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Subj: Re: swearing

Date: 11/04/97


Alan Makenzie writes: (

<< If we analyse it, understand it and show that it can be subverted by using alternative communicative paths, then perhaps teaching those paths would help our students more. But ANY part of the language system is worth studying. >>

I wholly endorse both of these statements. It is the attitude of the educator, more than the nature of the subject matter itself which is deserving of closer attention in determining success in the classroom, and for these lessons specifically, I think.

I'm very interested in exploring imaginative ways of responding to conflict, generally.

The rational aspect of language skill ("literal-mindedness"), involves an awareness of the process, as well as the product, of transmitting ideas, concepts and impressions, similar to the exercises applied and observed in the process of mathematics or music and sports, providing a substantial framework for "ordering" one's experience. This is especially of value in reinforcing one's ability to reason, to evaluate information both subjectively and objectively, and to make choices. (Better choices : better outcome).

The cumulative experience, of recognizing these patterns in language, strongly supports the development of critical thinking in general, and of problem-solving skills in particular. Analysis is a generative component of sound decision-making. It would be difficult to pursuade me that it not a good and useful thing in practice, to stress the extraordinary value in one's acquiring, now, the ability to exercise this power, at will.

<<Whatever we do, we are increasing the options available to students and allowing them to choose from those options. And any teacher is also perfectly within their rights to say "no" to teaching swearing.>>

Agreed, the better the options are that we have, the better the choices we make:

This inspiring thought is enscribed in stone above the entry to the English Dept.:

"Here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor tolerate error so long as reason is free to combat it." (Th. Jefferson - The University of Virginia)

Ginger McCarthy
Department of Special Programming
WTJU Box 711 Newcomb Hall Station
Charlottesville, VA 22904-0711

Background Essays:

Subj: Re: Swear words

Date: 10/30/97



Alan Mackenzie ( writes:

<< On empowerment: ..."It makes your language more powerful." Swearing adds poewr to whatever you say, even if it only makes you feel more powerful. It is the language of the powerless, the less powered and the disadvantaged. Powerful people use it in anger, to accomodate to less powerful peope and to impress (show off their power). Teaching it to students can empower them in certain situations. >>

I question the wisdom of this judgement for a number of reasons. I think it's a concession that is inadvisable for teachers to make, although I acknowledge the social pressures that might seem to justify it. I was 27 years old before ever heard or read any vulgar words, or any reference to them, and distinctly recall the physical sensation of shock, followed by a sinking feeling of despair, the first time I heard this language used. I felt disdain for it, thought less of the person using it, but soon realized that the social proscriptions weren't just against the language, but against one's finding oneself, tragically, in a situation which would give rise to the use of it.

For those who have never faced The Great Obstacles: hunger, chronic mental or physical illness, deep despair and rage (which springs from righteous indignation of all kinds), the use of this language is seen as a social "dis-ease." Actually, it is more of a symptom, that there are greater, more serious issues which have been neglected, either actively or passively, which need to be effectively addressed.

The post-modern, ubiquitous use of this language springs from increased incidence of extreme poverty, inadaquate nutrition, the effects of racisism of all varieties, alienation -- from families, from communities, from belief systems, both religious and traditional. The younger generations have adopted the use of this language as a pattern of cultural identity, it seems, perhaps in solidarity with an unspoken acknowledgement that the attitudes and institutions which failed to address these social and economic challenges may not be worthy of deference afterall. This has important implications for teachers, in an excellent position to enable students to rise to the occasion here.

I share their concerns, but also recognize an inconsistency. I think it's possible to balance compassion for the suffering of the unempowered, with insight and energy to respond to this kind of adversity in a more imaginative way, to support efforts of individual students to empower themselves to "choose one's own way" of responding to any situation, more creatively than destructively. A more forward-thinking solidarity which promotes a vision of infinite perfectibility will ultimately be more empowering than capitulation, consciously or unconsciously, to the aggressive, but futile, tidal wave of cynicism, which vulgar language exists, in necessity, to convey.

Ginger McCarthy
Creative Response To Conflict
Radiokids! Children's Radio Workshops

Subj: Re: Swear words
Date: 11/01/97

CC: (, (, (, (Biz1Biz), (jixo) Mert ( writes:

<<Whether you like it or not, this language is English, and as English teachers it is our job to teach English.>>

Actually, my argument was not based on the notion that -- whether or not I like it -- it would be inappropriate to include a refererence to these invectives in the course of teaching English. I am disputing, instead, the philosophical position which might be implied in the belief which Alan articulates in these statements:

<<It is the language of the powerless, the less powered and the disadvantaged. Powerful people use it in anger, to accomodate to less powerful peope and to impress (show off their power). Teaching it to students can empower them in certain situations. >>

I am suggesting only that it would be appropriate for teachers to give serious consideration to thinking creatively, themselves, about how they might look to helping the students find more effective ways of empowering themselves and of challenging the attempts which others may make to oppress them, generally, -- in any number of ways.

When I began reading Chaucer, I also was able to find the information you thoughtfully provided, by consulting a good dictionary. I would tend to support options to recognize in some other and more constructive way, the complexity of the intense and frequently conflicting emotions which these words have been consigned, by default, to express.

I argue also on behalf of those who believe that in a civil society this language is not acceptable in a public forum, while acknowledging that the language individuals care to use in private remains clearly their own business.

At the least, I think teachers ought to consider finding a way to make this kind of distinction. To do otherwise would be a tacit acceptance of a kind of brutality in protecting the rights of a small, perhaps indifferent, intractable minority, to accost us in our common places with what can only be described as an overwhelmingly murky world view.

Subj: Re: swearing / Choosing one's own way
Date: 11/04/97

Alan Mackenzie wrote: << It is the language of the powerless, the less powered and the disadvantaged.. Teaching it to students can empower them >>

How does language education touch potential instigators of trouble, as well as its potential victims? Couldn't there be a more active variable in the intersection of language and culture, in responding to the astonishing lack of civility and increase in personal and public violence, especially as it is seen more and more as "glamorous?" (see the current issue of Vogue magazine) The psychic "states of mind" revealed in the use of "blue" language and its subculture are among the darkest and most complex in our human nature. Let's acknowledge this with optimistic sobriety; careful not to glamorize it, inadvertantly, in order to lessen the awkwardness in discussing it.

There is a far greater utility in empowering a defiant individual through mastery of English grammar and syntax. Whether or not one chooses to apply them in one's own speech, the rules of linguistic order must be recognized as useful in describing relationships among persons and objects, but above all as best hope for social order.

Teaching the use of "blue" language, as a means of empowerment, could even have a limiting and compressing effect on the choices the individual students will make -- not only the "choice" to express themselves in this way, but more critically, in assessing and evaluating their experience and the ways in which their experience is ultimately processed. Ironically, I forsee in this an unintended but grave consequence: the transmission of a unique, unwitting form of self-censorship, based on a narrow interpretation of events, limited in what seems to be a very regressive linguistic custom, in current practice in the last several decades, through default.

I'm suggesting an innovative response from educators in the reciprocal relationship between language and culture, at least within one's potential sphere of influence. Use of language can be a performance of art or product of craft. I agree with the New York-based art critic (Robert Pincus Whitten ?), who says, essentially: craft reflects the culture; art moves it forward. I suggest providing a more neutral forum for students, to "choose one's own way."

Ginger McCarthy
Director, Department of Special Programming
WTJU Box 711 Newcomb Hall Station
Charlottesville, VA 22904-0711 email:
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