Someone on the IT staff of my school obviously did! Our email server now blocks “dirty” words.
I found this out when one of mine students told me one afternoon. I don’t remember what brought it up, but the young man informed me that the email server was blocking “dirty” words. I challenged him, but he stuck to his guns.
“No! Really, Dr. G! You can’t send them! I tested it myself!”
“Tested it,” I asked? “What do you mean?”
“I… er…” he responded warily worrying that he might be stumbling into some insidious, adult trap, “I, like… sent emails? You know, with those words?”
I felt a need to test his scientific method.
“So, you sent emails with only one word in them to test the filter,” I asked?
“Yeah,” he confessed, “That’s what I did!”
I had a vision of this young man sitting in his room during study hours avoiding his homework by trying to pump every “dirty” word he could think of through the firewall.
But, I was more fascinated by the phenomenon itself.
“So, what words were blocked,” I asked?
No teenager is going to fall for this obvious trap.
“I… er… I mean…” he stumbled.
“The “F” word,” I asked?
“Yes,” he agreed warily, wishing he had never brought this up… but it was eating up some class time.
“And the “S” word,” I demanded again?
“Yes,” he affirmed now getting into this exchange. “And the “C” word and the “N” word too.”
I pretty much knew what the “N” word was. In my novel, The Violent Season, an African-American soldier, Cee Davis, explains that protocol to Jimmy Delvecchio as they’re sharing beer, cigarettes and bullshit (Oops! Can’t send this through my school email) on a Trailways bus speeding through the mountains of Pennsylvania toward Scranton.
But, the “C” word momentarily stumped me.
“What’s the “C” word,” I blurted?
The boy looked absolutely panic stricken when I asked this. Then, before he could respond, I got it! The “C” word was the one single word in the English language that my older sister, despite all her street savvy and resilience, will rip my face off should it ever pass my lips in her presence.
So, much to the young man’s relief, I immediately stammered, “Never mind! Never mind!”.
(Teaching Lesson! Teachers, like lawyers questioning a witness in court, should never ask a question the answer to which the teacher doesn’t know. Even then, a teacher is in store for a few surprises.)
My initial reaction to this announcement was resentment. It seemed to smack of some kind of anti-first-amendment suppression of free speech. But, then in a master stroke of rationalization, I let myself believe that faculty email was not screened… this was something to keep the kids in line. I mean, we correct them when we hear them use such language on campus. And, I could easily visualize one of our school shrinks, using his NPR-voice, explaining that this helps prevent harassment and bullying.
So, I let this one go until one of my emails was blocked by the language police!
Discovering “Dirty” Words.
What exactly is a “dirty” word?
We certainly seem to have a list! Listen to Carlin! And, a couple of new ones have been added by our seeming obligations to “social consciousness” and “culturally-correct speech.”
I remember clearly the day my dear mother introduced the concept to me.
I was in the first grade, about six years old. We were learning to read by “sounding out words.” For those of you who grew up in the phonetics era, this entailed applying the sounds of the English alphabet to written words, which were drilled in class. At best, an inherently flawed approach, since the sounds of spoken English as lost all reasonable coordination with the alphabet. But, absolutely necessary in learning how to read until publishers begin printing books in phonetic symbols.
“Next word… Raymond!”
“Yes, Sister! D-O-G… “D” says duh, “O” says oh, “G” says guh… Dohg!”
“That was good, Raymond, but this “O” is short, so it’s pronounced “awe.” Please try the word again.”
“Dawg, Sister.” (That IS the way the word’s pronounced in Queens, New York.)
Now there were many things in elementary school that I was not good at. I even refused to memorize multiplication tables and spelling lists. (Even then I was a futurist. I knew that eventually someone would invent the calculator and spell check, eliminating the need for such crap.)
But, I was good at sounding out words! And, despite lessons about the Seven Deadly Sins that were drilled into us during catechism class, I was proud of myself and willing to show off my prowess any time I got the chance, even if I didn’t understand why an “O” between a “D” and a “G” had to be “short.” So, I reveled in “reading” the new words I saw in store fronts, billboards, signs, and, unfortunately for me, on walls.
One afternoon, while walking home from school through the neighborhood, I spotted a new word chalked on a concrete wall that bordered a playground near our apartment building. I couldn’t resist! It seemed pretty simple to sound out. Only four letters. I knew the sounds an “F” and a “U” made, but I was a bit confused why a “C” was needed when there was also a “K.” Inscrutable language, this English. But. I quickly mastered my new word, and ran home to demonstrate my prowess to my mom.
“Mommy!” I yelled as I walked through the door of our apartment, “I learned a new word today!”
“That’s wonderful!” she responded, “Tell me!”
