Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bad words

While disposing of my email in my high school account back home, I came across a flurry of staff emails on the subject of swearing in the high school. A certain number of my colleagues had become exercised about the level of vulgar expression on campus. Some of them situated the problem in a larger context of popular culture....Hollywood, pop music. Others cited family influences. Among the letter writers at least there seems to be a sentiment in favor of "cracking down." Notwithstanding the unfortunate connotations of that phrase, not to mention the temptation to be cynical about past policies formed in response to passionate calls for a crackdowns, I found myself wanting to join in the's an old itch, I guess.

By the way, the precipitating event for the email exchange was a live TV F-bomb dropped by a student broadcaster during the morning broadcast which goes out to all the classrooms on campus. But my impression is that the issue was lurking just below the surface waiting for something like this to trigger a discussion.

So Here's my take on the subject. I think I'll call it:

Up that famous tributary without the proper means of locomotion...putting bad words in their proper place

"you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things..." from Julius Caeser by William Shakespeare

Swearing is an adult privilege that adolescents will forever appropriate in their efforts to impress or cow their peers and occasionally even throw down the gauntlet to their elders. Like cigarette smoking it is usually little more than a pose and seldom a very convincing one at that. Kids who swear tend to remind me of young people playing adult roles in school theater - if it wasn’t so excruciatingly painful to watch, you could almost call it cute. In the same of league of grating on my nerves, I might add, is hearing an adult smugly say something like “fiddlesticks” or “jeepers” or “shoot” or “crap” or “gosh darn it” or “son of a gun” etc…we know what they really mean, so we're forced to play the nod, nod, wink, wink game with them.

But the truth is that swearing, like many of other taboo behaviors, is de rigueur for a teenager (although the amounts and frequency will vary widely) and passage into adulthood entails at least in part acquiring the chops to talk like one…I pause here to allow all of the adults reading this to reflect on the ramifications of this. The expression “swearing like a sailor” is both descriptive and superlative. One doesn’t acquire such knowledge without paying dues.

But we do our young people a grave disservice and at the same time we cheat them out of one of life’s guilty pleasures when we abdicate our own adult responsibilities in this matter. It is our duty to make our young people feel in the pits of the stomachs the dangers of opening their mouths without having first engaged their brains. Towards that end, we must always be ready to enforce a double standard, namely, that we may swear, but our young may not, or least not without suffering for it.

Our message to them should be as unequivocal as it is practical: we find your swearing to be offensive and corrosive to the ethos of this campus, therefore, if we encounter it, we will punish it. This sort of approach reinforces exactly the sort of skills that I most value when it comes to language, namely, the ability to suit the word to the moment. People who have never felt the need to restrain their impulsivity, have never had to explore the limits of their own personal and creative expression.

And make no mistake about the end result of any crackdown on swearing. It will not reduce or eliminate the practice, only displace it. And that's fine. We should not, in my opinion, be trying to eradicate swearing; rather we should be intent on restoring it to it’s proper place and function. By making it once again a taboo, we will reinvigorate swearing as only the cachet of a taboo can. We will rescue it from the desultory f-word carpet bombings that plague our school’s halls and cantines. Swearing will flourish once more and evolve in ever more ingenious radar-busting expressions, but it will do so in its proper environment, which is to say on the margins, just out of earshot or just beyond comprehension.

Like it or not, swearing is one of the tributaries that nourishes our language and provides the resources for geniuses like Shakespeare to hold a glass up before us so that we can be reminded exactly what it looks and sounds like to be human. To paraphrase and pun on the bard, to swear is human. The opening quotation is a pretty tame example, but make no mistake Shakespeare knew how to explore the full register of human one ever lived to rue harsh words more than Capulet when in exasperation he said the following to his daughter, Juliet. "Out you carrion, you green-sickness carrion, out you tallow face, you baggage!" Those would be practically the last words she would ever hear her father say...sad to think that they were still ringing in her ears perhaps when she took her own life but...and here's the real question, would such utterances get you suspended at high school? On the whole, doubtful I think.

So, in closing, let me say to all you canker-blossoms out there (and I mean that in a nice way) - lets put our house in order shall we? Restore the honorable practice of swearing to its rightful environs....the basements and alleyways and battlefields. To the rump-fed young- you may aspire to mastery of language good and bad, but until you have earned your stripes, you may not presume to speak in front of us with indiscretion.



Anonymous cjones said...

Damn fine analysis.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous erin said...

I agree- or in the words of a former coworker (who had not earned his stipes, apparently) "I occur".
I will never forget the time I saw a dear friend of mine arrest a pustule on the hinder of humanity. The fellow swore and called Roger every crude name in the book, but he cried when Roger used his 'disgusted voice' and called him "Dog Breath".

3:41 PM  

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