Posted by Bruce Miller
Writing about “offensive language” has the potential to be both dangerous and constructive. I vote for the latter. Some of you are more liberal than I, and may find this post to be prissy and/or quaint. Some of you are more conservative, and may be upset by what you’re likely to view as rationalization or misrepresentation. To one and all, I say this: I’ve written this carefully, intending all due respect to others who hold opinions different from mine. Every word was selected thoughtfully and is meant to be sincere. I’m not trying to rationalize, criticize, or look down upon anyone else’s beliefs. I hope not to have the last word, and welcome your comments.
Following that preamble, I will now begin to ramble.
To many if not most theatre artists, the subject of “offensive language” is simple. We don’t believe there is such a thing. No word, we believe, can be inherently offensive. Language is our medium. Find me the painter who is offended by a particular color. We celebrate and revere language, in all its variety, beauty, coarseness and power.
We are like Harry Potter. Let the rest of the wizarding community cower in the Dark Lord’s shadow, referring to him euphemistically as “you know who” or “he who must not be named.” We refuse to give darkness that power. We shout the name “Voldemort” out loud. And just like Harry, we sometimes get in trouble for it.
We may not believe that language is inherently offensive, but, unless we are fools, we are well aware that there are audience members who are offended by certain language. If we are pure artists—I am not one but I ask God to bless those who are—we relish this knowledge. Offend is a very useful instrument in our tool box, laying right there alongside amuse, titillate, anger, sadden, inspire, thrill, scare, energize and delight. Our job is to connect with audience members using every tool at our disposal. Why on earth would we be afraid to pick up offend? When an awl is called for, a carpenter reaches for his awl.
In Act III, Scene 2, Shakespeare famously has Hamlet deliver this advice to the players: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
In other words, the life we create on stage should accurately reflect the life we find in our world. The language featured in an on-stage scene reflecting the life of a ladies luncheon should sound one way; the language found in a theatrical portrayal of a fight in a soldier’s barracks should sound another. Were we to apply a filter that made the language in the barracks sound just the same as the language in the church parlor, we would be holding the mirror up not to nature, but to priggishness.
But let’s step back into that church parlor for a while. I love the peace, comfort and fellowship I find in my church’s parlor. I am a Christian—a quiet, introspective, “religious left” Presbyterian—a Christian nonetheless. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I’m not confident enough in my faith—my pride would prefer me to say not arrogant enough regarding my confidence—to proselytize. So I’m speaking personally, for whatever that’s worth.
Here’s what my Bible tells me about language:
from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapters 4 and 5 – “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. … Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving;”
from Paul and Timothy’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3 – “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips;”
from James’ letter to the twelve tribes, chapter 3 – “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be;” and
from the second letter of Simon Peter, chapter 2 – “For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.”
Also, of course, there’s the Ten Commandments, but most Biblical scholars agree that “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” refers more to false oaths than to profanity.
I accept all of these Biblical lessons and value their guidance as it relates to the way in which I personally speak to those around me. When I speak to others, I try mightily (not always successfully) to speak graciously and not to offend. But I do not believe these lessons relate directly to my calling as a theatre artist or as artistic director of Barksdale Theatre. My responsibilities in that realm, I believe, are to create theatrical productions that impact our community positively. And often the best way to have a positive impact is to honestly examine human behavior.
Consider the great variety of human behavior, and language, detailed in the Bible itself. As only one of scores of examples, no lesser light than the Apostle Paul uses scatalogical profanity when he’s trying to make a point. In Philippians 3: 7 through 9, Paul recounts and disavows his former prosperous life as a Pharisee (more about them momentarily).
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Please note in the above quote that itilicized word, rubbish. The word Paul actually wrote is skubala, which in Greek was the lowest, most coarse word for animal excrement, a word that appears frequently in the ancient graffiti found in archeological digs, a word more accurately translated as shit. All the profit and respect I gained as a righteous Pharisee, Paul states, doesn’t mean shit compared to the peace and strength I find in my Christian faith.
One of my favorite readings in the New Testament is found in Mark 7: 1-20. I recommend it to you. It is a complex passage which is near and dear to my heart. I will now, humbly, summarize it, inadequately I’m sure.
Jesus and his disciples (pictured in the Ottonian vellum panel to the right) were carrying out their mission of healing the sick and ministering to the poor. The Pharisees (one of the most influential, zealous and traditional religious parties operating during and after Jesus’s lifetime—see the reference to Paul above) saw the disciples eating with unwashed hands, in noncompliance with Jewish tradition. “So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with unclean hands?’”
Jesus replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Jesus then gives specific examples of how religious fundamentalists can, by demanding strict compliance with established religious laws and traditions, inadvertently “nullify the word of God.” He adds, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ … For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”
A contemporary corollary comes from a Baptist preacher whom I admire, although I don’t always agree with him. Tony Campolo (pictured to the left) began his famous sermon entitled The Positive Prophet with this: “I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
Whatever language is said from our stage, I'm confident that the purpose that comes from our hearts is free of “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and ...” All right, I confess to “folly.” The language on stage will not always be in compliance with religious law and tradition, because I believe that such compliance would cause us to “let go of the commands of God.” Here’s what I believe: whatever “uncleanliness” is perceived comes from the heart of the hearer, not from the heartfelt intentions of our humble, respectful company of fools.
Coming soon, Language – Part II (maybe even III), in which we shall discuss copyright law, the history of censorship, specific complaints we’ve received at Barksdale and Theatre IV, and other funny theatre stories.