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Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Obscenities denote inappropriate behaviors, words or images. But what is obscene today may not be obscene tomorrow. During the Middle Ages, for example, words for body parts that we consider obscene today were in common use, including in anatomy books. Indeed, the John Wycliffe Bible (13th century) includes words that were all right to use then, but that we consider obscene today.
In fact, we can call the Victorian Era the Age of Euphemism, according to Melissa Mohr in her book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.” Words we consider innocent today shocked proper ladies and gentlemen.
Take trousers for example. No one, man or woman, uttered the word because it was judged obscene. Oh, not the garment itself, but what it covered: the unmentionables that everyone understood were but a thread away from exposure. Core believers in propriety, so the stories go, sewed trousers to cover furniture legs — another verboten word — so women would not be aroused by the sight of bare furniture legs.
Today, we are also prone to use euphemisms to avoid saying or doing something that offends. We use the pejorative term “politically correct” to minimize alienation of and discrimination against politically, socially or economically disadvantaged groups. You know the words.
Now, Paula Deen publicly admitted she said a bad word. Indeed, her career as a chef personality and spokesperson for many products is either over or severely damaged.
I do not and will not defend her, but I understand where she is coming from, or where she came from.
She is Southern-born and raised, 66 years old and, like me, was probably raised by parents who believed Jim Crow laws were sanctioned by God. My father was among them, and what he taught me regarding race, nationality, religion and politics I could never admit in public or private.
My beloved father was a racist through-and-through because what he believed to be true and right was not to be questioned. It was unimpeachable. He believed God intended human beings to live segregated.
Also, my maternal grandmother, a born and raised Northerner, agreed with him. She spouted terms for other races and nationalities that curled even his hair. He shuddered when she went off, but he also laughed. Northerners are and were as politically incorrect as Southerners, or Westerners, for that matter.
Here’s my point: No human being alive, or perhaps none who ever lived, is innocent of using a racial or ethnic obscenity — slur — sometime in her life. Deen’s burden is being famous. Many of her sponsors, including Food Network, Sears and Home Depot among others, have dropped her. Are they without sin? Can they cast that first stone? No. But, they could lose customers, so Deen is a victim of the bottom line.
Does that excuse her? No. But neither does it excuse any of us. We, too, are Paula Deen. Our protocol is and was born by customs of language that will take hundreds of years to erase, I believe. That is not an excuse, but it is a reason.
So I cannot condemn her any more than I can condemn my father and grandmother — or the Founders of our nation, many of whom were slave-holders.
My father and grandmother, and millions of their generations and ours, were people of their times. I have to cut Deen slack and say, admitting my own guilty past, “Go and sin no more.”
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