Saturday, May 16, 2015

Blasphemy, Satire and Other Language-Taboo Violations

            The numbers say I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm still a little disconcerted when some of my former students tell me they are taking early retirement. And with retirement, for many, comes clearing out files and some exercises in nostalgia. One of my former students wrote me a while back (early spring 2015), "I was going through some boxes in a closet and came upon one full of folders of old class material from MU [Miami University, Oxford, OH] - including my freshman English class!  Could you still assign 'The Student as N*gger' in class today […]?"

            The reference here is to Jerry Farber's once famous and infamous essay/screed/satire from 1967, a piece I taught some years in courses in Composition and Rhetoric. Farber intended to provoke, and the essay was useful for stimulating class discussion on topics in education and "student life" and demonstrated nicely some rhetorical strategies (Farber was an English teacher and knew what he was up to).

            I wrote back to this former student that his was a "Most excellent question. I taught the essay as late as 2002, but only in a Senior Capstone, and early enough in the semester for people to drop the course if they were too grossed out.  (The other option would be to work up to the more challenging and/or problematic materials, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man [1970/75].) Also, I taught 'S as N' the week where the texts included the Prophet Amos and the primary reading was the Book of Jonah. (MORAL: Morality ≠ Decorum and 'sensitivity.') […]." And I sent on to him the two opening questions for class discussion: "(1) Rich Erlich's first [public] speech at Miami University corrected Jerry Farber, arguing that US students' central problem wasn't the hyperbolic 'The Student as N-gger' but the related, less grotesquely stated oppression of 'The Student as Child.'  I'll still argue my formulation is more correct — but why might Farber's allow for satire" in ways my more restrained, more expository, less figurative, approach did not? To which I could add the question of the many reasons why Farber's inflammatory, transgressive piece got wide distribution and my more scholarly one sunk without a trace.  Related to this was the question "(2) Should we see the origin of satire in insults, wise-ass cynicisms, taunting songs, and the rant?  If so, has part of those origins become part of the 'essence' of satire?"

            Later in our exchange of e-mails, the student noted that one of my syllabi had the line, "WARNING: YOU MAY PERCEIVE THIS COURSE AS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR MORAL HEALTH." (I also had warnings on my advanced expository writing course that I taught the Plain Style, the habitual use of which could be hazardous to careers in business, the military, and the academy.)

            Farber's satiric essay demonstrated directly how Satire as an attitude and artistic mode could invade even the essay and demonstrated emphatically the Satiric risk of transgressing taboos so much that the work doesn't provoke readers as much as turn them away — and how the revulsion/repulsion factor varies with audiences, including audiences over time. One Black woman in my 2002 class said she couldn't get beyond Farber's title and opening lines ("Students are n*ggers.  When you get that straight, our schools begin to make sense") — which is unfortunate, since the essay, if anything, is anti-racist and (if occasionally misguided) definitely pro-student.

            As a quasi-official of the English Graduate Student Association at the University of Illinois (Urbana) ca. 1969, I defended teaching assistants' teaching "The Student as N*gger" against vociferous attack. (One message to me said, "The Governor called." I responded that that had to be "as aide from the Governor’s office called"; I was told I was undoubtedly correct, but the message they received for me was "The Governor called"). We were successful in that defense of teaching "The Student as N*gger"; today, as my former student implied, I'm less sure a defense would succeed.

            I'm a Professor Emeritus in English, and I spent much of my professional life, and my political one as well, dealing with words, and, partly as a joke, partly to meet a joking challenge, I once delivered a conference paper on "The Modal 'Must' in the Writing of Ursula K. Le Guin": I spent twenty minutes, plus some follow-up dialog with Le Guin, on what she meant by "must." So I'm into words, but nowadays too many people are to far into words as words (and overly concerned with attitudes) and miss larger contexts.

            The most significant context is actual politics and policies, and I've challenged Leftist comrades to perform a thought experiment asking them to decide between two candidates — all else being equal. Candidate 1 tells you, "I respect my friends in the hard-working African-American community too much to insult them with handouts; so they have my best wishes for all their programs of self-help." Candidate 2 says, "Well, I don't like colored people much, but a debt of honor is a debt of honor, and we White Americans owe the descendants of slaves reparations; now let's work out how to pay those reparations equitably and sensibly."

            The sainted George Carlin said, "All we have is words." Nah, that's bullshit, George; actions speak a whole lot louder than — and systematic action, like public policies, use words but are more important than the words as words. Besides, good ol' racists et al. can learn to talk the talk and talk it persuasively, while walking, as the expression goes, very different walks.

            (Keep an eye on Republican proposals for dealing with poverty in 2015-16.)

            Even with just literature, however, people can get too hung up with just words.

            E.g., I did some initial research and then had two groups of students check and expand those findings on changes made between the two-part original Buck Rogers stories in the late 1920s, a revision in the 1960s, and then a second revision in the 1980s. How was the science updated between 1929 and the late 20th century? More important, what changes were made in a somewhat sexist, virulently racist, genocide-promoting book to make it more acceptable in the 1960s and 1980s?

            Answer: some words were changed and, otherwise, the 1980s version was, if anything, more Right-wing since it added a Thatcherite/Reaganesque attack on labor unions.

            The "girls" references got cleaned up a bit, as did the "Yellow-Peril" language. The happy ending of the book, however, still remained the extermination by atomic ordnance — yeah, some SF nerds knew the possibilities of nukes by 1929 — of the Asiatic invaders who'd taken over the USA. (There's a kind of coda to the genocide saying nice things about some Asians, and Africans, and suggesting a "taint" of truly Alien "blood" in the enemy — but the happy ending remained literal genocide, as in the total extermination of a very large human — if not American, if maybe not totally Terran — population.)

