You’re Better than Language like That
Help me out here. Last week, I was in the audience for Famous Writer X, who had been invited to my university, and whom said university had paid a handsome sum. We were a diverse audience, made up of community members, university dignitaries, faculty members, graduate students, and a large number of undergraduate students. In short, this was a very big deal, and the audience filled a performance hall in our student union.
Ever since then, I’ve been conflicted when it comes to deciding how I feel about the rather earthy language that Famous Writer X used in his presentation—not the earthy language from the selections of his work that he read, but the language that he used when talking to the audience members or answering their questions during the q and a. One of those questions happened to be, “Why do you use so much profanity in your work?” Famous Writer X responded by saying, “I suppose you’re also wondering why I use so much profanity in my presentation.”
“Well, yes,” I might have said. “I’m curious about that myself.”
Famous Writer X gave an answer to why he used profanity in his work, an answer that I confess I’ve forgotten, but one that I found convincing at the time. Characters are characters, after all, and they speak from their worlds in stories and novels. I understand that. Famous Writer X never got around to addressing the question of why he used so much profanity in his presentation, something I would see repeated at an awards banquet later that evening, a banquet at which he delivered the keynote address. A more formal setting with student scholarship recipients and their families on hand. I was left, then, to try to figure out I felt about our famous guest using such language at these two events.
One part of me understands that such language, such swagger, is part of his persona and obviously an attempt to bond with undergraduate students whom he must assume will relate to his street-wise irreverence. Another part of me thinks, though, that we should all be careful not to assume too much.
I remember when I was an MFA student and just learning how to be a teacher. The professor in charge of teacher training was a wonderful person from whom to learn. He taught us about practical courtesies such as always remembering to erase your chalkboard after your class was done, and being sure not to linger too long into the ten-minute break between classes. “Five minutes belong to you,” he said, “and the other five belong to the instructor of the next class.” One thing he taught us that I’ve always tried to remember was that we should never alienate a student, and, if we thought we had through something we’d said or done, we should correct the matter in private with the student.
I’ve thought of this advice in the days following Famous Writer X’s visit. I’ve thought about how the language he used assumed that his audience used similar language. I should say here that I’m no prude, but I can’t stop thinking about those members of the audience whose vocabulary didn’t include those words that Famous Writer X used and how there may have been some students who felt excluded from the audience that he was assuming would welcome his kind of talk. I’ve also thought about an essay, “No Ears Have Heard,” that I published last year in The Sun Magazine. In that essay, I recall a time when I was a teenager and I came home to find my parents visiting with some friends from church. When my father asked me where I’d been, I said I’d just been out “screwing around.” Mild language compared to the words Famous Writer X favored, but provocative nonetheless. After my parents’ friends were gone, my mother told me I was better than language like that. She asked me whether that phrase was something that I thought those friends would use. I couldn’t answer; I was too ashamed. My mother was a timid, soft-spoken woman. “Then you shouldn’t use it around them,” she said. “Do you understand?”
I did, and I still do. I sometimes fall short of my mother’s lesson, but I try my best to remember not to offend by assuming something about my audience I have no right to assume.
So this is ultimately a lesson about teaching, which as I grow older seems to be more and more about how successfully I can make students comfortable, make them trust me, make them open themselves to what I have to share with them about the craft of writing, invite them to take chances, to try things they haven’t tried before, to push them forward in the development of their talents. To my way of thinking, this is a process that takes a good deal of humility and courtesy, but then again, I’m not Famous Writer X. I could be wrong about all of this. What do you think?
I love this post, Lee. Not just for what you say about language and teaching (I still struggle not to curse in class, simply because I’m on an adrenaline rush, and, for whatever reason, that brings out the curse words), but also for the advice your MFA mentor gave you. I don’t know how many times I’ve apologized to students for something I’ve done in class to alienate or hurt them unfairly. I always feel like I’m violating some unspoken rule of the professor union when I do so, something about not letting them see you be weak. But I’m a better teacher when I do, and almost always, it brings that student closer to the heart of the class.
I have used colorful and profane language all of my life. It’s a kind of smoke I blow, an edge I like to show and also a form of playfulness with words. It’s an exercise of freedom. It’s a refusal to bend to conventional sensibilities.
