Our favorite F-words

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The question surfaced as a bad joke among a group of thoughtful friends: What’s the favorite American F-word? A woman––who happens to be a very attractive blonde––responded first. “Freedom,” she said with a slight twist to her smile.

Two F-words obviously troubled her. When she is seen as a type––and stereotype––it seems easy to assume that her good looks provide her the opportunity to have more freedom, and fun, than most other people. Doors that remain closed to the unattractive would open to her. She would have a wider choice than most about where she lives, with whom, and what work she would do. She’d even have a shot at becoming a million dollar newscaster for a FOX TV news station.

But she seemed to have a better sense than we did of the downside of her good looks––the constraints, call them lack of freedom, her presence as a type placed on her. She no doubt knows, for example, what it is like to be held in the grip of gazes refusing to let go of her, how some of those gazes freeze her with fear, and how her freedom of movement is controlled by personal safety concerns. If she got a millionaire job with FOX she’d have to perform on cue, force her smiles on audiences looking for any small excuse to send their remotes in search of a different face, and keep her opinions to herself without improving on the words she hasn’t written but has to recite.

These are ordinary constraints, and no doubt there are others more serious. But if her type, blessed by biology, has to live within limits too, how free are the millions who don’t have her advantages? Does any woman freely choose her role as news anchor, mother, wife, cheerleader, cancer patient or millionaire? Well, yes, perhaps, if we believe the noisy and glib libertarian voices addicted to telling us we’re all singular captains of our individual fates. But no, if biology, the stock market, social mores, education, governments, genetics and chance have any say about how she turns out.

To be American is––rather too simply––to let freedom ring, especially as a word. Americans believe people are free to choose, free to make winners or losers of themselves, free to go to heaven or hell because they’re free to work or not to work hard enough to end up where they end up, even if they’re in an unemployment line and there are no jobs. Americans believe in free markets and the free enterprise system and in free trade and free expression. And everybody knows freedom doesn’t come cheap, that if we want to keep it we may have no choice but to pay for it with our lives.

Belief in Americanized freedom does not chime well with the second most popular American F-word.

It’s hard to insist that the lines about freedom should be dropped from the refrains Americans routinely croon when they feel the need to feel good about themselves and their beliefs. Freedom’s often the word we attach to a positive feeling we enjoy, especially when we’re well cared for and not wholly in the grip of some control. The thought of freedom dignifies us by providing strokes for what we do that turns out right, even if we are mainly just lucky. It’s a favorite topic of political candidates, especially at the fundraising events they have to do. It has, in short, many uses––psychological, political, practical, inspirational––not all of them morally defensible. And the power, influence, and currency of the word––like money’s––seem directly proportional to its immeasurability. If we don’t know what freedom is, it therefore must exist out there somewhere, circulating freely in its own sounds.

No one, as yet, has invented a thermometer, gauge or app that measures how free (or happy) we are or are not. Actual prisons, with their solitary confinement cells, would be a good place to begin taking baseline measurements, and the hungry and disabled might also provide us a few key indicators about what freedom is. But inner freedom, which maybe sits at home in our easy chairs or walks down the street toward a liquor store while we whistle a tune, would be trickier to calculate.

Common sense tells us that the choices we make, consciously or not, entangle us in a chain of consequences that can liberate or maybe strangle us. Way leads on to way, not always to greener pastures. We choose to drink or smoke too much, marry this woman rather than that one, have children or not, attend this church or that one, take this job or none at all. These “choices,” some of them resulting from accident of birth, routinely result in outbursts of the second most favorite American F-word, the nasty one. This second most favorite American F-word seems to make it clear––along with the contempt, frustration and anger it communicates in no uncertain terms–– that there are a lot of Americans not enjoying their freedom as advertised.

Why is it that so many Americans so frequently use both F-words––with connotations so antithetically positive and negative––in the same conversation? If the “freedom” word is routinely used as a way to unify and inspire us as a people, the nasty F-word is a weapon by which we express frustration, contempt, and even hatred for each other. Though women especially know how this word’s weaponry is linked to sex, we seem screwed up about a lot of things when we use the nasty F-word.

Do we use the nasty F-word because we feel betrayed by the promises the freedom word offers, especially when the gap between the haves and have-nots is so obvious? Though the rich and powerful in some ways may be the most restricted among us, they are also inclined to use the freedom word as a way of putting down those who don’t enjoy the privileges they suffer from. While researchers in the health sciences are finding that some rich folk are suffering from a new disease being referred to as “affluenza,” this affliction doesn’t prevent those passionate about the virtues of wealth from dismissing the poor and destitute as complainers when those in the underclasses talk freely about the constraints they face. Freedom, when its meaning is perpetually on the loose, goes into hiding in those experiencing the realities of joblessness, unattractiveness, disability, old age, poverty, and bad luck. In a climate of opinion requiring us to be free while denying us the means to achieve a reasonably comfortable life style, the other F-word, and the nasty behaviors that follow from it, has its say.

In the old days our moms would wash our mouths out with soap when we didn’t watch our language. But modern moms aren’t as free to do that these days. So when we have the urge to use either of the F-words, I think we’d be better off biting our tongues on our way to second thoughts.