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NONFICTION

Talking Up a Crude %*@# : BLUE STREAK: Swearing, Free Speech, and Sexual Harassment. By Richard Dooling (Random House: $24, 178 pp.)

August 18, 1996|David Shaw | David Shaw, who writes about the media for The Times, is the author of "The Pleasure Police: How Bluenose Busybodies and Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Taking All the Fun Out of Life" (Doubleday)

Richard Dooling is an attorney who specializes in employment discrimination cases. He is also a novelist. The proclivities born of both these pursuits are, unfortunately, too much in evidence in this peculiar little book.

I was predisposed to like the book, having been a longtime aficionado of obscene, four-, 10- and 12-letter imprecations myself. (My sister recently said the primary criterion she had used in determining the guest list for a dinner party she gave me was the invitees' likely tolerance for what she quaintly termed my "crudeness.")

Indeed, there is much in "Blue Streak" to delight, confirm and enlighten any devotee of the (un)deleted expletive. Dooling discusses the linguistic origins of our most forbidden words, and he is especially insightful when he examines the taboo factor inherent in the resistance to those words.

"Obscenity is an artificially created product," he says, quoting Allen Walker Read, author of "The Obscenity Symbol." Certain words are regarded as vulgar, he argues, solely because we have arbitrarily chosen to make them so, not because of any intrinsic vulgarity in the configuration of their letters.

In our culture, so-called "obscene" words occupy the Place of the Unutterable that in other cultures is filled by the names of kings, gods, emperors and animals.

"In parts of West Africa," Dooling writes, "the word for 'snake' is never used. . . . [Ancient] Hebrews never allowed God's name to pass their lips. . . . The saying 'Speak of the devil' comes from the belief that if you spoke Satan's name, he would promptly answer the summons."

In most cultures, specific words and phrases are forbidden out of either fear or reverence, but with "obscene" words--almost all of them involving sex or excretion--there is only "the titillating thrill of scandalized perturbation," Dooling says, again quoting Read.

Dooling provides an excellent summary and analysis of major court decisions on obscenity, including the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a 1971 California case, that "the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us." Indeed, the court warned, "governments might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular ideas."

But lawyer Dooling wanders far afield when he tries to graft onto his reasonable discussion of swearing a criticism of the extremist position on sexual harassment.

Dooling is quite right to ridicule claims that the display of a Playboy calendar or a TV commercial featuring bikini-clad divers amounts to sexual harassment. And he is on equally solid ground when he points out the inconsistency between the valid feminist position that "romantic paternalism" in the workplace is just another form of sexism in the workplace and the revisionist-extremist feminist position that women need special legal protection from any reference to or depiction of sex or sexuality "in any way, shape or form" in the workplace or anywhere else.

But contrary to what Dooling seems to think, there is far more real sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, than most men are willing to admit, and a book on swearing seems an odd place to try to debunk that sad reality. Dooling gives evidence of being something of a sexist himself, especially when he makes such observations as, "Swearing is becoming illegal in the workplace precisely because men do it more than women. And women find it offensive, in the same way men can't stand nagging."

Huh? Does anyone, regardless of gender, like being nagged? And who but a sexist would suggest that women are inherently more likely to nag than men are?

The author also argues--preposterously--that "the details of male-on-male 'harassment' are much worse" than those involving women but that men "live with it" or "respond in kind" while women whine and file lawsuits.

Dooling the novelist falls into even more traps than does Dooling the lawyerly sexist. He is, in a word, fanciful, inventing bizarre scenarios that would seem more appropriate in a work of fiction than in this essay bloated (barely) to book length.

According to him, "Bawdy limericks were responsible, at least in part, for the success of the American colonies in achieving their independence from King George III." (Lenny Bruce was really George Washington in a previous life?)

The most bizarre section of the book, however, is the chapter devoted almost entirely to excrement. Not only does Dooling provide a detailed etymology of the word "shit," but he somehow links both the process and the product involved therein to virtually every human activity, from art and religious worship to sex and fishing.

"Writers are especially anal," Dooling says, "because their creations sully white pages with black matter."

Well, yes. But that brings to mind the response of Max Reger, the turn-of-the-century German composer, on reading a critic's commentary on one of his symphonies. Reger wrote back:

"I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review in front of me. In a moment, it will be behind me."

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