However, because I am not famous and because I have little influence other than in my immediate community and classrooms, I have been compelled time and again to evaluate my use of language since it does, in fact, put people off. When I shifted briefly from the college classroom to the high school classroom — I had to rehabilitate myself without delay — you absolutely could not use “inappropriate” language around teenagers. Mostly because of what their parents wanted to believe about what their teenagers should or should not experience in the classroom. (These are the same parents who freaked out when I taught Toni Morrisson’s Beloved or lightly and appropriately covered the Beat poets or Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s nest.)
As an undergraduate with staunchly conservative parents (who notified a psychologist when they discovered I’d been reading Ginsberg at age 17), I was positively LIBERATED by the possibilities these authors presented to me.
I have resented people’s easy offense to uses of language. I have resented, especially, my Christ-following compatriots who so sanitize their forms of expression to be of no earthly good to hard-living people who could use some Good News. When I was at my husband’s hospital bedside after he’d been randomly assaulted, I felt oppressed by well-meaning visitors who couldn’t understand my need to use the F-word in the same breath with my words about God or faith. I call them “Hallmark”Christians. There is time for daisy, kitten and sunflower condolence cards and there is a time to be real.
Having said all that…. phew…. I have, in fact, stopped using so much profanity. And when I feel a need to use it a lot, I recognize I am going through another anger or bravado patch and I take some time apart for solitude and spiritual work. I stopped using it in the classroom because it did put off certain students — particularly church-going adult students — and ESL students. I stopped using profanity as a matter of consideration.
I’m a longtime member of AA, and I would never have been able to develop a spiritual life were it not for the genuinely miraculously recovered people I met who chain-smoked and could use God and the f-word quite comfortably and appropriately in the same sentences. Truck-drivers and guys who couldn’t read taught me how to pray. Now that I live in Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of AA, people are used to me bitching about how proper people in AA are. They do not use profanity in Akron AA and take pride in that. When I need to express myself that way, I find it oppressive, but I honor the AA culture here as a matter of courtesy.
I confess that I do feel better overall when I’m not NEEDing to express myself that way.
Thanks for bringing up the subject, Lee. I’m probably a bit all over the map with it.
Oh, and another thing: Hip hop music/poetry is a legit, deeply coded form of expression. Authentic and necessary (as well as gratuitous and commercial). Some kinds of truths can only be expressed in this way. (It’s not a form for lightweights.)
Appreciate the forum. Have never had a chance to unload my thoughts on this around teachers/writers. I welcome responses and challenges to anything I’ve laid out here. I’ll do my best not to take offense!
I use earthy language in my writing, in mixed company, and in the classroom. It’s like pepper– a little goes a long way. I grew up with crazy uncles, in a union household. I had family that cursed, and drank, and smoked. I had an uncle that was shot in the butt after an unsuccessful robbery. Perhaps I was doomed. The thing is, I don’t trust people that control their language too much. I’m uneasy around them. The air is too pure, and the way I have to watch what I say is like those itchy shirts we had to wear to church. Some people are too showy with their profanity. For them it’s tassels on a bike. Personally, if my bike came with tassels, I cut them off. But when I’d try to jump the big ditch on my tassel-free bike, and I’d not quite make it, I was an Evel Knievel with my language. I think what I ultimately feel is that I’m not better than language like that. I’m a screwer arounder, and though I’m sure I would have loved your mother, I feel for the young man who just said what was on his mind, without pretense or shame. There’s an innocence to that which is just as healthy as the urge not to offend.
Lee, I just might know which author you’re talking about, because I also heard a very famous/revered/respected Author X give a profanity-laced keynote speech at a conference years ago. And I had the same reaction. Surprised and baffled. And to this day, it’s all I remember about the speech–the swearing, not the message.
I’ll be the first to admit I suffer from Sailor Mouth Syndrome when I get worked up or am just being lazy, but I’ve never used profanity in front of a crowd or a classroom. I love your point about running the risk of alienating an audience member or student. That’s so true. I know a fellow professor who actually had several students ask him to tone down his swearing in class because, simply put, it was distracting. I would sure hate to put in all that thought, time, and energy into a speech or a lecture for the crowd to walk away and only remember that I dropped a bunch of f-bombs.
