Tuesday, June 25, 2013


There is a spot on our brain called Broca's area. It's on the posterior side of our frontal lobe, right above the temporal lobe, and it's about the size of a silver dollar. Broca's area is responsible for allowing us to express our thoughts in the form of speech (there is a different area that we use to understand speech). When Broca's area is injured by a stroke or trauma, the affected person is unable to speak, even though they may be able to comprehend what other people are saying to them.

Often people who are unable to speak because of brain damage are still able to use profanity. This means that profane speech is separate from speech in general, and is processed in a different part of the brain.

Studies on stoke victims and people with Tourette Syndrome have lead scientists to believe that profanity is processed in the basal ganglia, which is located deep in the brain in the Limbic System, also called the "primitive brain" because we share this brain structure with our earliest ancestors, such as lizards. The Limbic System is responsible for our most primal emotions: fear, lust, anger, and so on.

When I was a child, I thought that people could decide not to be offended by offensive words, and thus take the power away from those words. I was sometimes called "honky" or "cracker," but I just laughed. I didn't find the words offensive at all.

To an extent, certain groups have tried to take the power from a word by using it themselves; African Americans are one obvious example. Gay people also use the words "fag" or "faggot."

But these words still rise to the level of hateful profanity when spoken in the manner they were originally intended: as slurs against a minority group.

The implications of "the n-word" are still so raw in our language that I'm not even comfortable using the word in this post. This word is associated with lynchings, church bombings, and the horrifying torture and murder of a boy named Emmit Till. We have actually seen the pictures of Emmit Till's disfigured face, we have seen pictures of the strange fruit that hung from Southern trees, there are still people alive today who witnessed these atrocities first-hand.

It is a word of hate, violence, and murder.

The word "faggot" also speaks from our primal brain, but the true meaning of the word is buried so deep in our history that, although we can feel the hate, violence, and murder the word expresses, we have forgotten the original context of the word.

One clue remains in our modern language: the British call cigarettes "fags."

In Theory and the Premodern Text, Paul Strohm draws a straight line between the language of violence that eventually culminates into actual violence with the example of the word "faggot." A faggot is a bundle of sticks gathered for firewood. The Lollards were a heretical sect of Christianity in Britain in the mid-14th century. Like most heretical groups, the Lollards were ostracized and demonized; in particular, they were called "faggots," as in "bundles of firewood." Within a generation of being referred to as firewood their leaders were, not surprisingly, burned at the stake for treason against the church and the government.

To this day, although we may not remember the origin, the word "faggot" resonates deep in the most primal parts of our brain.

It is a word of hate, a word of violence. It is a dehumanizing word meant to justify the destruction of those who are different.

After all, they are not people.

They are merely firewood.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Terrible Choice

I was watching Reel Time with Bill Mahar last week, and during the always heated and hilarious debate that the gathering of political opposites delivers, something strange happened.

Everyone agreed on one fact.

In the early 1990's, around the time that President Clinton took office, the crime rate in this country dropped significantly.

Of course, everyone has their pet explanations: more cops, fewer cops, tougher laws, better social safety nets...

None of these explanations are correct, of course, but the thing that really puzzled me was, why wouldn't Bill Mahar, of all people, know why the crime rate dropped in the early 1990's?

I wouldn't have known either, had it not been for Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, and their phenomenal book Freakonomics.

And the answer to the crime rate question reveals a lot about why that answer is so rarely talked about.

You see, the generation that came of age in the early 1990's had fewer young, angry men who had been born to poor, desperate mothers who lacked the resources to properly care for them.

Simply put, this generation had fewer criminals.


Because this was the generation of children born after Roe vs. Wade.

The people on the Right who want to restrict abortion love to talk about selfish, irresponsible women who are killing innocent babies without a second thought.

The reality is that abortion is a risky, physically and emotionally painful procedure that no woman wants to have. The choice to have an abortion is a difficult one, made by a woman in a difficult situation. It's not a decision she makes for herself alone, but a decision she makes for the well-being of her family.

And when that decision is left in the hands of the one person who must truly bear the weight of it, it has been proven that children, families, and society as a whole benefit.

Now, if we can just make this common knowledge before the Southern Religinuts take away any more abortion rights than they already have