Obscenity is reductive, which reduces men to equality and humbles the mighty. The fool becomes the king, the whore a preacher, and rigid hierarchy is muddled. Everyone’s place evens out to the same level through the removal of rank and wealth. This is used to strip men bare, removing their robes and crowns, and leaving them naked and too similar.
Through obscenity, a satirist can push further and drop us into our true animalistic conditions, where claims to social and divine powers makes a character seem more ridiculous. We have no heroes, no leaders, no one better than anyone else. It mocks what we often hold as more important than individual thoughts and feelings.
Some may confuse obscenity with simply using foul language or pornography, but it more closely shows the treatment of a subject by pushing boundaries against taboos and puritanical thought. Those very things that restrict us from our most basic natures and limit society’s progression through the folly of righteousness.
Obscenity preceded satire and comedy in Greek and Roman festivals where phallic songs and rude verses were sung. But the most famous use of it in satire was Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and his ability to horrify his audience with the idea of using the poor as a means of producing more affordable meat through eating their young. The suggestion was not a serious one, but an extreme to make a point—something must be done to keep people from starving, and he was sick of having his genuine ideas ignored, so he relied on the atrocity of the idea to gain attention for the problem.
More modernly, South Park is the front-runner for pushing the bounds of societal commentary through vulgar speech and offensive material. The use of obscenity as a vehicle to create deep, analytical thought is often lost on audiences who cling to the puritanical rules placed within our varying cultures. But pushing past their use of shit and fart jokes, they open us to create dialogues on wider issues concerning censorship, as with their episodes surrounding the use of swearing or images of Muhammad on television. Check out this video if you’d like a more in-depth explanation about how South Park addresses these issues.
Censorship has always been a big deal for me as an individual and a writer, and may be one of the bigger reasons why I love to read and write satire. I’ve been punished for my foul language by authorities my entire life—I was that kid that got written up for saying fuck on the bus in kindergarten, and first grade, and second, third, fourth, and fifth. I learned to keep it to myself by sixth. Yeah, I was slow on the uptake there, or maybe, I rebelled against people telling me that I had no right to control what came out of my own mouth.
Man, I sound like Ria.
This links more heavily to my on-going battle with conformity, both in my novels and in my life. As someone who has been bullied for my hair, my weight, my opinions, and my ideas, I cling to obscenity like a demented twin sister who loves to get me in trouble. My foul language does not make my intelligence or my arguments any less sound. Although it certainly makes them more colorful.
Again, Ria is the same, dropping f-bombs to make her uptight mentor flinch. Got to fight the man in any way she’s allotted, and she’s unapologetic for being herself. I wish I was more like her, but fiction allows a wider line than reality does since I can get fired for saying certain things in my classroom—or people might rebel if I expressed my every opinion in public.
Essentially, the use of obscenity allows us to create a visceral reaction in others in hopes that they will examine not only the ideas placed before them, but their reactions, their cultures, and their own behaviors in hopes of progressing thought and reducing us all to the same base note: that we’re all simply human.
Do you use obscenity in your writing? Let me know in the comments below.