What does one say, as a reaction, to a sudden catastrophe? Or to an unpleasant situation? ‘Oh! S ***’! ‘Bloody Hell’! ‘Damn it’! Some might invoke more colourful words in the local lingo. Does this constitute a criminal liability? Can words import so much attention?
The law prohibits the use of certain derogatory words. The Scheduled castes (SC) must not be referred to by their birth, and punishment is severe. It is so not only in India. To address an American-African a ‘black’, is politically correct. But only a black can call another black, a ‘negro’.
In India, that is Bharat, to use a caste appellation is punishable only when someone from another (‘higher’) caste utters it. Intra-caste references are not justiciable because all of them must flow as gravity ordains it, from a ‘higher’, to a ‘lower’, caste. One question remains. With so many caste classifications, if say, ‘xxx’ is punishable when used by a non-SC person, would the same be the case if ‘xxx’ is said by a member of the SC, but of a slightly higher denomination, to someone lower down the pecking order? The use of expletives is another matter. ‘Bloody’ was considered profane, until someone came up with its etymology. It’s a short form of ‘Bless our Lady’ and ‘Bless the Lord’, they lamented. Right or wrong, it has now found common usage. So, unfortunately, has the ‘f’ word in daily parlance, but which still is, and will remain, verboten.
When problems arise, real or perceived, on the use of objectionable non-bon-mots, we tap the most human reaction of all. Pass a law. And that is exactly what the American state of Michigan did, in 1897, along with a caveat. Recognising that men being men, and that free speech among friends should be unfettered, swear words were geographically banned. The territorial jurisdiction began within the vicinity of women and children. ‘Earshot’ was the amplitudinal limit. Seventy-five years later, the infamous ‘expletive deleted’ Watergate tapes Nixonised profanity.
Hundred and one years passed. The law remained on the statute books. By then, Timothy Boomer had taken to canoeing. He selected a river, Rifle River. But he selected the wrong state; Michigan. As canoes and kayaks go, overturning is an occupational hazard. And Timothy took a hazard hit.
OMG. Rifle River hath seen no fury as a canoeist drenched. As water gushed out of his nose and ears, along came a volley of expletives—close to a mother and her two children. Either the family was too near, or the torrent (of words, not of the water) was a few decibels too high. They heard; Timothy was booked. You be the judge. Would you convict Timothy, wet and forlorn? Or let him off?
Guilty as charged, said the jury. Timothy faced 90 days in jail. Luckily, he got off with a small fine and just four days of social service. But the black mark of a conviction remained. He appealed. Judge William Murphy, of Michigan’s Court of Appeals, overturning, stated:
“Allowing a prosecution where one utters ‘insulting’ language could possibly subject a vast percentage of the populace to a misdemeanour conviction. We find it unquestionable that [the law], as drafted, reaches constitutionally protected speech, and it operates to inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
The American reliance on ‘The First’ seems to know no bounds. Thank God. But what of our unconstitutional enforcement of forced speech? In today’s vitiated atmosphere, not saying something invites the threat of decapitation. Silence is no longer golden. It is, now, a cross too huge to bear. Like so much else, Muteness is banned. Sound must prevail. Sound-bytes, actually. Will each new dispensation introduce a novel jingo-lingo? Why worry? No need for optics to shout. In fact, visual (and mental) incapacity should be a boon. As for Michigan, did it ever enforce the law against any woman for seething within audibility of other women? Gender bias, dammit! Expletive deleted.