Tuesday, December 07, 2004

On The Use Of F*** In The Faculty Lounge 

...and other issues of appropriate speech in institutional virtual settings.

The piece appeared in our community via the Humor folder, a faculty-only space much like a virtual teacher's lounge.
Dear Faculty and Students;

God bless you for the beautiful radio I won at your recent senior citizens luncheon. I am 84 years old and live at an Assisted Home for the Aged. All of my family has passed away. I am all alone now and it's nice to know someone is thinking of me. God bless you for your kindness to an old forgotten lady. My roommate is 95 and always had her own radio. Before I received this one, she would never let me listen to hers,even when she was napping. The other day, her radio fell off the night stand and broke into a lot of little pieces. It was awful and she was in tears. She asked if she could listen to mine, and I said fuck you. Thank you for that opportunity.

Almost three weeks later I recieved this query from another teacher:
Do you think it is okay to see this kind of language on swis, in the faculty and staff humor folder?

Perhaps you can tell from my question that I find it inappropriate. F*** would have been less offensive in my mind.

With her permission, I'm cross-posting my response here.

The F Word: On Semi-Public Community Language As Media

Interestingly, I read a version of this short piece when it was first published over 10 years ago in The Quarterly, a now-defunct literary magazine of some repute. As fictional literature, the language seemed fine (and funny), because it gave a very specific voice to the older woman narrator. Worth noting, here -- some of the literature read by our students in the classroom has similar language, for similar reasons, and is similarly acceptable.

Professionally speaking, though, the field of media (which, here, would include culture studies, semiotics, etc.) is primarily interested in symbols and their arrangement in order to discuss how meaning happens, and what function it serves in the community.

Context DOES matter -- if the person who sent this joke in had given credit to the original author, that would have made a tiny bit of difference in how it might have been recieved. But, more directly, media tells us:
  • The asterix solution suggested is semiotically indistinguishable from the original. One hears the same word in one's head, and knows what it says, either way. I continue to be frustrated by the school's willingness to treat students who use this "work-around" less severely than students who might go ahead and use the actual word. The symbol is NOT the thing, nor does mere linguistic substitute of one symbol (with asterix) for another (without asterix) make a real difference in how the word is heard and experienced.

  • There is a big difference between explicit language and explicit images called up BY language. The MPAA ratings board, for better or worse, is a vehicle of this school of thought -- you'll note, for example, that graphic scenes cause R ratings, while use of this particular word does not. I have seen many "jokes" in our on-line faculty-only humor folder which bother me MUCH more than this, and many of those use perfectly legitimate WORDS to describe explicit scenes, sex, etc. In the case cited here, the word is used only to break through our stereotype of older people, and provide a broader sense of "real persona" by coupling that with the otherwise polite language of the author to the imagined correspondent -- which is where the joke gets its humor.

  • "Voice," though often misread in virtual spaces, is nonetheless key in media and meaning issues. If a teacher used this word in their OWN voice in a discussion folder or personal email, I'd be horrified. But this example is clearly not written by the person who passed it along, and it is, further, the convention of the humor folder to assume that folks who post are not doing so in their own voice. This "twice-removed" lessens my concern for this language even further.

  • The existence of a humor folder, nestled inside another faculty-only folder called "Community Circle," begs the inclusion in that folder of otherwise-inappropriate ideas, language, posts, etc. As a medium, humor is by defintion risky -- it must run counter to societal norms, or it just ain't funny. Examining the humor folder, I find potentially offensive sexism and gender-ism, subtle classism, age-ism, regional-ism, and other "ain't they funnier than us" as the norm in the folder, not the exception. And, as I suggest above, such ISMS are, by any modern social science perspective, more detrimental to the kinds of things that our school holds sacred -- celebration of difference, diversity, mediation, kindness -- than any single word could be (EXCEPT in the case of words which are by definition anti-group and thus exclusive to the point of comunity offense...which this word is not).

  • It is also true in the study of cultures and communication that every culture in the world has, and NEEDS, some outlet to "play" with their own societal taboos -- some safe place or places to explore these taboos by walking up to the line and testing the limits of aceptability. Societies which do NOT allow this are grey (think soviet communism) and die out quickly.

So. On both professional and personal levels, then, I am more bothered by explicit content than language -- as imagery has been proven, over and over, to be a greater breach of taboo, and thus a greater threat to societal norms. This example brought up here has no explicit content, merely symbols which in OTHER contexts are merely more likely than other symbols to have offensive meaning. This is, in other words, a tame example by virtual faculty lounge humor folder standards.

More, because of how humor is defined in culture, either there is no place on such virtual lounges for the underculture or we must allow that by definition anything that goes in the humor folder will be offensive to somebody, even if that somebody is not a member of our particular group. The former is certainly a possible conclusion, but to choose it seems to me a crying shame -- because it would only cause more demand for such an outlet away from each other, which creates tension in the community itself by driving us away from each other.

If we think the folder itself has value -- if we wish it to continue to exist at all -- it might be necessary to accept that this value is slightly different for everyone. I don't think we can have it both ways.

Some posts do cross lines. But, as there seems to be a real, determinant societal need -- in any society -- for exactly this release valve, I would humbly suggest that, while it would be surely appropriate for someone who felt that a given post had "crossed the line" to write, privately, to the original poster of that message and suggest that they, personally, were uncomfortable, no one offended individual should be able to determine taboo lines in a given culture or institution. It would still be important for that person to both a) be willing to accept disagreement from that poster, and live with it, and b) choose, as I know others have, to discontinue reading the folder if the trend continues, and continues to bothers them.

If it helps, in my own case, I have stopped reading several folders -- most recently, I stopped reading the faculty & staff conference folder right before the election, as things were getting politically insensitive and viewpoint-ist in there for a while -- when it became necessary.

Because if there's anything I've learned in my study of institutional communication, especially in educational institutions it is this: Ultimately, the only speech which will offend NO one is no speech at all.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:31 AM |

Fuckin' a', man. Oh, and speaking of images, what's grey and comes in quarts?

Answer: an elephant.
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