Back in January, a student politician at McGill University in Montreal was forced by his own organization, the students' society, to issue an apology and attend "sensitivity training" after he circulated, online, a comedy clip from The Tonight Show that purported to show Barack Obama losing his temper. The student had titled his message: "Honestly midterms get out of here."
This was deemed to have subtly racist overtones. It was a "microaggression," one of those slights that even well-meaning people can unconsciously inflict on minorities or those with less privilege.
The extensive ridicule of this overreaction forced the student society to backtrack: It conceded last week that the disciplinary action had only served to trivialize real racism. But the sociologists' language – microaggression and its attendant sins, microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidation – is entrenched in the university environment. One must look out for microaggressions just as one must look out for and issue warnings against "triggers" – stories or images that might remind someone of their own previous trauma.
I know in my own professional environment there is more attention paid to the gender overtones of certain words: To call an opponent "hysterical" is to display the deepest misogyny; even "lightweight" has been deemed a sexist term in some debates. Sensitivity to language is understood to be the foundation of progress itself.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that a film to be released this weekend promises a great deal of gleeful inverse pleasure: It is a movie all about the joys of frank insults. A run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy, simply enough called Bad Words, is already intriguing critics because of its amusingly hateful protagonist, a 40-year-old guy who swears alarmingly at children and delivers caustic sexism and racism at every adult who tries to caution him.
Nobody is yet saying it's a great film – reviews blame it for a sentimental ending (see Robert Everett Green's take in The Globe's Film section today). But its nastiness is taboo-breaking. It concerns an adult man who finds a loophole that enables him to enter a national children's spelling bee (he has never completed Grade 8, so is technically eligible). When he first meets, on an airplane, the nine-year-old kid of South Asian descent who will become his sidekick, he tells him to turn his "curry-hole" around or he'll tell the captain his bag is ticking. Later, he calls him "slumdog." The kid, improbably, is charmed by the abuse. The idea is that he is delighted by honesty in a hypocritical world – it's an Emperor's New Clothes thing.
The anti-hero (played by Jason Bateman, who also directed the film) says worse things to women who try to defend the innocent children from his viciousness. He tells a protective mom to stuff her son "up that old blown-out sweat sock of a vagina." You could call it macroaggression.
The New York Times has called the movie a "feature-length blue streak," and said this kind of film engages "the secondhand pleasures that are supposed to come from irresistibly disreputable characters engaging in socially unacceptable behaviour." Others will, no doubt, call it old-fashioned white male conservatism.
I'm more interested in what it says about the failings of contemporary language. For every repression, there will be an ugly byproduct; for every tube squeezed tight, there will be a sticky rupture. Linguistic taboos start early and are always useless and hypocritical. My child is taught in school that we don't say "stupid"; it's mean. But he hears mummy and daddy talking every day about the stupid weather and the stupid dishwasher. His favourite word is poop. The only argument I have against its constant repetition is that it is unimaginative: There are so many worse things to call me than poophead. I have a feeling that the best way to encourage a delight in language is to expose its wriggling dark side.
Finding fantastic insults is an excellent reason to read Shakespeare, for example. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal calls Falstaff clay-brain'd guts, knotty-pated fool, greasy tallow catch and a huge hill of flesh. That's because he's fat, which is really mean.
The great literary traditions of competitive insulting date back to Norse legend. Gods and heroes in those epics regularly engage in flights of poetic taunts. This is known as "flyting." A well-known example is between Beowulf and the thane Unferth, who deride each other to get themselves worked up for battle.
Flyting continued as a part of English literature until the 16th century; it is found in Chaucer and Shakespeare. It became a form of public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th century; kings even hired court flyters to insult them.
Similar in function is the African-American tradition of The Dozens, a competition involving the exchange of witty put-downs that came to inform much standup comedy and rap music. (All the "your mother is so fat …" jokes come from this pastime.)
Tom Howell, the author of The Rude Story of English, is an expert in the history of poetic derision. His book even contains a "Primer on Ritual Scottish Insults." I asked him why we need bad words and he said, in an e-mail: "Bad words work like horror movies – they tap into deep fears without actually putting you in danger, and your brain responds by dispensing a shot of painkiller, a bit like how a laugh works." He says that medieval flyting was a cerebral tradition and one that is not enjoyable to a contemporary consciousness. "But I think what flyting and Dozens both have to recommend them is the crescendo. They're both musical, rhythmic, and can go on indefinitely – sort of a tantric approach to swearing." See – bad words as sex. I knew Tom could make it cool.
Note that in all cases, competitive insulting is held to be an art. The goal is to display superior verbal agility and originality. Participants win through wit.
Wit does not, of course, have to be racist or sexist. But it's no surprise that a lot of contemporary comedy finds its humour in creative insult at a time when rudeness is seen to be so politically powerful, such a fearsome instrument of oppression, that it must be completely eradicated from educated society.