A calypsonian in a twin-cab truck slows down alongside a moving car and cusses its occupants upside down. Words to the effect: “X, Y you and your Z!…Don’t you know who I am?” (My version, condensed for brevity and the continued survival of this column).
A politician occupying high office (in a previous administration) walks up to a woman journalist and asks her: “Who you X with to get dat story?” Another one, not yet anywhere near public office, suggests he knows about the intimate life of a journalist and launches a personal attack on her that’s described by one group as “vile and hate-filled ”.
There are so many others, entirely culpable enablers, in the jeering crowd who shout insults and vulgarities at others at the top of their voices then crouch and disappear as unrecognisable members of the horde. Social media and talk radio provide such convenient cover. That’s why strategies to combat what is now popularly described as “hate speech” are the focus of people like me not despite, but because of our commitment to freedom of expression.
Hate speech, you see, employs the cover of “free speech” in order to bully and to stifle dissenting voices. Don’t be fooled, the objective of people who do this is to silence you, not to display an ability to express themselves freely. Such is the nuance and the delicacy of the issue. That is what the “fake news” declaration against mainstream media is mainly about.
That insult directed at the journalist is not meant to advise on errant behaviour, but to shut her up. To silence her voice. To get her off the air. It is not random irresponsibility. It is conscious and contrived. Had this not been the case, there would have been no need to resort to concerted ad hominem attack.
That said, somewhere and somehow along the way, we also appear to have normalised crudity and vulgarity as characteristic of the mode of public discourse.
Some of us have lived to witness the transition from the artful and clever to the crass and vulgar as the method employed to communicate sharp retorts or to deliver social commentary.
They did not start it, but I believe that a few calypsonians in the tents of the 1980s reflected some of the descent, albeit with the boisterous approval of nameless, faceless audiences. “Kaiso! Kaiso!”
I have spoken with a few entertainers about this, and they tend to agree that somewhere along the way it became par for the course to resort to artless commentary on public issues as a substitute for the clever turn of phrase or witty double entendre. Some speak more openly about it now, because they have paid a high price for the folly of their peers via a decline in the fortunes of calypso tents that are only now recovering.
But this was already happening in the public space. The errant calypsonians were simply employing a licence they believe had been validated by politicians and other opinion leaders. For, by the time the tents had reached rock bottom in popularity, one MP had already called another a “slut” across the floor.
Somebody called my son the “n” word the other day and I have been described by derogatory reference to the “c” word. My mother was no prude, but it took us a while to be able to use the word “ass” around her, and “n” and “c” were as bad as the “f” word.
My puritanical school principal grandfather, whom I never heard use a single cuss word, was the one who first told me about the oratorical skills of the late UK prime minister Winston Churchill.
It was Churchill who once famously said of his Labour Party predecessor, Ramsay MacDonald: “We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.”
Today, in our land, we simply pull up in obnoxious, oversized trucks and cuss your X, Y, and Z.