Thursday, January 16, 2020

Discussing What You "Ought Not" Say: taboo, philosophy and politics

updated 1/24/20

Lay lady lay
Lay across my big brass bed
Stay lady stay
Stay with your man a while
Until the break of day -- Bob Dylan, Lay Lady Lay (1969)[1]

"You slimy weasels want some sex education? I'll give it to you. Just keep your zipper shut and you won't end up with some God-awful disease!"[2]

Looking for Consensus on Controversial Topics.

Some decades back, I was invited by a Catholic university to give a lecture on the topic of corporal punishment. The presentation would be open to both faculty and students, both undergraduate and graduate and, in effect, to any interested attenders. I gathered from the invitation that I was to talk about both the nature and morality of corporal punishment, particularly as it might occur in an educational environment.

My philosophical approach was to employ case studies, common situations, to see what, if any, consensus we could reach on criteria to be generalized for discussion.[3]
The first case I presented was this:
5 year-old Arnold is bitten by a squirrel after pinching his sister and running out into the backyard.
Question: By his being bitten by the squirrel, has Arnold been punished? The audience was to use a 5-point scale:
1 = definitely not; 2 = probably not; 3 = unclear; 4 = probably so; 5 = definitely so [4]
On a handout sheet, audience members,indicating only their university status and case evaluation, gave in their responses to a small team who tallied them.

The audience appeared to be balanced between faculty and others. (Many were identifiable as such by their clerical garb.) However, I was somewhat surprised by the responses. The great majority of the faculty put down 1, a few 2. Among the undergraduate students most put down a 5, fewer a 4. There were very few 3's.

But before I began a discussion, I told the audience that the description of the case was clearly very sketchy. Perhaps, I suggested, if I had given them more information about Arnold's situation, it might have influenced their judgement. In fact, I suggested that they write down some conditions that might influence their judgement in the opposite direction from their first response, counter-evidence, as it were. For example, what additional information would convince them to change their 1 to a 2 or higher; which, to change a 5 to a 4 or lower.

I then asked for people who would reveal their original situation and give a reason why they changed it by telling us about their new "counter-evidence." One faculty member, a nun, who initially gave a 1 = definitely not punishment, said that there was not clear cause and effect relationship between the pinching and the biting. It looked to her that the biting was a random occurrence -- unless Arnold's mother had trained a squirrel to bite big brothers who pinched little sisters. That got a laugh but was accepted as a relevant condition, thus able to move the judgement away from a 1 to something higher.

An undergraduate who thought Arnold was being punished, 5, said he thought that the squirrel might be an instrument of God delivering what Arnold deserved. But, after turning in the handout he had some misgivings and reconsidering that, in the original sketchy depiction of Arnold's pinching, it could have been that Arnold pulled the squirrel's tail just before the bite. That would be a more likely scenario. It's easier to delve into the mind of a squirrel, he said, than into the mind of God.

(Faculty present may, perhaps, have felt some relief, at least, that they had had some influence on that student's education.) Besides, continued the undergraduate, we don't know whether Arnold actually hurt his sister; nor, whether she provoked him. Nor, have we been told how long it was before the biting squirrel incident occurred.

As it turned out, the discussion developed such that trying to negotiate a consensus on the nature of punishment, was only partially successful for lack of time; but it did seem to get the audience to recognize the complexity of the notion of punishment and the issues of justice and cruelty that were pertinent to them.

Dirty Words and Obscene Implications.

Ten or so years ago I went into a Whole Foods market to get something. Behind me came a man and woman perhaps ten to fifteen years older than I was. Music was playing softly in the background. I heard Bob Dylan singing Lay Lady Lay in a strangely deep voice. It was the first time I had ever heard the song. It sounded erotic to me, but not unusually so. Here's what happened next.
The couple behind me (call them "the Smiths") stopped, shuddered and hurriedly went back outside. They seemed to be agitated. Mr. Smith came back alone and said to a cashier, "I have to talk with the manager." The cashier called another man, who came and asked how he could help.

Mr. Smith protested, "Don't you hear what they're singing on that record. I can't bring my wife in here with that garbage playing! Turn if off!"

The presumed manager said, "Look, I'm only the assistant manager. The manager's home sick today. And I have no authority to change the music piped into our store."

"Well, then," said Mr. Smith. "We certainly cannot stay to shop in a store that plays pornography!"And out he went.
We ought not dismiss this as an ephemeral example of the sexual "hang-ups" of "old fogies." So let's extend our attention to other areas of present-day controversy. Often we are chided, often quite vehemently, not to "speak evil," i.e. not to use dismissive or biased terminology in discussing people. This caution often occurs in attempts to acculturate not only non-English speaking immigrants but also native-born Americans to settle conflicts between and within their different groups. Issues of conflict are often not only terminological but also racial and gender-related.

