Warning: strong language

Phil Ford

Welcome, readers of Inside Higher Ed. My old “ten hiphop commandments” post has been published as an article there. Inside Higher Ed has a large and active readership, and there are many more comments there than we tend to get here at Dial M.  Most of the commenters were pretty nice about my piece (thanks!), but I was surprised by the number of people who took exception to the cusses. Some didn’t seem to understand that these were lyrics from a hiphop song, while others seemed offended at the use of hiphop in an academic context. (Still others seemed offended by the very existence of hiphop.) But it’s actually an interesting problem: not so much the professor’s use of profanity in class, as an adornment to ordinary speech, but the teaching of material that includes harsh language. One commenter said that you’re showing disrespect to your students when you swear in class, and I agree. This doesn’t mean I’m always perfect on this score, but I try; you get all kinds of people in a class, and dropping F-bombs or casual blasphemies will most assuredly not be fine with everyone. Inasmuch as your job is to create a neutral ground on which wildly different points of view can be expressed equally and without fear — the baseline precondition of any intellectual work, I think — you need to respect that.

But what if you teach the cultural and intellectual history of counterculture? Dial M readers will have gathered by now that this topic is My Thing. Last year I taught an undergrad course in American music and counterculture, and it was plainly impossible to do it without assigning music and readings that use every socially inappropriate word imaginable and self-consciously trample hitherto accepted standards of decency. I mean, this is a chapter of American cultural history whose major players include a militant anarchist group whose name was (I’m not making this up) the “Up Against the Wall Motherfucker.” And it’s not about just words alone: race was always a big issue among hip radicals, who were accustomed to talking about it in terms that would make a University cultural-diversity facilitator blanch. People who know me will tell you that I have a pretty free way with cuss words, especially when provoked by falling inanimate objects,* but there were a lot of times when I was squirming with embarrassment at having to utter certain words. But still, what can you do? If you’re going to teach something, I don’t think anyone is served by bowdlerizing it. So I printed up an NC-17 warning in my syllabus, which I stressed pretty hard on the first day. The main point it makes is something I cribbed from Mark Applebaum, a Stanford professor of composition who was always dropping gems of pedagogical wisdom in the course of casual conversation.  He was once talking about a certain kind of person you meet in academia, the kind of person who thinks he or she has some sort of god-given right never to be made uncomfortable in a class. This is ridiculous, he pointed out. You learn when you’re uncomfortable. What students need, and deserve, is not to feel comfortable but to feel safe — to feel as if they can roam wherever their mind takes them without fear of censure and retribution. (This is, as I said above, the baseline condition of intellectual work.) So this is what I wrote in my syllabus:

This course deals with the art and thought of people who self-consciously rejected previously accepted standards of social behavior. Consequently, the music, film, and writing you will encounter here is laced with profanity, blasphemy, drug use, polymorphous sexuality, violence, the occult, and racism. (And I’ve probably forgotten something.) No historian of this period can afford to treat its culture euphemistically; right or wrong, its provocations make it what it is. You will probably feel offended or uncomfortable at times. But discomfort can be an instructive emotion. I care less that students feel comfortable than that they feel safe. By which I mean that students in this class should feel emboldened to offer their true thoughts and feelings on any given issue. I am committed to intellectual diversity; any point of view, respectfully offered, will be treated with respect.

This won’t please everybody, of course. There are those who believe that any subject matter like this has no place in the University, that bad language is inherently wrong and can never be justified. The best rejoinder to this point of view is Jaroslav Hasek’s epilogue to the first book of his epic comic novel The Good Soldier Svejk — a favorite book of mine, and one I try to re-read every few years. Hasek was an anarchist constantly on the run from the authorities, and someone who seems to have been constitutionally incapable of restraining himself from provoking them. And this was Hasek’s response to those who objected to Svejk‘s earthy language:

Where it is necessary to use a strong expression which was actually said, I am not ashamed of reproducing it exactly as it was. I regard the use of polite circumlocutions or asterisks as the stupidest form of sham. The same words are used in parliament too.

It was once said, very rightly, that a man who is well brought-up may read anything. The only people who boggle at what is perfectly natural are those who are the worst swine and the finest experts in filth. In their utterly contemptible pseudo-morality they ignore the contents and madly attack individual words.

Years ago I read a criticism of a novelette, in which the critic was furious because the author had written: “He blew his nose and wiped it.” He said it went against everything beautiful and exalted which literature should give the nation.

This is only a small illustration of what bloody fools are born under the sun.

Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking to them, and weaklings like that are the very people who cause most harm to culture and character. They would like to see the nation grow up into a group of over-sensitive little people—masturbators of false culture of the type of St. Aloysius, of whom it is said in the book of the monk Eustachius that when he heard a man breaking wind with deafening noise he immediately burst into tears and could only be consoled by prayers.

Those who are well brought-up may read anything: I should have that crocheted on a throw pillow or something.

But the best defense is a good offense, as any football coach knows, so here’s the “It’s Easy, M’Kay” production number from the South Park musical, Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The dialogue in this version has been dubbed in French, which I rather like. Follow the bouncing Cartman. Warning: contains strong language. Strong, strong language. But South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is particularly good evidence that bucketloads of cuss words don’t prevent something from being awesome. Stephen Sondheim apparently said he thought this was the best film musical of the last fifteen years, at least.