“But I don’t what it means, mommy,” I complained.
“Just tell me, Skippy! I’ll tell you what it means,” she coaxed. (Yes, my parents called me “Skippy” back then. Now it’s Doctor Skippy, capisce!)
“Okay, mommy… “F” “U” “C” “K” says…”
I almost immediately learned… I say almost because, although my mother, a native New Yorker who had grown up during the Depression and World War II, was a difficult person to astound, even she needed a nanosecond or two to recover from my pronouncement. That, she proclaimed forcibly, was a “dirty” word! What it meant was that I got to chew on a bar of Ivory Soap… “Ninety-nine, forty-four, a hundred percent pure… it sticks to your molars.”
Oh, just to set the record straight, I pronounced it perfectly!
What Makes A Word Dirty?
Now, at six years old, the concept of a “dirty” word confused me. I was smart enough to realize that this word was unspeakable around adults, but how could such a short, simple sound be so offensive?
In fact, let me ask you, my dear readers, were you offended by my obvious use of the infamous “F-word” just now? It’s enough that now I would not be able to get this article past my school language cops.
Is this word intrinsically offensive?
I believe the answer to that is no.
Language for the most part is offensive “operationally,” based on the context in which it’s used.
I’d like to explore three aspects of verbal “context” that could make a word “dirty”:
1. The assumed intent of the speaker;
2. The “context” of speech act, and
3. The intimacy of the speakers.
What did you mean by that?
A few years ago, we created a concept called “hate speech” to exempt certain words and other speech acts from our concept of freedom of speech and expression.
When the concept was first introduced, it made me a bit uncomfortable. To me it sounded too “1984,” regulated “newspeak,” mandatory politically correct speech. It simply seemed like some regulation of speech to prevent certain classes of people from hearing words they didn’t want to hear.
Once, during a rather lively discussion about the subject in class, I discovered my students didn’t have a clear understanding of the concept either. Their sense of it was that certain words are forbidden! Even thinking them was somehow culpable. And, as well-drilled products of our secular “religion” of culture, they all accepted it as mindlessly as I had to accept “transubstantiation” in my seventh-grade catechism class. Don’t understand a bit of this, but somehow my immortal soul depends on believing it and acting accordingly.
For me, my doctrine of religious faith meant I couldn’t chew the host at communion; for my students, their doctrine of cultural faith meant certain words were irrevocably banned.
So, their understanding of “hate speech” was that certain words cannot be used… ever… for any purpose… because the words themselves were “offensive”! The section of my novel, The Violent Season, where Cee is instructing Jimmy Delvecchio about the infamous “N-word,” would in itself violate their accepted dogma of “hate speech.”
Okay! I’ve been there, too! But, I was six years old and trying to scrape soap out of my teeth because I had innocently said some word that was somehow “dirty,” in itself. So, I decided to do a bit of research on the subject… that’s what teachers do… right?
According to my sources, “hate speech” is any speech, whose only purpose is to incite violence or prejudicial action against an individual or a group. There is no “intellectual” content in the speech act. It’s a verbal assault, using words instead of fists.
Now, despite all the protests and groans of my post-modernist friends, this understanding of the nature of a speech act, as the definition alludes when it states “whose only purpose,” is dependent on the intent of the speaker.
It’s not the word that causes the offense; it’s the hate behind it. And, that’s the intent of the speaker, boys and girls!
So, part of my understanding of a “dirty” word, is one whose sole purpose is to do intended harm to another.
The Context; or, Where You Say You Found This Thing?
I am enough of a linguistic post-modernist (and a Post-Nicene Christian Neo-Platonist-I have my membership card!) to understand that “speech acts”-conversations, written texts, words chalked on walls-are at best ambiguous unless they exist within a “context.” For a word, this would include all the other words that surround it in a sentence. Or, for a speech act, the situation in which it’s said… even the time period. In the 1930’s, people drank to be “gay.” Today, I don’t think you can drink your way into that.
I remember one of my professors in grad school explaining the relationship between “context” and “meaning.” He asked us how the word “dirt” made us feel. He got no response. It was an early morning class, so most of us were at least three cups of coffee south of feeling anything. Besides any grad student worth salt recognized a trick question when it’s asked. Besides, I had no idea what the word “dirt” and “feeling” were doing in the same sentence.
Finally surrendering to early-morning-student apathy, he explained that it all depends on where the dirt is found. Dirt in the garden’s a good thing. Dirt piled in the middle of your bed, not so much.
What does all this mean?
To demonstrate the effect of “context” on “dirty” words, let me share with you a passage from The Violent Season.” The scene is a group of infantrymen in Vietnam, who have just gotten back to a firebase after three weeks “humping the boonies.” They’re having breakfast, their first hot meal in weeks, and they start talking about what caused them to be in Vietnam.
