“Jesus H. Christ,” said The Traveler. “What was that?”
“I do not know,” I said.
The Writer took a swig from his drink. “Something eldritch. Unfathomable. Ripped from an episode of To Catch a Predator.”
We sat in silence. I looked out of the front window of the pub and saw The Drunkard pacing back and forth in front of The Stalker in the middle of the square, his face red and his hand outstretched and index finger always pointing at The Stalker. The Drunkard looked a bit like what I would imagine General Patton would have looked like on the battlefield if a soldier were brought to him complaining about being afraid. I couldn’t hear what The Drunkard was shouting—for he was shouting, the people backing away from my companions was testament to that—but the absolute lack of reaction from The Stalker made the whole scene incredibly unnerving. I would have expected a nod, or a response, or a mutter from The Stalker while he was being upbraided, but there was absolutely no reaction. He stood there, facing straight ahead, back bolt-upright, like a man against a wall and facing a firing squad. I imagine that The Drunkard was shouting something to the effect of the following:
“You miserable little worm! How dare you soil the sacredness of our contest with such profane babble as that? Did you consider, even for one second, that what you were doing implied that you had engaged in behavior that would be considered, by any justice with half a mind, to be anti-social behavior indicative of a sexual predator? Son, I should throw you in the clink right now and have you await trial by court-martial! No, that’s too good for you. Some sick idiot might think you are innocent. What I should do is have you shot. No, that’s too quick. Hung! You should be hung by the neck until dead. Boy, you are the epitome of everything that has gone ill with human society.”
Of course, The Drunkard was probably just shouting obscenities at The Stalker and calling him a pervert, but I couldn’t be sure. Eventually, The Drunkard exhausted his surely copious list of obscenities and resorted to kicking The Stalker, once, in the ass. The two then walked back into the pub, and sat down.
There was a silence. To describe the silence as awkward would be an understatement. To describe it as pregnant would be—in addition to odd—an understatement. I could only say that it was a Lovecraftian silence. One could almost see ancient, malevolent beings cackling in the darkness, pleased that we puny humans were so ill-at-ease.
“I should apologize,” said The Stalker. “And so I do. Sorry. This is me. Being sorry. Saying what I did was ill-advised and I should never have volunteered to begin talking.”
“And?” asked The Drunkard.
“And I am not a sexual predator. You can look that up on the database.”
Rather than accept the apology outright, we at the table nodded—except for The Student, who started snoring against the radiator.
“Okay,” said The Traveler, “let’s hope that nothing else like that comes out again.” He shivered. “That was just about as bad as The Interloper.”
“I would remind you,” said The Stalker, “that words are simply words. Though I strung words together in a chain, forming sentences, and, in this case, the beginning of a comprehensive list of my… interests in Tennessee, that does not inherently mean one thing or another.”
“Bullshit,” said The Drunkard.
“I find myself agreeing with The Stalker,” said The Writer. “Words do not mean one thing or another. He might as well have been reciting something from Facebook.”
“Once again, bullshit,” said The Drunkard.
“Please,” said The Student, “though I agree with you, you’re going to have to qualify that statement.”
“Figured I would,” The Drunkard said, taking a drink from his glass. He straightened up in his chair and popped his neck. “Right. You say that words are inherently neutral, correct? Now, if they were inherently neutral that would mean that they, in essence, have no bearing on the way they should be used in certain situations. In other words: would you agree with me if I were to state that whenever a party, A, is insulted or offended by the word choice of another party, B, they are overreacting, and are not in full understanding that a word’s connotation may be nullified over time?”
“I am,” said The Stalker.
“Very good. Now, Traveler, if I were to walk down the street and come across a black guy, and were to shout, ‘nigger!’ at him, what do you think would happen?”
“You’d probably find yourself getting your ass handed to you,” said The Traveler.
“I agree. Now, further, Traveler, would you have sympathy towards the person who shouted the racial epithet? Would you spring to his assistance?”
“And why not?”
“Because to do so would, to the outside world—and, honestly, to myself—suggest that I have sympathy for certain, ah,” he fidgeted in his chair, “anti-social views.”
“Exactly,” said, The Drunkard turning to The Stalker and The Writer. “While, semantically, you are correct in saying that words are neutral and they do not lean one way or another, we find that, in the real world, they, in fact, do. In the abstract, one could very well go around shouting ‘chink,’ ‘kike,’ ‘dago,’ ‘WOP,’ and any other slur you might think of, and that person would be perfectly fine, for he doesn’t mean any harm, he’s just shouting out sounds that translate into harmless, harmless words. However, we find that, in the real world, our epithet-spewing friend finds himself with broken bones, black eyes, and a whole mess of hospital bills. For, you see, his actions show him as a racist.”
The Drunkard sipped from his whiskey. “In a concrete example, would you want to hang around with The Interloper when he spots an Indian restaurant? Would you want to chill with a skinhead while you drive past a synagogue or mosque? I posit that if you say that you would not mind hearing invectives spewing forth from a foaming, racist mouth, then you are playing devil’s advocate and, in reality, have no argument to make beyond the semantic tripe that I’ve heard a thousand times.
“And so, Stalker, when you say such bizarre and grotesque things as ‘walks down dark paths,’ we are led to believe that you are a sexual deviant who must be punished.” He took another drink. “You probably are, but we need evidence to convict you. Words do in fact have a meaning and a, to mix metaphors slightly, alignment—there can, in other words, be an evil term—because of the weight society lends them.”
“Basically,” said The Student, “don’t shout slurs at people just because on the semantic level, it doesn’t mean one thing or another.”
“I must say,” said The Writer, “you are completely wrong and your entire argument is pedestrian and caters to the ills of society. You are, in fact, a coward.”
“Am I?” asked The Drunkard. Amazingly, the vein hadn’t popped out of his forehead yet. Perhaps the whiskey acted as a calming agent in some cases. “Well, next time you see your muscular German flatmate, you call him a Nazi—in earnest and not joking in the least, as if you were stating his name—and tell me what happens.”
The Writer fidgeted in his chair. “Er.”
The Traveler checked his watch. “Well, I think we’ve made some real progress here. However, I’ve got a research seminar I have to go to, so shall we adjourn for today?”
We nodded in agreement, and filed out. The Drunkard and I, though, were quite bored, so we decided to go to one of the bars on campus.