Speak No Evil, Teach No Evil, Mention No Evil?

Back in the '70's I got a position in a Philadelphia Junior School (grades 7-9) teaching in and "coordinating" an ESOL program. (ESOL means English to Speakers of Other Language."Coordinating" means "a lot more responsibility, some little blandishment, no extra remuneration.")

The school had a regularly assigned officer from the city Police Department, whose presence and quick access to reinforcements kept the turbulence in the school to a generally non-threatening minimum. But violent incidents were not infrequent.

The 1200 students assigned to the school -- built for 600 -- were a mixture of 30% neighborhood kids, and bused-in others. The neighbor kids were those White kids not attending local Catholic schools. The bused-ins, not neighborhood kids, were about half African-American and half Hispanic. My program served about 100 immigrants from several nations whose English language skills ranged from almost nothing to American 2nd-grade-level.

Conflicts between different student groups of boys were usually along ethnic lines; although, infrequently, when Cupid crossed such barriers, girls would fight ferociously, too. Exceptions to the general ethnic bellicosity were the ESOL students.

After a few years I started running presentations for the faculty and other staff on cultural difference and cross-cultural and ethnic conflict. Attendance was fine, since I was given time from the regular schedule of Wednesday afternoon faculty meetings. Few absented themselves. No one from outside school came in.

Then I announced that I would hold a session on vulgar and obscene words that our Hispanic boys, in particular, used to insult each other, and occasionally, staff and faculty. The use of such language was an issue because it often provoked student fights or faculty upset. (Once the students inclined to use such language found out that I knew Spanish, they never confronted me with "bad words", especially as I would contact their parents if they persisted.)

On the afternoon of the meeting, at 2:30 PM, our school library, which could comfortably hold about 50 adults, was packed full (SRO) with close to 100 people others standing out in the hall. I did not recognize many of those visitors (but some seemed to be parents of our charges).

I was a little concerned that not being members of our staff nor a teacher, the extra people would not understand what I was doing, especially when I repeated the kind of language that "their kids," regularly used. "Their kids" they held to be, maybe, occasionally "mischievous," but really deep down "merely somewhat immature, not intending any harm. (For some "kids," I thought otherwise, having been a school disciplinarian for several years.)

I announced to the audience that I was going to review the most frequently used improper and/or obscene language commonly heard throughout the school. I would give them first in Spanish, then translate them into English. Then I would indicate the degree of offense they were considered to offer in various circumstances, e.g. talking to your peers as opposed to your parents, teachers or to strangers. The words would range from sexual crudities to ethnic slurs.

I then said, "You might find some of these words, especially in the English translation, to be offensive and inappropriate. If you feel you might be uncomfortable or upset, please take the next five minutes to leave the room and make space for someone standing out in the hall waiting to come in."

No one moved. No one so much as shifted their weight or moved a muscle. It seems as if they were holding their breath. I waited two minutes and then began: "The most frequent Spanish taboo word I have heard in our school is mama'o. It is formed from the verb mamear which means suck. The corresponding English word to mama'o has three syllables and means, one who performs fellatio.

I said the English word. Dead silence. Five long seconds passed. And then the reaction occurred...

To find out what happened and its consequences, see Philosophy, Race and Language: Conflicting Value Priorities )

--- EGR



[1] See Bob Dylan Lay Lady Lay Songfacts

[2] My junior high school gym teacher (Spring 1957, Vare JHS, Philadelphia, PA) very begrudgingly was set to teaching us ninth-graders "sex education" after it was made a school board policy emphasis. --EGR. See Doing Violence to 'Violence'

[3] Unless I am dealing with formalized languages, e.g. logic, mathematics or some general scientific theory, I avoid beginning with specialized definitions and trying to "deduce" suggestions for practical application. "High-level" theories normally do not enjoy broad recognition, much less consensus, outside of their specializations.

I used a formula to generate my case study examples, but it was not divulged to the audience until they had discovered most of it for themselves after the lecture during the discussion and development session. That formula was: Person P imposed a "treatment" T on another person V, for which P had a reason (for T}.

For a theory-first approach, see Rozycki, EG School Violence, Punishment, and Justice The concept of punishment used in the school violence article I took from Anthony Flew in S.I. Benn and R.S. Peters, The Principles of Political Thought (New York:Free Press, 1965) p. 202.

[4]For more on this procedure, Rozycki, EG Doing Ethics: concerns & procedures.

Also, for expanded instructions for case analysis, see A Library of MODEL CASES FOR ANALYSIS.

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