I grew up tagging along with my older brother and his friends. Using profanity behind our parents’ backs was an exciting way to be accepted by each other. The first time I slipped and let one of these new words out in front of my mom, she informed me that I would never catch a good guy if I refused to speak like a lady.
Fast forward to today and when one of my friends found out I was interviewing for nanny positions, he laughed and told me my mouth would keep me from getting hired. Apparently, I can compete with any sailor or trucker around and I got so used to it that I hadn’t even noticed. But when I started working with children, my language wasn’t a problem. Maybe all those years of keeping it away from my parents and their friends helped me to see that there is a time and place for everything, and mainly it depends on your “audience.” To me, when around children, older family members, adults who don’t swear, employers, and crowds where all of the above could be included, you just don’t do it. I agree that there are better ways of expressing things, even though cursing comes natural to me (should I be more ashamed of that?) and that there is a time and a place for both.
“An audience will remember not what you said but how you made them feel.” Go ahead, use profanity, and they will remember not what you said but that you are an aging, pathetic wanna-be hepcat.
Well, our individual reactions to Junot Diaz up there should speak volumes. On the one hand it is offensive and off-putting and shocking in the midst of this very genteel discussion. On the other, I found it, well, really funny. It speaks a volume without speaking a volume (which I think we all can agree is an art form).
As soon as I started reading this post, I was pretty sure I knew to whom you were referring, without having to google it or anything, because I have heard the same writer speak on a couple of different occasions. I think this is just his usual m.o. and I can see it from both sides. The first time I heard him speak, I was kind of charmed by what he said, profanity included, because it seemed genuine and familiar and even endearing. The second time, it seemed like a bit more of an act, his shtick as it were, but it seemed to work just as well on getting at least the younger writers and students in the audience to respond. So I think when a given entity invites this particular Famous Writer to speak, they should know what to expect, and they will get exactly the kind of act they are paying for. Will everyone like it? No. Will some who are perhaps older, or more conservative, or who were raised to have more courtly manners, be offended? Probably. In the end, I like this author’s work; I also like his public persona. I know I couldn’t pull off an act like that, nor would I try. It simply wouldn’t work for me. But in my opinion, it really works for him.
Not only is this a wonderful post, Lee, but it speaks of things about which I have been contemplative just lately.
The sad but simple truth is this: the manner in which people use language is devolving. What’s more, it signals something far deeper and insidious with regard to culture and society: namely the erosion of common courtesy as it applies to everyone.
In art, one must expect turns of vernacular that can be sometimes florid and shocking, especially if one wishes to create characters who emerge from various — and disparate — walks of life. To write a story in which all of the characters speak the same is neither honest nor enlivening. In my own work, this is something about which I’m vigilant. For example, the central character of one of my stories is a man who was raised in an abusive, patriarchal household. Naturally, he has been influenced by his father’s coarse manner and behavior. As a result, my character’s parental role model has left him rather inchoate; he simply does not know how to deal with others raised in a manner different from his own. Throughout his formative years, my character observed a household in which emotions were stifled and singular control meant everything. As a result, my character is not particularly adept at communicating well with others, and he is often confrontational. His temper gets the best of him and he often speaks or acts before he thinks. Now, for me to “clean up,” as it were, this character’s language would be a great disservice. Characters are who they are, after all, and we as writers must respect this if we’re to create anything of honest worth. I always make a deal with my characters: I never censor them; I never judge them; and I never force them to say or do things they wouldn’t say or do. It’s my creative truce.
But art is one thing; life is another. We must cultivate kinder, more accepting attitudes toward one another. It still happens, sure; but as much as it used to happen? Sadly, no.
Being a server in a restaurant, I find myself daily observing a plethora of personalities, whether it be among my fellow associates or the guests whom we serve. It’s terrific training ground for a writer (use what you’re given and apply it to your art); it can be a cause for joy and amity; but it can also be depressing and alarming. To offer an example of the latter: just the other evening, I observed a couple at dinner. The male was demonstrative and brusque; he sat opposite his girlfriend and spoke to her in so unkind a manner that she intermittently wept. It’s a sad thing to see, and often it damages the joy one observes in others who are happy and genuinely thoughtful of one another.
