The Case of the Disappearing ‘North Korea’ T-Shirts
According to the FCC, the MPAA, and other gilt Commercial Language Regulators, the boundaries separating Allowed and Not Allowed are very clear. George Carlin’s immortalized Seven Dirty Words (shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits, incase you were wondering) do well to criticize the line, but erasing it is a whole other matter. Some of the more reactive TV and radio shows, bands, movies, and other regulated entities do a well-enough job pushing the boundaries, but what they do is all merely antithetical. You can only get a kick out of the word ‘fuck’ if the Church Lady is in the room. Outside of that space, cussing is as American as a apple pie.
While I was institutionalized/in college (earning my overpriced and still-useless English degree), hopped up on egoism and philosophical contrivance, one of my extracurricular activities was trying to appropriate the true essence of foul language. Not The Foulest Word, but the actual Essence of Foulness that excretes itself onto certain words and terms, effectively jettisoning them to the outer limits of cultural and linguistic sanctity. This is a patient, slow-moving, and silent force. Words become filth over generations of abuse, eventually relinquishing their positions to younger, more effective, and more abrasive creatures. Foulness pervades. One generation’s fuck is the next generation’s cunt, and so on.
Because we are so childish with our treatment of the taboo, it seemed to me that there was no word or phrase so foul that it couldn’t be written on a t-shirt. In fact, in an our age of bloated commoditization, there is no word or phrase so foul that, if printed on a shirt, the t-shirt wouldn’t sell. If marketed right, you could sell a thousand shirts that say, perhaps, ‘Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck‘ or ‘Cum Fairy.’ Even the notorious ‘N-word’ is not totally off limits.
Of course, shirts of this ilk are marketed to the masses of self-proclaimed pot stirrers and mall-shopping badasses; the kind of people who also buy ‘offensive’ keychains and ‘hilarious’ bumper stickers. The more erudite crowd, while perhaps sympathetic to this type of apostasy, is usually content to slope its gaze down the bridge of its nose at this juvenile exhibitionism and limit its subversion to the confines of the lecture hall on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
There are a few cultural critics who, following the same path walked by George Carlin, do well to fight this absurd, neo-Puritanical treatment of language. But still, it’s all antithetical – or so I thought.
And then, I wondered: what words and phrases, though not censored by the FCC or the MPAA or the Legions of Self-Persecuted Politically Correct, still have the potential to be offensive? I thought of all of the conversation in the news media and across my college campus about the Axis of Evil, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, the Demilitarized Zone, Nuclear Threat and other Sources of Anxiety. Even in the microcosm of the University, these public issues were/are incredibly volatile and often polarizing. Whole friendships were made and lost as a result of where so-and-so stands on such-and-such. To set fire to a room, you don’t need matches, you just need to say, ‘Israel and Palestine’ and watch the flames fan themselves.
What would people think of a shirt that says ‘Iraq?’ What if it was printed in all-capital, plum-colored letters on a turquoise shirt (going for the inoffensive Easter motif)? How would people react? The word itself isn’t offensive, but perhaps seeing it printed irreverently across someone’s chest might somehow endow with this elusive Foul Essence. It could be interpreted a number of ways: perhaps I supported the war in Iraq, perhaps I am pro-Iraq, perhaps I am pro-pre-war-Iraq, perhaps I am pro-post-war-Iraq. Perhaps IRAQ is actually an acronym for a fruit company? Indulgent Raisins And Quinces, Inc.? I thought the color scheme lent itself to the ambiguity, so I printed a few shirts, sold a few of them, and supposedly sated my callow taste for irony.
Generally, the shirt garnered a few disconcerted looks and some wry smiles. Most people saw it as an experiment in provocation, but appreciated its import (whatever its import might have been). However, I didn’t see any of the red faces or screaming matches that I expected. I was still young at the time, and still feeling bitter. I thought that stirring the pot would satisfy my taste for antagonization, or possibly even justify it.
So it went: someone might wear a shirt that says ‘Iraq.’ It would make sense, even if was an ambiguous sort of sense. What political term would be even more taboo, and more ambiguous?
Like Iraq, it’s another incidental member of the Axis of Evil, it’s guilty of various human rights violations, it takes itself very seriously, and it’s a hot-button political issue. So I applied the same formula: I wrote it in all capital letters, I chose some strong, non-matching colors (eggplant t-shirt, sky blue letters), and I printed a few shirts. Whereas the company who printed them was patient with the Iraq t-shirt order, they sent me the box of the NK almost overnight, without invoice or receipt (as if they were ashamed to have been the people who printed them).
Initially excited, when I opened the box, I felt a kind of reserve. I thought, I can’t wear a shirt like this. I ventured out into public a few times with the IRAQ t-shirt, but I felt that wearing a NORTH KOREA would have symbolized something different altogether. Had I just discovered this Foul Thing?
I tried to show the shirts to a few of my outspoken classmates, but even they shied away from this one. I also made the mistake of discussing the shirt with an ex-Army friend of mine who had been deployment in South Korea. Though his time served was mostly uneventful, he nonetheless had a string of choice words for me, and I soon realized that I had crossed the line. I boxed the shirts away and buried them deep in my closet, soon forgetting about them.
Does a word attribute meaning to itself? If not, from where does that meaning derive? We treat some words as sacred and others as profane. But aren’t words just collections of sound? Does that mean the sounds themselves are sacred or profane? Some think so, but the diversity of language shows that this can’t be the case. Meaning must derive from elsewhere; some other reality. Clearly politics and history play a role in assigning profanation to language (nazi, pogram, gulag, ghetto, female circumcision, euthanasia, etc.), but can politics and history rightly be called ‘real,’ or are of the same stuff as the Essence of Foulness? Real in an analogical sense; but even then, analogical for what?
It’s clear we’re not talking about language anymore. We’re trying to get outside of it. Beyond it. Clearly the term ‘North Korea’ is not offensive on its own. Clearly no word is offensive on its own. Of course, ‘offensive’ isn’t the right word here, either (look, now I’m tripping over myself). Perhaps it is the way we say things and the context in which we say them that creates or arouses a word’s supposed ‘meaning.’ My ironic representation of the word ‘North Korea’ is what rendered it profane. It’s what made it a dirty word. It’s what made NORTH KOREA un-t-shirtable.
The problem with censorship is that it assumes that a certain word or phrase (or image or sound) is itself ‘offensive’ or ‘dirty’ in all contexts. Censorship also makes the condescending, moralistic determination that Everyone Else can’t learn or realize for themselves what is and is not fitting. Language is more slippery than that. Sometimes it fits, and sometimes it doesn’t. We don’t control language because language itself constitutes the idea of control. We learn to use it, to play with it, and to use it wisely (like fire). As the managing editor of a independent publishing company, I say – in full confidence – that this is something we are always aiming to do; to use it wisely.
The rest of what we do is cope with our own irascible versions of the Church Lady; or, in a recent frenzy of closet purgation, I re-discovered this goddamn box of t-shirts and have no fucking clue what the fuck to do with them.
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