Warning: Some petulance ahead. I’m still working towards a grace-filled response to this incident.
I’ve moved on from a lot of the conflicts I had running a university paper in a secular environment. With most, I just shook hands, agreed to disagree, and walked away.
Today, almost a year removed from passing on the desk, keys and responsibilities of the Editor-In-Chief position, I’ve suddenly resurrected my anger over one of those issues. Call it unhealthy, call it petty, call it vindictive, but I am still pissed over the fact that the editorial board voted to allow writers to use profanity within the pages of our student paper.
There are, of course, those who would wonder why I would pick this of all issues to ‘hang my hat on’ so to speak, and the answer is a rather curious one. I vividly remember having the official discussion on this topic for two reasons:
Profanity in itself is not a critical issue. We are exposed to it in speech, books, and movies daily if not hourly. I would be a fool to engage in righteous indignation every time someone drops an F-bomb; just as I would be a fool not to recognize that words are only collections of morphemes in specific orders (and therefore not inherently ‘bad’). But, as anybody who has been the target of a racial or sexual slur can tell you, words are also potent embodiments of ideas, and ideas can be judged on the ethics they contain.
The editorial camp in favour of profanity relied upon (in my memory) several key arguments:
The first argument is (and was) poorly articulated, but it essentially assumes that if other publications have set a precedent there must be a compelling and logical reason for that precedent. I wouldn’t necessarily accept this as an argument since the point of journalism is to question (rather than blindly accept) institutionalized patterns, yet I understand the foundational principle and would be willing to do some research. But again, the idea that ‘everybody else is doing it so we should do it too’ strikes me as either lazy or prejudiced thinking from an aspiring journalist.
The second article is a curiously post-modern statement. I find it perfectly easy to write without using profanity, and so have thousands of other journalists over the last few centuries. Most swear words aren’t technical terms to begin with, and therefore can’t be described as ‘essential’ to communication. Consequently, while I can understand that a particular voice might lend itself to profanity, using such language is only a superficial choice which adds ‘colour’ to a piece.
The third argument is the most compelling of the three, since it ties the issue with two of the most fundamental buzzwords of academia: censorship and free speech. I admit that eliminating profanity is essentially censorship and does infringe on free speech. Yet I would also contend that we were running a newspaper, not an art gallery, and censorship was a weekly part of our publication cycle. Censorship is refusing to publish ‘poor’ articles, or sexism, or hate speech. Censorship is eliminating libel, or sending an article back to a writer for a second draft. Socially acceptable censorship is all around us, and is an important part of the editing and publication process.
I don’t swear. I was sworn at too often in the schoolyard to ever get any satisfaction out it. Ethically, I also find the formal meanings of words like “bitch” (sexual term denoting female dog) or “f**k” (violent sexual act) to be disturbing. In a society that deeply laments a continuing trend of sexual violence, why do we celebrate and even glorify such terms? It might be argued that the connotations of these words have moved far beyond their formal meanings, but other words with similar offensive roots have traditionally been culled rather than embraced. Why is then that my colleagues were willing to struggle so mightily to keep the F-bomb?
As they were mostly desensitized to the words themselves it probably has more to do with a problem I’ve written about before, namely a tendency for writers to view their student newspaper as a proselytizing medium through which to grind personal axes. Obviously it’s commendable for writers to bring their passions and opinions with them to work, but it’s also important for them to have greater responsibility to the paper than to their personal agenda. My university and the surrounding community were fairly conservative, and several editors (in my opinion) felt a personal need to ‘liberate’ these conservatives from their narrow-minded ways.*
Ultimately, the mandate of our paper was not to be a propaganda vehicle for a few select voices. It was to “provide … students with a professional quality newspaper primarily by and for the students” (from the paper’s constitution) and create ‘an intelligent and respectful forum for discussion’ amongst the student body and surrounding community (my words). In my opinion, superficial elements (like profanity) that alienated portions of our readership from the paper were essentially handicaps to our ability to meet our mandate.
Some things, like the sex column we published, were divisive among our readership, but also created meaningful discussion (thereby meeting our mandate). I would still argue that profanity creates division and controversy without purpose (and lacks respect for other perspectives). If, as I have tried to conclude above, none of the arguments for profanity in the paper were persuasive, why did we eventually vote as a board to allow it?
The answer is essentially three-fold. The first part was a general impression that swearing is a sort of sacrosanct right of university students, and those who disapprove should ‘grow up’. The second was a general skepticism that a large community of disapproving individuals existed at our school, since I lacked empirical evidence in the form of a petition or other document (I am convinced there is one from many conversations I have had, but I admit I couldn’t prove it). Thirdly, there was a general consensus that I was only against profanity ‘because I was Christian’, and therefore (as far as I could tell) there was no need to take me seriously.
This last part, this ad hominem accusation based upon what I am, has haunted me. The idea that I was labeled, marginalized, and then ignored by some of the most equality-minded people I know scared me and continues to scare me. I wanted to resign after that meeting. I wanted out. Thankfully the rest of the executive kept their heads and prevailed upon me to stay.
I’m thankful I did, yet the embarrassment of that day came back to me this morning as fresh as when it happened. I realize that it was only a conversation about profanity, that, at the end of the day, a few F-bombs in the school paper won’t destroy the universe…
Yet a society of people who feel free to ignore me because of my inherent religious beliefs is a society that would terrify me. Religion does not make me stupid. It does not make me blind. Religion is not some hideous defect that I should have to hide from my fellow academics.
But then again, I’m only saying that because I’m Christian. Right?
*Sometimes this led to quality discussions within the office and paper, and sometimes it led to petty arguments over the F-bomb. J