I think, too, that we’re becoming more cynical and guarded as a species. Apathy seems to be on the rise. Another example: yesterday, I was entering a bookstore and paused to hold open the door for a woman who was entering behind me. She halted for a moment, blinked, and then smiled. “Well,” she said, “it’s nice to see there are still a few gentlemen left in the world.” It was kind of her to say this. I didn’t hold the door open for her so she’d make such a response; I just do my best to be a kind person. But her surprise at my gesture was, I think, rather telling. To be surprised by kindness: should it not be a rule rather than an exception?
Added to this is an observation of irony: we live in a world that is acutely more connected than ever before. We have the internet, cell phones; we can exchange ideas with people we’ve never (nor will ever) meet; we can text our thoughts in flashes and bursts. And yet… it seems that people are taking less time to communicate with those who are directly in their proximity. I once served a husband and wife who met for lunch. During said lunch, he and she spent nearly the entire hour with their respective cell phones stuck to their ears, speaking to other people. Why did they even bother to have a lunch date? I wondered.
But language and its proper utilization seem to be edging toward the domain of an endangered species. Just consider proper grammar. Now, yes, I am a grammarian; I respect language and for it exercise reverence. But I’m not prudish about it. I can sling slang with the best of them (though to end a sentence in a preposition is anathema to me, ha ha). But consider basic skills when perusing the “comments” sections of any given site. As for educational fortitude as it applies to this country… well, let’s just say it’s very unfortunate. And the vociferous, divisive tones one finds in said posts is often disappointing and, on occasion, abhorrent.
So, in art I understand when language is presented in a coarse fashion. Sometimes it’s the best and most honest way to convey character or situation. I remember reading Andersonville and coming upon a certain Anglo-Saxon four-letter word beginning with “f.” Now, this was a novel written in the ’50s; naturally, it surprised me. But given the perditious situation in which the characters had been consigned to live, the word was accurate and therefore permissible. The same thing applies to the same word’s use in The Catcher in the Rye. Or, more recently, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Or, too, Olive Kitteridge, in which a woman (a local pianist) is confronted by the man with whom she’s been having an affair. She has called his house, which apparently is something a philanderer prefers his mistress not to do; and he, in turn, calls her a cruel, shocking name: four letters, begins with “c” and ends in “t.” Was I stunned? Yes. But did I have a better understanding of the character of the philanderer and the place from which he was coming? Yes… in a manner made most crystalline by Ms. Strout. Had she had the man call the woman a name reserved more usually for a female dog, the effect would have been neither the same nor as accurate.
But we, both as artists and as people, would do well to comport ourselves with some modicum of intelligence and discretion. It’s important for us to be mindful of the ways in which we connect to others. It’s not merely about making an impression; more, it’s about presenting ourselves as the people we are (or sometimes would like to be). We’re every single one of us a work-in-progress, and we’re sharing a planet. Wouldn’t it be better if we did our best to learn from one another, be kind and courteous, and connect in ways not meant to alienate and obfuscate?
As a teacher of 28 years I have thought about this often. I can count on my fingers and toes the number of times I have uttered a profane word in class- and never an F word or Mf word among them. I have a teaching friend who adorns each class with those phrases. My own daughter took his class and loved his teaching style, but some of her fellow students did not. In his defense, he says he is just trying to reach students on their level and keep them awake. I would contend that part of our jobs as teachers is to make students better than they are at present; to give them a professional approach – to at least teach them there is a time and a place for the profane – and a time and place to not be profane. The question then becomes which place is the classroom?
I found your post rather insightful. What’s more, I think the question it posits is an important one — and one that also indicates something rather unfortunate.
With regard to your teaching friend, you wrote that he utilizes profanity so as to reach students on their level and to keep them awake. Which begs the question of how he regards younger generations of students. Does he see them as being, uniformly, a horde of vulgarians? If so, this is quite sad.
