12.15.2007

In Defense of Profanity

I curse. And I curse when I teach. I've been told by a superior of mine, a well-respected and so-called radical, that my cursing "offends the moral and religious beliefs of my students."

That may be the case. But I retort twice:

1. So what? The ideas of my class surely offend their moral and religious beliefs. Is that a bad thing? I was told this by a theorist who certainly proffers beliefs, and a lifestyle, that offends most moral and religious beliefs.

2. And: Why? What is so wrong with profanity?

Every semester, I encounter some student of religious upbringing who tells me that he or she was taught that cursing is for those who lack vocabulary, that it's lazy: I curse because I can't find a better word.

Let's assess this claim. One, it assumes that language is always referential, that its first if not sole task is to mean something, refer to something. But, as I teach, meaning is only one function of words. Words, and communication, are affective; they effect people's emotions. A well placed "fuck," an aptly turned "asshole," can resonate in people's minds, hearts, and bodies and move them, persuade them. Just as ee cummings can move us to tears with nonsense, grammar thrown by the wayside, a well placed "motherfucker" can bring down the house.

In fact, I'd argue that cursing—and cursing well—is pedagogically effective; it wakes the little assholes up—just as you woke up when you read that. Cursing in the classroom affords me the opportunity to seize their attention, if only for a moment.

Now let me address the matter of laziness. First, if laziness is the crime, not cursing, then let us condemn all laziness. Let us condemn the lazy students who don't try to understand what I'm saying; let us condemn the academics who churn out the same, tired, familiar shit article after article, book after book, lecture after lecture. When I teach, I give my fucking heart and soul, all my vitality, to that hour and a half so my students can see, and experience, live thought. What about those lazy professors who deliver the same dry lecture, year after year? If laziness is the accusation, let us please purge the halls of academia of laziness.

And, second, a curse may or may not be lazy but it is by no means sufficient grounds to establish laziness. For cursing well—with the proper timing and the proper placing of syllabic emphasis—is as difficult and demanding as any creative effort. Certainly, there are those who curse lazily just as there are those who pray lazily or preach lazily or live lazily. But let us not condemn cursing just because of a few poor profaners.