Humour, Obscenity, and Localized Globalization(s)

The previous post, meant as a humorous educational exercise caused me to reflect on some of the conflicted tendencies contained within it, both on my part and the part of Trinidadians with different perspectives, personal histories, and social class backgrounds, and I am thankful for the messages that were posted, and those sent in private, both serious and tongue-and-cheek.

There are those who will assert that “the Trinidadian way” is one that frowns upon any public coarseness, and identifies obscene language and its spread through the mass media with the process of Americanization. Indeed, as Americanized as the mass media may be in Trinidad & Tobago, there were always local interpretive filters at work that kept things “in their proper place.” Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless was reinterpreted as a hero, not a villain, a true “smart man” who knew all the right tricks and always came out on top. Despite the abundance of American media inputs, Trinidadians (unlike many if not most Canadians) retain a different way of speaking English, different accents, a different lexicon. While many older generation Trinidadians, especially urban Afro-Trinidadians, carry notably British names–Ian, Kelvin, Selwyn, Evelyn, Lionel, Luther, etc.–and younger Afro-Trinidadians may carry Africanized names, it is still almost impossible to find Trinidadians with white American names broadcast through the media. One can still find many Trinidadians with Spanish, French, and Corsican-Italian names, not to mention Middle Eastern and a vast number of East Indian names. There is virtually nobody in Trinidad named Nancy, Hannah, Britney, Ashley, Kate, and none of the American short forms such as Bill, Pete, Bob, Bobby, Al, Jim, Jack, or Chuck. The idea of a Trinidadian called “Chuck” is almost laughable since it would be so “unusual” and “out of place.” Charlo, on the other hand, as a short form of Charles, might be more common.

The point here is that the use of the word “fuck” is seen by many Trinidadians as the height of coarseness. Having used this word in conversations myself with Trinidadians — not all the time, please — I noticed how some would cringe, wince, and turn their heads away — “too much nastiness.”

What my previous post might do then is to act as yet another forceful North American intrusion and imposition, in the name of anti-colonialism. But that is only side of the story, and it ends up being much more complicated than this.

Some Trinidadians, especially those who in the previous post were taken to court, will argue that it is old-fashioned Afro-Saxon middle class snobbishness that raises any concern about “foul” language. Some will note–generalizing of course–that terms such as those used in the previous post are commonly to be heard from urban working class Afro-Trinidadians and lumpen proletarian types, as well as those of East Indian ancestry, and can spill across class and status borders (note the cases where a police constable is accused of obscene language, while himself accusing the person he arrested of obscene language; the Member of Parliament who was charged; and, the courts themselves, which replay this illegal language in the very maintenance of legality).

The argument that may be made here is that those who would charge anyone for using “obscene language” in “public” are reinforcing Victorian colonial ideas of public order and decorum, another foreign imposition, another manifestation of a much older and longer lasting form of globalization, that known as colonialism. We have a battle then between the two localized variants of two historical phases of globalization, which takes the form of a contest between “high culture” and “low culture.”

The maintenance of putatively local values as noted in the previous section then becomes instead an exercise in localized, internalized, domesticated colonialism.

So we have two contending sets of globalization and locality. We have domesticated Victorian colonialism mapped onto an Afro-Saxon middle class which touts its values as “Trinidadian” (because with time they have in fact become a firm part of the local cultural landscape, without a doubt) versus American cultural globalization (taking the form of Rap), not mapped onto but coincident with the habits of certain “low classes” and “slack” individuals, as “local” and as “national” as those Trinidadians above. What is funny and customary for one side is an alien intrusion or gross vulgarity for another side.

What I was conscious of, in terms of my position, but did not let tie my hands (or my tongue), was that all sides in this local debate with global backdrops would agree that a white, foreign, professor should never say “fuck” — it’s not proper, it’s not professional, and it’s kind of troubling. Well, it’s not “professional,” I can agree on that point, but even filth has its place.

P.S.: Coincidentally, on the same day that “fuck” appears in a post, traffic to this blog exploded. Between that post, and “the Yanomami controversy”, I may have stumbled upon a recipe for increased traffic…but I am not adventurous nor foolish enough to look for a combination of the two.