Understand, I’m no prude. As a writer, I allow my characters to be who they are. Some can be profane and rather crude; some; mildly so; others, not so much. What’s important to me is that they’re human. And being so, they must reflect our species, which is itself imperfect. Which means that I myself am imperfect. Which means that on occasion my language may be considered somewhat irreverent.
I’ve not seen the interior of a school in some years, but I do recall an English teacher whom I admired very much. In fact, I still admire her, so much so that over the years she and I have kept in touch.
What I recall specifically is that she spoke to us on our level, as it were, and did so without having to pepper her speech with profanity. Which isn’t to say that now and then she didn’t; she did. And as I recall it, at such times the profanity held a power that immediately got our attention. Why? I think it was because she did it so rarely, thus when she did, we adroitly took notice.
One such instance:
As a class, we were to read Mr. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The moment the book was given to us, we emitted a collective groan. A book (worse: a classic!) written by a man long dead? What qualities could it contain that would possibly appeal to us?
Upon hearing the class respond in this way, our teacher ordered us to put our copies of the book (just passed out to us) under our desks. Why? As according to our teacher: “You don’t deserve to have it in your hands, much less look at it.” So as instructed, in the baskets under our desks the books went.
Our teacher, looking rather florid, came to stand before her desk. Facing us, she said: “I have to tell you, your response really pisses me off.”
What was that? What did she just say?
As if hearing our thoughts, she echoed: “Yes. It PISSES me off.”
This was a response that gained our collective attention, and after a moment, she proceeded. “Why do you think I’m assigning you this book? Do you think it’s to be mean? Do you think it’s so you’ll have something to do tonight rather than going out and getting into trouble?” She shook her head, her consternation palpable. “If that’s what you think,” she said, “then I have completely failed at being a teacher.”
Some of us in the class traded glances. What? What’d she say? She’s a failure?
Then our teacher let us have it, as it were, but the manner in which she did so was quite cunning. She spoke of how reading was, in itself, a freedom. Of how someone (Mr. Steinbeck, in this case) felt so passionately about something in the world that he had to sit down and WRITE about it and SHARE it with his fellow human beings. Of how a book was made up of letters that formed words that formed sentences that formed paragraphs that formed pages that formed ideas about who WE are, from where WE’VE come, and maybe even offered us an idea of where WE might be headed.
In short, she made reading benevolently infectious. To this, she said: “How about this? While we’re reading this book you think is going to be so boring, there will be no homework. In fact, we’ll read it only in class, chapter by chapter, together. That means no reading ahead. If you finish a chapter before everyone else, then sit and do homework for another class, stare into space, twiddle your thumbs — I don’t care.”
And that’s exactly what we did. We read Of Mice and Men chapter by chapter. NO READING OR PEEKING AHEAD. I recall fondly now how the student who was most verbal in his desire not to read the book was the one whom our teacher inevitably caught trying to read ahead. I’ll never forget the silence of the classroom, all of us sitting there with our tattered copies of Mice, and into that silence the intermittent command of “Lance, put the book AWAY and wait for everyone else to catch up.”
I have to say, it was the experience of reading Of Mice and Men in that way which set me on the road to becoming not only an avid reader, but a writer. And to this day, I still thank Kay (our teacher) for the wonderful gift she gave us — a gift we didn’t even know we were receiving at the time.
One of the best things about her? She was a teacher who didn’t lower herself to some imagined level with regard to us students; rather, she allowed us to rise within ourselves and to learn that what we thought and felt had worth.
Which is to say there’s nothing wrong with a dropped expletive here and there. Provided, of course, it’s merited and not neutralized by overuse. But what’s more important is to be present and involved; to be genuinely engaged in the lives of others, whether they be students or not.
“Such language, such swagger, is part of his persona and obviously an attempt to bond with undergraduate students whom he must assume will relate to his street-wise irreverence.”
Or an obvious attempt to disassociate himself from uptight dickhead dignitaries and haughty halfwits?