            Far more recently, as in 2014, I attended a scholarly session at a science fiction convention (the feminist WisCon) where people were still arguing Ursula K. Le Guin's use of masculine pronouns for the androgynous species who are almost all the characters in her 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, she should have come up with something more interesting and progressive than falling back on "the generic 'he'" for references including both human sexes — almost always two — for people in Left Hand who most of the time are both and neither. (They'd become male or female when they went into rut [although nowadays we should assume that a small number — "0.14 per 100,000 inhabitants over 15 years of age" if they were like Swedes — were in some sense "trans").

            The Left Hand of Darkness was a major feminist work in 1969, all things considered, and very useful for getting people — especially men and young women — thinking more flexibly about gender. More relevantly here, if you wanted to attack Left Hand for gender problems, there are more immediate problems than pronoun usage — looking back from the 21st century — including an entire long scene of sexual harassment that the cultural feminists missed (Erlich, "CRITIQUE: Kulturkampfing on the Left with The Left Hand of Darkness"). "Can't see the forest for the trees," as the cliché has it — and some people can't see what's going on in a work of literature because they get hung up on individual words.

            It's probably just as well that "n*gger" becomes nearly totally tabooed to say for a while, as least for White folks and maybe most Blacks. But high school juniors and seniors would do well to study Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; and, since my much better argued "The Student as Child" isn't and has never really been available, college students should be passing around underground — i.e., on the web — Farber's "The Student as N*gger." (And they are free to call one another "bitches" and "girl" but damn well shouldn't do it! And given how regularly and thoroughly they get screwed over, students had better learn some solidarity. [Just thought I'd throw that in, given that there really isn't a transition to the next section anyway.])

            What I've written so far might go over well with conservatives verbally attacking political correctness and coming out strongly for free speech after the assault-weapons attack on Charlie Hebdo in January of 2015 and the more recent attack on the "First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" contest in Garland, Texas, sponsored by "the American Freedom Defense Initiative" (AFDI) as part of their resistance to "creeping jihad" in America.

           I'm a life-member of the ACLU and continued to support the ACLU after their principled defense of the right of neo-Nazis to parade in Skokie, Illinois — even though I'm also a Jew who grew up in the Lake View District of Chicago, not far from Skokie, and had been greatly angered at seeing uniformed neo-Nazis parading in downtown Chicago seventeen years earlier. So I'll be consistent and easily assert the right of Charlie Hebdo to do transgressive satire, as I grimly assert my right to say that AFDI are publicity-hungry assholes and add to that my usual apology to the anus for such a comparison. (The anus is necessarily unconscious and innocent and was a great breakthrough in evolution; none of that can be said for Pamela Geller and her co-conspirators.)

            Still ….

            Still, since the virtual book burners who closed down the blogs (including mine) at, and the algorithms at Google, have made my initial offer pretty much impossible to find, I'm going to suggest to recent converts to The Right to Blaspheme the thought experiment of a limerick contest that goes beyond drawing Muhammad and may, closer to home for them, a little border upon the blasphemously obscene and obscenely blasphemous.

            There is an old limerick (#265, 266) said to go back to the Victorian period but of only legendary provenance and probably later than the 1880s and the publication of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. The usual form of the limerick begins "Thus spake I-AM-THAT-I-AM," whereas the form I learned — "Thus saith I-AM-THAT-I-AM" — is one syllable closer to the classic British form of three anapests (= nine syllables). Anyway, both the original and lightly corrected version include a mild profanity ("damn"), a vulgar slang infinitive, and an obscene verb phrase.

            I rewrote the limerick to eliminate the "bad words" but to leave it obscene and blasphemous — and more clearly a theological statement: mockery of Trinitarian doctrine (God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

            There is also, I recently learned on line, a Spanish version.

            So, Thought Experiment for recent converts to The Right to Blaspheme: How would you take to a well-publicized contest for the best limericks — and maybe other forms poetic and graphic, or maybe in Spanish or Québécois — that mocked a crucial element of Christian faith? Or, for more-equal opportunity, Judaism?

            How long do you think this post would stay up if I got a fair number of readers and actually quoted the classic limerick or gave my somewhat more refined version?

            Like many countries, the United States is a confederation of different smaller nations and a patchwork of, among other things, ethnic groups and different religious traditions. One of the bonds that holds us together is belief in some basics like Free Speech As a practical matter, however, we are only occasionally at each others throats because most of us, most of the time use or freedom carefully.

            So, one cheer for Freedom of Speech for all and another for the usefulness of satirists and the right to provoke — and then a moment of quiet respect for respect for others (even for the idiots who disagree with us), and another moment of silent respect for the virtues, usually, of moderation and propriety.

CODA: The Student Affairs Council of Miami University was asked in the 1980s or so to approve a revision in our Statement of Good Teaching Practices that cited as an offense making students uncomfortable. A somewhat older colleague responded that as an undergraduate in Religion he'd been made very uncomfortable in a Bible course in being taught that — contrary to what he had been brought up to believe — Scripture did not pronounce Black people inferior and segregation the law of God. We voted down the provision as written and allowed on the record that making some students uncomfortable might be part of very good teaching.

            On the other hand Jerry Farber decorously used satiric hyperbole and what can awkwardly be called "transgessivity" to note "the master-slave" relationship between teachers and students. So making students uncomfortable, on occasion, is necessary to good teaching, but should be carried out — even in studying so insensitive a mode as Satire — consciously, mindfully, and very, very carefully.

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