Their squad leader, Jonesy, asks one of the guys, “Sweetie” Gonzales, whether he had joined the army.
“What do I think!” Sweetie shot back. “I think it’s all bullshit! Back in the world, I got this real sweet job. I work the bar in my uncle’s restaurant in Echo Park near the stadium. I’m makin’ pretty good money, get my drinks for nothin’, and after them Dodger games when those blonde chicas from the county come in half in the bag from drinking beer at the ball game, I have some really good times, you know! Then I get this letter from the fuckin’ draft board and my whole life goes to shit! What the fuck does anybody care about that? Just another Chicano off the streets of LA, right?”
“Hey Sweetie,” Jimmy Delvecchio called over, rubbin’ his thumb and forefinger together, “You know what this is… it’s the world’s smallest violin… you’re breakin’ my heart, man.”
“Fuck you, D,” Sweetie responded. Then he continued, “The college boy here got one thing right. This fuckin’ war’s bullshit, the way they got us fightin’ it. Best bet, keep your head down! Stay alive! Do your twelve months and get your ass back to the world!”
In this passage, I put a pretty good dent in Carlin’s list of “dirty” words. My intent was creating verisimilitude, putting readers into the scene and help them believe that they’re hearing a real conversation among soldiers. This is the way infantrymen talked to each other in Nam. Expressing it in the novel creates a mood that resembles the reality.
If, as a reader, you were not offended by the use of the “dirty” words that my school’s language-police would have blocked, you’re empowering the context. If you were offended, you’re obviously not going to buy the book,
The words aren’t offensive; they’re “dirt in the garden.”
“Talk Dirty To Me, Morticia!”
You may have also noticed also that the characters in the novel were not offended when certain words were addressed at them, “‘Fuck you, D,” Sweetie responded.’” This is an example of the last element in the interpretive context of “dirty” words, the intimacy of the speakers.
Detecting the intent of a speaker is always a tricky thing. But, the more intimacy and trust that exists between people, the more people either know or are willing to assume an intent; among friends usually that no harm is intended even when a friend addressed one of the “dirty” words at them.
I remember my two closest friends back in the hood; one was Italian, the other was from the US Virgin Islands. I could go up to my Italian buddy and tell him he was one dumb wop, or tell my other friend to sop acting like a spic. And, either of them could call me a stupid mick, if they thought I was doing something dumb. (My Virgin-Island buddy still does this! And, he usually gets it right, damn him!)
No harm! no foul! We were friends. We trusted each other’s essentially good intent. But, heaven help any other guy who tried that… we were also referred to in the neighborhood as the “Kangaroo Brothers” and the reputation was well-deserved.
In The Violent Season, Cee Davis, relaxed by a couple of beers, uses a word in front of Jimmy Delvechio that’s inappropriate based on their racial differences and the casual state of their relationship, two guys, sharing a long bus ride, a few beers and a couple of cigarettes.
So, Cee lays it out for his white friend.
“Just forget I said that, Jimmy,” Cee said quickly, “Just forget that word altogether. If you say it, I got to kick your ass. In fact, any black man hear you say it, he got to kick your ass. If he don’t, he just a pussy. So, you just forget that word, hear.”
Later, after saying that the word is at times appropriate when used among his close friends, Cee explains the point further.
“But,” Cee continued, “I say that word to someone I don’t know, I got me a fight. In fact, if I wanted to start in with some guy, that’s the fastest way I know of gettin’ it started. But, any black man hear a white man say that, it’s a fuckin’ war. That’s all I got to say ‘bout that. That word just somethin’ dumb, fuckin’ crackers use to let each other know they just motherless, ignorant, peck ‘a woods. Let’s talk ‘bout somethin’ else. You need another beer?”
Certainly, this conversation portrays the inherent tension between the races in late-1960’s America. Despite that, there was every opportunity for individuals to overcome the obstacles of suspicion, prejudice and historicized fables to share their sense of humanity.
But, as Cee points out to Jimmy, certain protocols need to be observed until mutual trust and intimacy can preclude their necessity. After that, certain words used between them would lose their potential bite.
Wrapping It Up.
I imagine my discomfort with the language screening being performed by the school’s email server is not that it’s trying to shield kids from “dirty” words. A futile attempt at best, but one I’ll allow is well intended. I mean they all watch HBO!
My problem is that it’s being done robotically, solely on the words themselves. There’s inadequate intelligence in the system to examine the context of the word.
Hmmm… maybe the robot could get a job with the license bureau over at the Department of Motor Vehicles?