*The mute insolence of inanimate objects never fails to enrage me. I was delighted to discover a character in Martin Amis’s novel The Information who shared this feeling, and who muses, what’s in it for them?  Exactly. It’s just so unprovoked.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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9 Responses to Warning: strong language

  1. bbound says:

    Lovely point about the importance of discomfort in teaching. I’m totally going to include an NC-17 warning on future syllabi, perhaps complete with the MPAA logo.
    I have several times taught Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger.” It stresses me out each time, especially since the classroom rarely includes a single black student. But I figure, the stress and discomfort is good for me too.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    “””Where it is necessary to use a strong expression which was actually said, I am not ashamed of reproducing it exactly as it was. I regard the use of polite circumlocutions or asterisks as the stupidest form of sham.”””
    One of GC Lichtenberg’s Waste Books entries deals with this, about how even Fielding writes “Kiss my a—” instead of “Kiss my arse”. He makes a very ambiguous comment about the practice: that in such cases it amounts to much the same thing as putting on a pair of pants. I’m not really sure what to make of that. He starts off the entry mocking people who dash or asterisk perfectly obvious obscenities, but presumably he himself did wear pants, even if everyone knew what was beneath them.

  3. “One commenter said that you’re showing disrespect to your students when you swear in class, and I agree.”
    This is an interesting statement. I recall feeling that whenever one of my high school teachers or college professors used obscenities it was actually a sign of respect. To me, if my professor dropped the F-Bomb he was saying “I know that this language is taboo, and that a person in my position isn’t supposed to use it, but I trust you enough that I’m comfortable breaking that taboo.”
    But I don’t find curse words particularly offensive, and I realize that to a student who _did_ find such language offensive it would indeed be disrespectful for a professor to use it casually. Still, there are two sides to this issue.
    At the same time, I would say that even in the case of students who find curse words offensive, censoring actual relevant course materials is disrespectful to both the students and the authors of the work in queston. A disclaimer seems like a good way to handle the situation–it says “I’m going to assume that you can handle this material, but if you think you can’t, now you know that you should find another class.”
    I also found it interesting that you described the South Park song as containing “strong language. Strong, strong language.” With my expectations set by that discalaimer I found it rather tame. Not that it wasn’t clever and well done, it just wasn’t nearly as crude as I expected it to be. Which just serves to reinforce the point that different people have vastly different metrics of what qualifies as “strong language.”

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Having a chorus of 4th-graders sing about “Givin’ handjobs for cash” (complete with gesture) seems tame? There’s all kinds of legitimate reasons to show this film in class (say, a class on musicals), but no way would I show this without making it absolutely clear to the students ahead of time that this is (to use the obligatory term) a transgressive work. You might feel honored by a professor’s willingness to speak in a frank vernacular, but there are *always* other students who won’t — they’ll just get offended. A quick scan of the IHE comments on my piece will give you a pretty good idea of the range of reactions cussing in an academic context will get.

  5. Deconstructing Biggie, For Real This Time

    Phil Ford, an assistant prof at Indiana University, published this article in Inside Higher Ed magazine asking how Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments could be applied to a Professor’s work in the Academy. Check the comments section too, where other profes…

  6. czz says:

    Happy BlogDay, DIAL ‘M’, Vienna calling !

  7. zenny says:

    Here’s the new translation (found at http://www.zenny.com) of the excerpt from Svejk that you used:
    When there is a need to use a strong expression which was actually uttered, I do not hesitate to relay it in the very way it happened. I view the use of euphemisms, or the dotting out of a word, as the most asinine hypocrisy imaginable. These very words are even used in the world’s parliaments.
    It was said correctly, once upon a time, that a well-reared man could read anything. Only the biggest, dirty-minded swine, and other cunning vulgarians, stumble over that which is natural. In their most miserable, fraudulent, pseudo-morality, they refuse to grasp the true content. Instead, in frantic indignation, they throw themselves at individual words.
    Years ago, I read a review of some novel. The critic was upset over the fact that the author wrote: “He blew and wiped his nose.” He said this crass statement was contrary to everything esthetic and exalted, and to all that our literature is supposed to give to the nation.
    That is just one little example of the vile, dumb beasts that are born under the sun.
    People who become disconcerted over a strong expression are cowards, because it is really life that shocks them. And, such weak people are the very greatest agents of harm to both culture and character. They would have us be a nation of oversensitive folks, masturbators of false culture, of the type of Saint Alois. It is said in a book by the monk Eustach, that when Saint Alois heard how a man with flatulence released his winds, he began to weep. And, it was only by prayer that he consoled himself and found peace.

  8. dazimon says:

    “. . . it is with a great relief and pleasure that we are hereby dutifully reporting that Book Two and Book(s) Three&Four of our new translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War are available for sale as paperbacks at http://zenny.com.
    We hope this announcement finds you in good health and disposition and hungry for more adventures of the good soldier … after all these years.”
    More information on the Svejk phenomenon at http://SvejkCentral.com
    Also, Svejk is on FaceBook now: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Good-Soldier-Svejk/133349009873?ref=nf

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