-By Mark Stefanik. Mark is a retired middle school teacher who contributes his talents to this blog.
On MLK day 2017, I wrote about dreams.
On MLK day 2018, I write about profanity. What a world, what a world…
On a national holiday that commemorates struggle and love and dreaming, we are debating vulgarity and obscenity and profanity. I confess to having practiced all 6, but space and timeliness will limit me to the latter 3.
Raised in an Irish Catholic household on the South Side, my early language usage was governed by the Lace Curtain proprieties of my Mother. Threats of having my mouth washed out with a bar of palmolive dissuaded me from vulgarities and obscenities, and fear of eternal damnation kept me from the profanity of taking the Lord’s name in vain.
I stayed pure of tongue until high school; soap and fire had lost their power. Even so, I did not ‘cuss’ in all environments. The church, the classroom, and the dinner table remained free of vulgarity and obscenity.
By mid-high school, however, profanity had become an essential part of my character. I challenged the religion in which I had been raised quoting Marx: “religion is the opiate of the masses” and adding my own take: organized religions seek to franchise morality. In saying these things, I profaned; I was irreverent, and at times disrespectful, to ideas that those about me held sacred.
As an English Lit. major in college, my world of profanities and obscenities expanded. Classroom lectures on D.H. Lawrence could be filled with both. Obscenity laws which censored the likes of Lawrence and Joyce in the 1920s were fuel for laughter and scorn and new profanities in the Knox College classes of the 1970s. These were erudite discussions where rarely was heard a vulgar word.
It would take my 10 year career in the Chicago trading pits for me to master vulgarity. The fear, the predatory nature of the exchanges – which a friend and former Chicago Bear summed up as ‘every day is game day.’ – and the split second speed with which fortunes could be made or lost shredded any sense of language etiquette. Forget filtered speech: the convection of emotions, impulses, and timing gave rise to the crudest of communications. It didn’t matter that many of the traders didn’t have college degrees. Under the circumstances, dermatologists, Harvard grads, lawyers, and teachers all spoke the language of the pits.
My favorite example of pitspeak involved two traders in a heated argument over a trade. They just couldn’t agree, and when one dismissed the other, the second fellow’s parting shot was “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”
As an English major, I had to comment. “That’s brilliant, boys. You’ve just managed to use a monosyllabic Saxon vulgarity as a verb, a noun, and an adjective, all in the space of a 5 word imperative sentence.”
To this day, my speech is laced with some of those vulgarities, although I have made an effort to use ‘feck’ and ‘shite’ to soften the Ango-Saxon words they reference. In my mind, that raises them from the merely vulgar to the modestly obscene.
To traffic in these words is, for the most part, a deliberate choice. In 25 years in the Middle School classroom, I never ‘dropped the F-Bomb.’ Given that, on any day an event could, and often did, occur that would invite the exclamatory release of slamming one’s finger in a door jam, is all the evidence necessary to confirm this discipline.
The same is true for my 18 years as a teacher union contract negotiator. Behind closed doors, I might have been more than a wee bit obscene and profane, but at the table such language wouldn’t be effective so I refrained.
There is a joyfulness to swearing among middle-schoolers whose proclivity to irreverence lures them into profanity. I never practiced nor tolerated obscenities in my classroom, but while on playground duty I’d often hear them. Sometimes, kids would say to me, “Did you hear that, Mr. Stefanik?”
“Well, aren’t you going to give them a detention?”
“No. It’s the playground.”
“If we can swear out here, why can’t we swear in the classroom?”
“First of all, would you swear at Grandma’s house during Thanksgiving Dinner?”
“No. That’s different.”
“You are very right, and you have learned that there’s some places where such language doesn’t fit. But there’s another reason. I want you to have the power of language. I want you to know the difference between anger, and rage, and disappointment. I want you to have the words so that you have the power over them. Vulgarity robs you of these understandings at your age. Grow a great vocabulary and have great power. Limit yourselves by cussing and you limit your ability to reflect, judge, and persuade.”
That was my playground speech for 7th graders which leads to my thoughts about our President, our other leaders, and the grossly incongruous situation we find ourselves in on MLK Day 2018.
Defenders of the President’s latest words, frame ‘shit hole countries’ as, at worst, an obscene vulgar term – crude, unfortunate, but nothing more. And, if that were the case, this pit- trading English Lit. major would probably agree.
But it’s not the case. His words are profane. They disrespect the great shared conventions of democracy that the world expects from us and that the Constitution demands.
His words profane the spirit of our country. His words erode our freedoms.
A very warm and thoughtful MLK Day to all.