Friday, June 19, 2009

Cursing, Iran, and Competition

Claude asks,

Why are expletives such as shoot/fudge/darn considered not vulgar? I understand a word like "cowabunga" being completely innocent (or am I wrong here?), but the only reason shoot/fudge/darn are used is because they are a variant of shit/fuck/damn. Why don't they have the same impact?
This is something I've thought about for a while. It is odd that we could use a word that is synonymous with another word in terms of its usage and yet is not interchangeable. I actually wrote a post that discussed this very question about three years ago. quoting from that post, curse words are empty vessels that we can use to express anything we want -- they don't have a meaning in and of themselves, but acquire one in the context of an utterance -- they do come from somewhere. They have been selected as the empty syllables we designate as culturally impolite because they used to refer to something and that something is usually either sexual, heretical, or scatalogical and we think that the process of explaining this etymological past will have to include ideas or concepts that are age inappropriate. We may not be saying anything that refers to fecal matter when we say, "Oh shit" because the first basement let that ground ball go through his legs, but we are indirectly referring to it and we don't want kids talking about poopies.

This would explain why it is ok to substitute for curse words and express the same thing. "Sugar" or "shoot" can be used for "shit"; "freaking" or "flipping" for "fucking"; "fudge" for "fuck"; "dang" or "darn" for "damn" -- the idea is that these words while homophonically similar are etymologically distinct. They sound like the curse they are standing in for and so it is clear when I hit my finger with a hammer and say "sugar," I wanted to say "shit" but couldn't because of the company. So "sugar" linguistically points to "shit" but doesn't carry the same cultural baggage because when we use it to refer to something, that something is a nice substance used in cookies and not what we do an hour after eating the cookies.

Along these lines, I've been fascinated with the phrase "the N word." Philosophers draw a distinction between using a word "Boston has fine restaurants" and mentioning a word "'Boston' has six letters." I can talk about a word without using it when I am discussing the symbol and not employing it to refer to anything. Yet, with the N-word, where the usage is problematic, even the mention has also becomes so and as such we have a euphemism that refers to the word that we can use to mention the word without mentioning it.

YKW asks,
"Who lost the election in Iran this week?"
Taking the question literally: While there is no exit polling, there does seem to be good reason to think Mousavi took the day. The demographics resemble our last presidential election where the conservative candidate had his strength among the rural and older voters while the moderate has his strength in the urban areas and among the younger and better educated. Like our election, the turn-out was extremely high, especially in terms of the youth vote. If I were to bet, I'd put my money on Mousavi.

Taking it metaphorically: The big loser is the Ayatollah Khamenei. He clearly said that if Ahmadinejad loses he loses and there is no one in Iran or out of it who does not think that there was not intentional tampering. For the religious leader of the nation to be seen as ethically compromised costs him his patina of moral authority, exactly what gives the unelected part of the Iranian ruling powers their legitimacy, undermines the bifurcated system that has been in place since the revolution.

Gwydion asks,
what's one thing that conservatives generally get right (by comparison to liberals)?
The power of competition. Oversimplifying, conservatives trust competition while liberals trust cooperation. Of course, both have their place, but liberals do underestimate how competition can be used to help all sorts of systems progress. For a very good examination of ways in which markets can be better and worse than cooperative institutions, read Cass Sunstein's Infotopia.