Discussing a regulatory approach to profanity and obscenity online, Susie Bright writes: Who's Afraid of Naughty Words? The Idiocy of NSFW.
Who's afraid of naughty words? Not The New Yorker. After the spring-fling scandal about the use of the word "scrotum" in children's literature, the NYer published a satire by Paul Rudnick, which revealed X-rated stories like "The Pretty Little Bunny," (Melissa Rabbit ponders her vagina) and "The Clattery Caboose." (Don't even ask about his prostate!)
I laughed my a** off -- but wondered what would happen if I, a simple blograt, ran the same darn thing. With nothing more than the inclusion of those naughty little words, my story would be labeled "NSFW" (Not Safe For Work) in many quarters. Spam filters would block out my sun; millions of readers would be effectively hindered.
The New Yorker runs clever, sexually sophisticated stories all the time without such censorship. They say "fuck." They publish critically acclaimed erotic and nude photography. They discuss and illustrate the lives of famous decadent and kinky artists (who can forget the Balthus story?). They deliver a steady diet of grown-up arts and politics which resonates with untold numbers of readers.
Nowhere, in all the internet, would you hear The New Yorker described as NSFW. Whether you brought their magazine to the office, or searched their web site online, the firewall/censorship/Dilbert Nightmare of NSFW would never crease a NYer reader's brow.
Why is that? Even though NSFW is assumed to have something to do with Sex, it is much more finely tuned to Class -- as in whether material is considered respectable in its proper class-conscious milieu. In that vein, the most elite periodicals enjoy the greatest freedom, while further down the ladder, prudery reigns. Plebians, cover your eyes!
I'm actually not so worried about sex and obscenity online. But I am interested in the control effects associated with profanity, particularly on college and university campuses. When I was recently with Paul and some students in Peru, the students were horrifically loud and obnoxious a couple of nights in a row in a hotel. The second night Paul had to tell them to settle down (they were yelling and screaming and breaking things in the halls after midnight; needless to say, we were not the only people at the hotel), he exploded in a string of well-placed expletives. The students, both that night and the next day, got on their very high horses, displacing the problem of culpability from their inexcusable behavior onto Paul's language.
On the one hand, this is simply a bald attempt to avoid responsibility. On the other, the way they do this highlights a current form of cultural control--chastizing someone for saying fuck AND making the fact of this saying into the central problem of any exchange.
A couple of years ago I misplaced my boarding pass in between customs and the shift of my baggage from an international to a domestic flight. Some airline bureaucrat started telling me I would have to buy a new pass for 100 dollars. I said "are you fucking kidding me? this is completely fucked up." At that point, the bureaucrat said that my language was inappropriate and that I would get no boarding pass at all. This was clearly absurd and another bureaucrat came in and gave me the pass (without the idiotic fee).
The wonder of Deadwood is its fantastic profanity. But why do people act like the profanity is different (better, yes, different, no)? And what about The Wire? The best scene in the first season is when two cops investigate a crime scene and, for like at least 3 minutes, only use the word fuck and variations. They speak it fluently, eloquently, with nuance and expression.
In his book about college life (I forget the title; it came out a couple of years ago), Tom Wolfe writes of college students speaking 'fuck patois." He's right--which is why the self-righteous indignation with professors for profanity is so ludicrous--and clearly so controlling.
I lost it today in class. I was teaching, or trying to teach, Hegel's Philosophy of Right. The student came in more than 20 minutes late with neither book, notebook, nor pen. I went on about the rudeness--how I am completely sick of this sort of rude behavior. For good measure, I added in recent incidents of students making appointments with me that they fail to keep. I didn't 'drop any f-bombs' (one of the top 10 stupidest expressions ever; I heard it first on The Apprentice, where, again, the problem became someone's language rather than other people's fuck ups). Not one word of profanity--at least one of which I am conscious. If I had, I'm pretty sure it would be thrown back at me. And this is lamentable. Profanity is part of language--trying to have profanity free zones is trying to make language safe for children. And turning language use into an offense is a method of control that tries to get in our heads and manipulate our speech, making us think like children and act in advance and perpetually like we are talking like children, like we can't show adult expression, and feeling, and intensity, and anger.