Lee: I also grew up in rural Illinois, not long after you, and I think that context explains some of this. Places and times have changed. Is that an over simplification? Perhaps. But in San Diego, CA, USA, circa 2013, the F-word is ubiquitous. It’s embedded in my vocabulary enough to shock my mom when she visits, and I better clean up if there’s any hope for my kids. But at least our generation has eradicated the C-word, w/r/t female anatomy, so common among Updike and other modern writers. C- or F-word, your question about courtesy will probably find a different answer depending on the audience. Some people respect a clean tongue. Others find it prudish. So you must please yourself. Thanks for the thoughts. I think I’ll try to clean up.
Are you referring to “Glad Games” here; to Ms. Porter’s eponymous heroine who learns to be only too happy to have crutches for which she has no need?
And what, precisely, of “crutches”? Let’s speak of them, no? Do you mind, or shall we masticate a bit?
Perhaps there those on this planet who utilize “crutches” (metaphorically speaking) so as to evade fear of what they surreptitiously purport to be their own shortcomings? Understand, my intention is not to be rude. But a three-word post leaves much to be desired: namely discernment and amelioration with regard to what he or she is trying fractiously to say.
Unless you are an interloper, an avid reader (and writer) in his own right would know you for the person who created a wonderful character named Oscar, a ghetto nerd at the end of the world who desired above all else to find love and beauty in same said world; who, before the insidious fuku found him, was able to generate enough hip-motism to approximate a short but recognized career as a pint-sized Casanova; who (unlike his sister, Lola; and “friend,” Yunior) refused to surrender the hope that people in the world, misguided though many of them may be, were basically good and well-meaning.
Poor Oscar. For such an intelligent young man (fairly bursting in intellectual corpulence when it comes to pop iconography: Tolkien, King, Lee, and Kirby — to name but a few), one thinks he might have done well to read a little Hemingway: namely what Papa says with regard to what the world does impartially to the truly courageous and good and gentle of our species.
I spent a few pleasant days and evenings tooling around New Jersey and the DR with Oscar; his ancestors; his sister, Lola; and his buddy, Yunior. I understood Oscar’s goodness, and I tried very much — a la Mr. Singer’s Gimpel (who surely WAS no fool) — to believe that people as kind as Oscar might, in one form or another, exist.
But forgive me: the subject was “crutches.” Not those Oscar might have utilized following his ostensibly doomed fall from the train bridge (apparently, though, fuku had other plans for him), but rather the ones people utilize so as to elevate and feel better about themselves whilst simultaneously trying to keep the rest of the world staunchly at bay.
Some use weights to affect physically imposing physiques; some use swagger to hide fears of inadequacy; some use florid vernacular in the hope of appearing hypnotic and tres frais; and some use nothing because they do not have to — they simply present themselves as they are, eschewing vulnerability and inviting others to see them clearly, unsaddled by encumbrance, emboldened by authenticity.
The latter surely doesn’t apply to Lola, who embarked on a series of death-defying stunts and artificial metamorphoses in order to distance herself from the formidable Belicia (and all that she and her cursed ancestry implied). Why, fifty-eight pages into Oscar’s brief and wondrous life, we witness Lola committing the most horrendous and decimating act that children can commit (or say) with regard to their parents: she says something quite cruel and dismissive about dear Beli, using a rather ugly verb that has to do with copulation (but the word on page 58 is not, alas, “copulate”), which is followed by the feminine pronoun. Given her emotional state at the time (and perhaps showing a juvenile reaction to her mother’s own mortality), it made sense the put-upon daughter would feel this way, and thus would speak accordingly. Poor Lola, she escapes to Wildwood for a time, has a series of unhappy trysts, and continues fiercely to love (and to try futilely to protect) her dear brother.
Nor does it apply to Yunior, an over-libidinous boy-man wading up to his misogynistic tonsils in the testosterone-fueled foam and froth of communal male walla, and whose narrative bent (no secret there!) is likewise roiling and lapping with expletive-laden, twisty terms of macho vernacular. Poor Yunior. If he’d stopped for one second and thought with the proper “head,” he would not have lost the true love of his life, the love of which Oscar speaks and Yunior himself might have earned had he chosen to clap his trap for one second and grow up emotionally (the biological element seems to have taken care of itself).
