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.