Monday, December 5, 2016

Here a Cuck, There a Cuck. Everywhere a Cuck-Cuck

As anyone who's ever read Shakespeare knows, our concept of cursing has changed over time. Ol' Bill's plays are full of quaint zingers like "zounds" and "'slid," themselves bowdlerizations of equally perplexing phrases like "God's wounds," and "God's eyelid."

Part of the issue is a natural erosion of what constitutes offensive language. As David Milch has said numerous times, if he'd made the characters in Deadwood talk like actual 19th Century roughnecks, they'd sound like Yosemite Sam. What shocked people back then is mild to us today. To make his characters feel as uncouth as they would've in their period, Milch and his writers had to upgrade "damnation" to "cocksucker".

But this also indicates a second, broader issue -- the categories which offend us change over time. From Shakespeare's day until the early 20th Century, profanity--taking God's name in vain and wishing people to Hell--was every bit as bad as vulgarity--the Seven Words You Can't Say on Television--but since the '60s, religious cursing has been majorly downgraded. Nowadays "go to Hell" is only offensive for the sentiment, while "oh my God," won't raise eyebrows from anyone but the most devout clergy members.

One way to think of it is to divide language into three classes--(A) that which can be used in polite company, (B) that which you can use around your friends but would never use at work or in front of your parents, and (C) that which is absolutely verboten. Back in the time of Deadwood, "God damn you," would've been in Class B, whereas telling someone to go fuck themselves would've earned you a broken nose at the very least. Most everything in Class C in the 19th Century is Class B today, and much of what would've been Class B back then is Class A today.

Some might argue that this is a sign of our enlightenment--that we've thrown off the shackles of Victorian prudery and are no longer beholden to the view that there are words that shouldn't be said; others would say the exact opposite--that our acceptance of such coarse language is a sign of modern depravity.

They're both wrong.

Just as one piston in a car never goes up unless another one comes down, so too growing acceptance of vulgarity has been accompanied by the establishment of new taboos. But whereas the old taboos focused on the sexual and excretory, the modern taboos focus on insults about someone's identity. Racial epithets are the most obvious, but derogatory terms about sexual orientation and gender are rapidly taking on the same stigma, as are terms like "retard" and "cripple" that a few decades ago could be thrown about in casual conversation, even in public.

Which brings us to the term "cuck". Those who've been following the emergence of the Alt-Right over the last few years have long since grown accustomed to the term, but it's started leaking into the mainstream this year thanks to our most esteemed and revered soon-to-be Maximum Leader. The word derives from "cuckold," one of those great SAT words that's teetered on the brink between obscurity and archaicness for decades, preserved mainly because authors like to throw it into their books despite the fact that nobody's used it in actual conversation since 1908. A "cuckold" is a man who's wife is cheating on him, and especially one whose wife has been impregnated by another. The term derives from cuckoos and their habit of laying eggs in some other bird's nest, thus absolving themselves of the responsibility of parenthood.

If that were all there was to it, "cuck" would make a great addition to our vocabulary, even if it did come out of neo-Fascism. It's short, begins and ends with harsh consonants, and its meaning is insulting without treading on taboo areas. Frankly, it's amazing Chaucer or Shakespeare didn't invent it.

But of course, nobody on the Alt-Right is even half as smart as Chaucer or Shakespeare. They didn't actually come up with the word. Instead, they stole it from porn. Cuck videos are more or less what you would expect--a woman has sex with one guy while her boyfriend watches (often forced to watch) or sits obliviously in the next room. But there's a wrinkle--most cuck videos are interracial, with a black dude stealing a white chick from a white dude. And if you listen to how the Alt-Right deploys the word, that racial connotation is absolutely intended. They use "cuck" in an almost sociological sense--a cuck isn't just a guy who's too wimpy to keep his girlfriend satisfied; he's a guy who's standing idly by as black men grab up all the white women, thus tacitly condoning "white genocide" (another favorite term from the Alt-Right). The implication, of course, is that if you don't want to be a cuck, you need to posse-up and ride out to serve justice on black men, like something out of Birth of a Nation.

So, where does that put "cuck" on the continuum of acceptable language? The plain meaning is no worse than "bastard," and it's not something any television network would censor, though the similarity to other, harsher words might get you funny looks if you used it in public. But that racial tinge suggests we should treat it the same way we would n----r, s--c or k--e. The problem is that most people aren't aware of the baggage the word carries. To them, it just appeared in conversation one day, de novo. Americans are horrible at understanding coded racism--there are still people who don't see anything wrong with "welfare mother"--and explaining how "cuck" relates to white supremacy is going to end in rolled eyes and mutters about "hypersensitive liberals".

There's also the temptation to turn the word around and use it against the Alt-Right--to say, "Who's the cuck now, huh?" every time Trump sells them out. If they're not going to abide by civilized discourse, why should we?

Well, there is the fact that we're the ones fighting for the maintenance of civility. We don't want to be like the soldier in Vietnam who said, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." If your enemy attacks you with mustard gas and small pox, you don't respond with your own CBW weapons--you prepare a war crimes tribunal. Convincing people that "cuck" should be a taboo term might be a bridge too far at this point, but we can still fight its normalization. Instead of trying to declare cuck beyond the pale, we treat it as the ad hominem insult it is, and mock those who use it for resorting to childish name calling. Remember, Internet arguments are a spectator sport; the point isn't to convince your opponent that he's wrong, but to convince those who are watching the argument unfold. If you treat "cuck" as a stupid, immature insult, even without explaining why, the people around you will get the idea, and they'll look askance anytime they encounter an Alt-Righter using the word.

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