'f' word on live television. The FCC contended that the network had breached the terms of its licence by allowing the word to be aired on its platform.

By most conventional assessments one would have concluded that the FCC was on solid grounds in its findings based on a cursory reading of the provisions of the licence. The network, however, appealed the decision and the ruling was reversed. According to the subsequent judgement the 'f' word, in that particular instance, was not a reference to a sexual act, but was used as an exclamation.

One of the major debates which is currently raging in the US speaks to the issue of political correctness or 'woke culture'. The choice of epithet is a reflection of one's position in this most important debate. Students on many campuses in the US have been adopting very strict standards with regards to what can be taught, spoken, or written at these institutions of higher learning.

Many high-profile speakers — usually due to their conservative views — are now unwelcome on campuses across America. Many comics — due to their irreverent comments — have joined the growing list of individuals who are deemed inappropriate for appearances on college campuses. What does this portend for the notion of free speech? I have long contended that free speech is the right you grant to your allies and deny to your opponents. Yet these arbiters of political correctness or wokeness on campus defend their positions by arguing that in imposing restrictions on certain kinds of speech they are protecting groups of people who have been victimised or made uncomfortable by certain types of utterances.

Language is dynamic. The meanings of words often change over time and with context. I sometimes cite the use of the word gay as an example of this phenomenon. Dennis Brown in his classic Should I speaks of “...acting like a child so young and gay”. The Christmas carol Deck the Halls implores the listener “Don we now our gay apparel”. Neither of these songs, I would maintain, uses the word gay in the context in which it is employed today.

I take issue with both the supporters and detractors of the valedictorian who have conflated his utterances with matters related to the use of the vernacular. His supporters contend that his utterances are frowned upon only because they were made in the vernacular. Yes, one should concede that there is some bias against the vernacular. Would there have been such an uproar, however, had simply told his fellow graduates to “big up unuhself” without the qualifying expletives? Most languages, including Jamaican, have words which are proscribed sometimes for reasons no one can logically fathom. This is often the product of convention and consensus.

It should also be noted, too, that the valedictorian could have used expletives without speaking in Jamaican. Expletives are not exclusive to Jamaican.

I also take issue with those who see the use of the vernacular as coarse and boorish, and who contend that the dramatic end to the valedictory address is proof positive of what is possible when one deviates from what should be the official mode of speech in Jamaica-English.

Using the vernacular and being crass and boorish are two separate issues. There was poetic elegance in the language of “Miss Lou”. She could not have been reasonably accused of being crass and boorish for her use of the vernacular.