Hamil with Care

A List of Forbidden Words

When I was attending college in St. Augustine, Florida, I worked part-time at The Fountain of Youth, a historically-inaccurate-bordering-on-fraudulent tourist trap that purports to be the site of Ponce de Leon’s first contact with the North American continent. In the center of the park, a beautiful tract of land on the Intracoastal Waterway shaded by massive old growth oaks, there was a pond where geese and ducks liked to hang out. One day I was standing at the ticket-taking podium when a man tromped up to me and exclaimed, “My boy just got bit by one ‘a them geese!”

“Oh no, is he okay?” I said, feigning as much concern as I could muster with a hangover. I’d watched his unruly small children hassle the waterfowl. Served them right.

“There oughta be a sign!” the man said, outraged, “Y’all need to put up a sign!”

“What would the sign say?” I retorted, “‘Do not hassle the geese because they’ll bite you’? Seems kinda obvious.”

The man understood that he and his rowdy kids would get no sympathy from me, a smartass philosophy major in an ill-fitting polo shirt. He walked off muttering, “There oughta be a sign…”

For months afterwards my coworkers and I used his complaint as a catchphrase whenever someone needed special guidance in the face of the blindingly self-evident: There oughta be a sign. To me, it was emblematic of everything wrong with the gawking, bewildered tourists we herded through the park each day. More generally, it spoke to the tendency of modern Americans to require explicitly posted instructions in order to avoid falling off cliffs or burning themselves with hot coffee.

I think of that man’s complaint often lately when I hear this familiar refrain: “Will someone just make a list of all the words we’re not allowed to say anymore? I can’t keep track!” My reaction is the same as it was for the guy with the goose-bit kid: Can’t you figure this shit out for yourself?

Americans have never been dumber: Trump’s election as our leader definitively proves it. At the same time, our social mores and cultural norms take on new complexity daily as social media opens up the discourse to previously marginalized people with their own dissenting viewpoints. Every hot take cycle brings a new round of problematization, denunciation and reappropriation.

Americans have been presented with a stark choice: Silence and intimidate emerging voices in order to reassert white Christian patriarchy (Make America Great Again) or work to create space for these newly empowered perspectives (be a decent human being).

Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than the world of comedy, a vanguard battleground in the culture wars. The alt-right started out as a bunch of anonymous edgelord open mikers making Holocaust jokes on 4Chan and ended up a bunch of heavily-armed white supremacists wielding tiki torches and shouting Nazi slogans. Their new dominion, Kekistan, is ruled over by God-King Trump and there are no “safe spaces” or forbidden words (except, of course, when there are).

But you don’t have to be a Kekistani Proud Boy to feel confused by the ever-growing list of words and ideas that have been deemed problematic. If you have no access to the internet, books, magazines or people different than you in any way, you could easily find yourself on the wrong side of the “PC police.”

So why not draw up a list of forbidden words? Because that’s not anyone’s job, just as it wasn’t my responsibility to make sure that man told his kid to not harrass the geese. 

In this aggressively dumb era it’s useful to remind ourselves of the awe-inspiring cognitive potential we hold in our skulls. Human brains are so big our moms have to birth us three months early, and so fine-tuned for social cognition that a two-year-old can tell if you’ve had a few beers. Our main advancement over the other primates resides in the neocortex, which enables unprecedented capacity for interpersonal perception, behavioral regulation and empathy. So if you just can’t seem to notice the people around you wincing when you use certain words, you are wasting a perfectly good neocortex. No sign or list can protect you from the consequences of deactivating the most powerful part of your brain. Mess with the goose and you’ll get bitten.

Photo by Hatem Moushir.