To what point is profanity a powerful “shock value” educational tool? And at what point is it a crutch delaying the progress of society? The impetus for this rant comes from a couple readings I had to do for a class. Both used rather vulgar language, but it was easier to stomach in the novel than in the scholarly article.
Shock and Awe
One definition of education I find helpful is “an enlightening experience.” Sometimes, exposure to less-than-desirable themes and modes of expression is very enlightening and therefore educational. (In a non-example kind of way.)
I recently watched Interstellar, a space travel odyssey about a man and his daughter. When one of the seemingly good guys turns on our hero and maroons him on a distant planet, the hero uses some very colorful and offensive language. Given the circumstance, however, it’s tastefully done. (If vulgarity can be tasteful.) The novel I read for my class, Honky, by Dalton Conley, employed liberal use of words I’d rather not hear or read, but again, given the point of the book–to illustrate the harsh realities of life in the projects–it was stylistically appropriate. I still don’t like it, but I suppose I can understand it, and maybe even appreciate it a little.
Another character worth mentioning is Elder J. Golden Kimball, the turn-of-the-century swearing cowboy of the LDS Church. He swore prolifically, but benignly. He claimed that his profanity made him relatable to some of the members of the Church. When he cussed out a rowdy group of young men, they listened and shaped up.
So while cursing is certainly not my preferred modus operandi, I might concede that it can be effective sometimes. I’m a fan of using the best word for any given situation, and in some cases, the best word might be rather colorful.
An article I read for class followed a field researcher in her study of high school students. I’ve been to high school, I’m familiar with the cruder side of American teenagers’ vocabulary. I don’t see the value in publishing profanity in a scholarly article.
While the presentation of the article was “real” and “authentic” and “giving me exposure to a culture that isn’t my own,” it was also offensive and distracting and really not teaching me anything but further disdain and distance from that culture. If my experiences interacting with art and scholarly research regarding a particular sub-group are laced with discomfort, those experiences do nothing to establish commonality or repudiate any stereotypes I had. I might develop sympathy for the impoverished, depraved, and oppressed by reading vulgar accounts of their sad lives told in a painfully coarse vernacular, but odds are, empathy will not soon follow. Ironically, writers and artists in their efforts to bridge the gap by highlighting the gap, often turn the gap into a chasm.
I want to be open-minded and tolerant, I really do. But I also believe that as one who knows better—literally, I know better words, I have an obligation to stand for something. There’s a difference between accepting people the way they are (which we should do!) and celebrating their less-than-ideal circumstances. As an educator, I need to understand where people are developmentally because I owe it to them to help them move beyond that point.
I believe that the golden rule starts with our paradigms—how can I treat others how I’d like to be treated if I don’t believe that they are like me? I really don’t love the us vs. them mental construct that so often appears in life, especially in classes which supposedly aim to eradicate that delineation. I want to see others as I see myself. I know it isn’t fair to expect the same literacy from those who haven’t had the opportunity to develop it like I have. But, if we simply celebrate where people are—in their uncomfortable ghettos, in their crude language—then we aren’t doing anything to help them out. If we continue to accept and expect little from these people, we will also (consciously or otherwise) give them very little to work with. We will keep doing our studies, writing our books, making our documentaries, throwing around paltry funds that buy only time, not social change—all while we tolerate, celebrate, and ultimately condone the self-hindering lifestyles that keep people exactly where we keep saying we don’t want them to be.
The argument I’m making here is reminiscent of Henry Higgins’ claim to raise Eliza Doolittle into high society simply by teaching her to speak well. If we believe that story, then rather than highlighting the sad examples of the verbally poor and chiding each other for judging them, we ought to stop condoning gutter-talk, and start teaching people to speak.
In a recent conversation with some friends, we discussed the multiple correct ways of speaking that are accepted in our modern society. I’m still mostly old-school, but sure, we can validate other (*cough* less correct) speech habits. We have to recognize, though, that to get places in society, to succeed in school, to land decent jobs, to negotiate transactions in your own favor–to do all that, one needs to know how to speak a certain way. When we showcase how people talk to try to make them feel complacent about however they speak, we’re doing them a great disservice. Helping people is a far cry from condemning or judging them.
Thanks for reading! Please feel free to join the discussion and share your thoughts.