But it DOES apply to Oscar, the poor lamb, who could not help but to believe that goodness existed in everyone — a beneficence he or she might have recognized if only he or she had taken the time to do so. No Pollyanna delusions for dear Oscar! No Magic! cards for him, one of fiction’s penultimate scapegoats! Oscar had no need of such cards and their processed hocus pocus, for he already possessed the magic: it lay sparking in his very DNA; in his kindness of heart; in his manners and politeness toward others; in his belief in the beauty of life. The beauty! The beauty!
Oh, if only WE knew, Mr. Diaz [insert golden-eyed Mongoose wink]. If only some of us knew the best — the kindest and most polite — way to see beauty in the world is to speak of it with reverence and courtesy; to share and extend it as such; to recognize it for what it is and behave with gentle deference when standing before a group of people comprised of myriad walks of life.
Sadly though, some hold fast to those well-worn, splintered, sweat-stained “crutches” (a veritable metamorphosis of the legendary “life preserver” thrown in many a tragic tale — alas, another story); some do not trust themselves to oraculate with grace and intelligence; some (perhaps out of fear?) reduce themselves and their formidable talent by spewing jargon (read: graffiti) better left scrawled on the damp cement walls of lavatories.
Sometimes people have diarrhea so bad their mouths water before each detonation, no? And sometimes people open their mouths, as though to let drop golden nuggets of wisdom gleaned from experience, and instead accost perfect, well-meaning strangers with a torrential and turgid rush of offal. There’s nothing hip-notic about verbal shock; rather, one might say it’s hype-notic (if you will): someone meaning to come off as hip (hype) and cool ends up merely presenting himself as fumbling, perhaps even misanthropic, but certainly crude (in the petulantly juvenile sense of the word).
There is a time and place for everything (both in life and in the pages of a story), and the way we grow and become better people is by recognizing this. It has nothing to do with convention or marrow-numbing sycophancy; it has everything to do with deferential grace.
“Deferential grace.” I like that. I think it encompasses succinctly what Oscar taught me about life. In fact, it’s a lesson to which I’ve adhered; one of those precious and priceless gifts sometimes bestowed upon us by fiction. Wouldn’t the world be a better, kinder, gentler place if others gleaned such worthy instruction from Mr. de Leon’s life?
Imagine, if you will, Mr. Diaz, the beauty that lies inherent in that!
I’m not sure what’s more compelling here–the initial posts or all the comments following. And people are coming from all kinds of different directions. Language has power, that’s certainly not in dispute. And language too, can be held up as a badge of honor–whether it’s a badge for the class you grew up in, the kind of neighborhood or childhood you survived, and perhaps even the class you were supposed to strive for (or rebel against). But language also is a weapon. We can refuse to use the language of our oppressors, but language itself oppresses.
I used to teach in a different Ohio institution, and I’d have my students–predominantly white, predominantly affluent–write on the history of the word “ghetto,” a word they used, affectionately, to describe the student housing at this particular institution–a college nestled firmly between an affluent white flight area and an area decimated by white flight in the mid-sized city. The main contention of the students was that they had a “right” to use this word because they’d morphed its meaning. “It doesn’t mean what it used to,” these students would claim. I think the same can happen (has happened) with curse words. “Bitch” doesn’t mean what it used to, “fuck” doesn’t mean what it used to–in part because they’re so prevalent now perhaps–and yet they absolutely DO mean what they used to.
I grew up in a place and in a class where curse words were used–both by me and against me–and I make the choice now not to use them because I recognize their power. Not just the power to hurt me or others, but also as a power that steals my creativity. Far too many resort to these words because they believe they have nothing else–that’s a pretty powerful statement to make in literature–but in life (and in teaching) I prefer to present far more options to students. I don’t necessarily expect “better” (another loaded phrase), I just expect more.
It is telling that you deleted the comments with which you did not agree. Your response to Mr. Diaz’s provocation only serves to validate his prejudice that academics are prone to being precious and small. I am sure, Pollyanna, that you will delete this comment just the same. It is sad that a room full of adults cannot bear such a small offense as street cursing. Especially at a university. Grow up.
Just for the record, I deleted only the comments that seemed to be falsely attributed to Mr. Diaz. I felt it wouldn’t be fair to him to let those comments stand on the site since I have doubts that he’s really the one who made them.