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Endless Obscenity

Denis Solomon • 1,172 words

On the 19th of May 1996, shortly before switching from the Express to the Independent (they were separate companies at that time) I wrote a column in the Express entitled “Dirty Story”. The title was borrowed from a novel by Eric Ambler, and the column recounted my experience of appearing as an expert witness for the defence in the trial of Godfrey Sealey and Heathcliffe West for the use of obscene language in a play staged at the Central Bank Auditorium.

At that time the trial had already been in progress (if you can call it that) for five years, the play having been staged in 1991. Last Friday I read with amazement in the Express that it has not yet been concluded.

In my column, after decrying the ludicrous nature of an offence of “obscene language” in any circumstances, I went on to explain that our law was archaic, based as it was on an 1857 statute that had been amended in England in 1959 to permit a defence of literary merit, but had not been changed in Trinidad and Tobago. In this country it was still sufficient for the prosecution to show that a single word was offensive to the “average person”, regardless of the content or theme of the work as a whole.

Nevertheless the defence would try to bring in literary merit by showing that the reasonable person would consider “obscene” words justified in certain circumstances. As a University lecturer with a doctorate in linguistics I was called as an expert witness in support of this point of view.

Sealey’s play was about domestic violence resulting from the clash between immaturity in Trinidadian men (which was itself partly the result of their cosseting by Trinidadian women in the shape of their mothers) and the desire of modern women to be treated as individuals rather than sex-objects for the boosting of insecure male egos. The “obscene” words in the script are used by a husband when he is told by his mother of his wife’s decision to leave him, a decision induced by his insensitivity to all her needs except her supposed sexual ones.

I therefore primed myself to give a lecture to the court on the psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics of taboo words. The use of the f-word by the character of the husband, I would have said, was not only natural but essential to realism. As children frustrated of their desires throw tantrums, so immature adults react to frustration by violence and cursing. A play is made of words; for the playwright to use words other than the ones the character would have used in real life would have defeated his purpose. A Trinidad husband does not react to news of his wife’s desertion with the words “oh, dear”. I was going to say that the words in question appeared in the script only enough to make the point. I would have added that if instead of cursing his mother on the stage the character had beaten her, the playwright and the actor wouldn’t have found themselves in court, although beating up your mother is a more dangerous example to the young than the use of words they hear on every street corner.

I would also have pointed out that the use by an author of words in the script of a play is in a certain sense not communicative but metalinguistic: it is not a use of language as such but rather a reference to the use of language. By the same token, when an actor speaks lines on a stage he has no personal responsibility for them, for they are part of the communicative intent of a fictional character, not of the actor.

Tell that to a Trinidad court? Dream on! As things turned out, I had to keep a tight rein on myself to avoid torpedoing the defence’s case from the word go. Defence counsel started by asking me what I though the theme of the play was, thereby setting me free to give my lecture. But as soon as I started to answer I was told by the magistrate that I must speak more slowly because she and the clerk had to take notes of my evidence. So laboriously did they write that I ended up giving my evidence at slow dictation speed and thinking it was no wonder that the trial had taken five years. At one point I caused a sensation by using the word “protagonist”. After a whispered consultation between magistrate and clerk, presumably about the spelling, I used the word “milieu” and nearly brought the trial to an end then and there.

These are the illiterates, I thought, who are judging people on their use of words.

Then came the cross-examination, which was done by a police inspector who started by (as he seemed to think) impugning my qualifications by asking me if I hadn’t been brought up in Boissiere village, just like him. I was hard put not to answer that I had indeed been brought up there, but obviously not like him. So I just said “Yes”. He went on to ask me what “obscenity” meant in linguistics. I told him it was not a linguistic term at all. Linguistics did not recognise “obscene” words, but rather a class of “taboo” words, defined as being considered by a community of speakers as unfit for use in certain contexts. The Russian word for “bear” is “honey-eater”, because to use the real word for ‘bear” was considered unlucky and likely to expose the user to the risk of bean eaten by bears. By the same token, sex-words were taboo because of obsession with sex, which was precisely one of the themes of the play. “Obscene” to me simply meant disgusting or repulsive, definitions that could be applied to events (I almost said like armed police invading the stage of a play), but not to sequences of consonant and vowel sounds.

The children in the audience, said the prosecutor, had been heard to steups when the fateful word was pronounced (there were not supposed to be any children in the audience, because the play had been advertised as unsuitable for children, but it was later revealed that the policeman who laid the charge had taken his own children there to boost his case). What did I think caused them to steups? Probably boredom, I said.

Then came what the prosecutor obviously thought was the coup de grace. What would I think, he asked, if the Prime Minister were heard to use that kind of language?

I was sorely tempted to reply that the Prime Minister was the perfect example of my statement about the recourse of insecure adults to coarse language and verbal tantrums, and that the Prime Minister probably did make abundant use of “that kind of language”. But with a Herculean effort I restrained myself and simply replied that I would consider it to be most impolite.

“Most what?” said the prosecutor.

“Impolite” I said. “I-M-P-O...”

The trial continues.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top