By Barry Cronin
I n her response to my May column titled “Making the case for judicial profanity,” fellow columnist Amy Roost makes her own case that offensive language can be defused.
“Taboo words are only assigned their stigma because society allows them to,” Amy wrote on a pomeradonews.com online post.
Good argument and one can accept the logic, to a point. I think most might still agree there remains an elite class of despicable words that will always reject any attempt at pacification.
“Fighting words” are another category of special words that should probably also be avoided. These are real words that one uses to provoke another into a fight by deliberately inciting rage or hostility. Undoubtedly many people subscribe to the “sticks and stones” philosophy, but our courts certainly do not, recognizing the genuine harmfulness of fighting words to the point they are excluded from First Amendment protection.
As kids growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we often used fighting words, usually provoking the inevitable fist fight. But it was not until my teenage years I experienced the true power of these words first hand. One unforgettable evening, I found myself toe-to-toe with a big Swedish kid, exchanging these words. A bit of advice for would-be scrappers: When things start getting ugly, best check the other fellow’s arms. If he has visible veins running down the middle of his biceps, it is a good idea to treat that lad with respect. This guy had vessels as thick around as pencils.
The next morning at breakfast, the old man complimented me on my swollen eyes, battered lips, and freshly bent nose and asked if I had learned anything.
“Don’t start trouble?” I suggested.
Father smiled. It was a good response. In retrospect, “Don’t use fighting words” would have worked equally well. After a few more private sessions at the hands of pugilists more skillful than I, the lesson finally sunk in: Fighting words come with real consequences. Probably best not to just fling them about carelessly.
Fast forward to the digital age. Not long ago, I was reading an online account of some recent event and decided to peruse a few of the attached comments. They started out reasonably enough, but in short order degenerated into personal attacks, insults and actual threats of violence. This was not healthy and robust debate. America is, after all, a large and quarrelsome family and arguing is what we do.
I remember the sequence of events. First was the blinding flash of the obvious. “I recognize this! These are fighting words!” Then the questions. “Who are these people and why are they saying such hateful things to one other?” The answer was hardly an epiphany.
In the world of cyberspace, there are no consequences, no constraints, no Swedish giant perched astride your keyboard, fully prepared to fetch you a belt in the gob for recklessly launching electronic fighting words against some total stranger miles away. Keyboard warriors are free to write whatever they please.
For one thrilling moment, I contemplated joining in and composing my own furious response, but discovered that I could not. Like Pavlov’s dog, I instinctively recoiled from the keyboard, conditioned to avoid gratuitous fighting words, almost tasting again that all-too-familiar liquid metal flavor flowing through my mouth. For me, this was going to have to be a spectator sport only.
Reading through that dueling salvo of flaming digital rage, it was as though I were witnessing the “de-evolution” of my own species, fellow human beings becoming increasingly angry, crude, and stupid. Over nothing! It somehow brought to mind the story of Rapa Nui, a proud Polynesian civilization that, following the total deforestation of their land, devolved within a few generations into rival tribes of cave-dwelling cannibal raiders. In today’s digital age, that process of devolution has been accelerated from generations to the mere span of a few simple keystrokes.
Cronin is a Poway resident and the assistant police chief at MCAS Miramar. Reader comments, through letters to the editor or online at pomeradonews.com, are encouraged.