For the five people who’ve read “Consuming Whiteness,” you may have noticed an odd caveat at the beginning of the article. It ominously reads, “The following post contains mild profanity. Read and enjoy!” In its companion piece, “Consuming Asianness,” the word “mild” was dropped altogether and the warning became, “Some profanity follows. Read and enjoy!”
Have I been getting so progressively profane in my old age that my editor feels the need to forewarn readers of my potty mouth? What kind of professional writer curses like a fuckin’ sailor anyway? I kid, of course. My editor is very kind. So kind, in fact, that if anyone finds my beaten and bloodied body after this post, she will not be responsible at all.
The caveat does pique my interest, however. It not only warns readers of what follows but tells them how to read it. Read, it directs you, and enjoy, as if to say, “Yes, he’s a foul-mouthed little bastard, but he’s harmless.” I have to agree: I am a foul-mouthed little bastard. And here, my pretty ones, is why you should be too.
In Defense of the Profane
In a recent controversy, a book-publisher replaced the word “nigger” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because parents and students found the language offensive. What they refuse to recognize is that the function of the word “nigger” in this context is very much different from that of “slave.”
People who move to censor literature–I’ll go out on a limb here and say any literature, even those Twilight books–misunderstand its purpose. Literature’s function isn’t to prepare readers for nap time or make us feel warm and cuddly inside, but to offer a critical look at our contemporary conditions. “Nigger” in Huck Finn makes us uncomfortable precisely because it attests to the historical mistreatment of African-Americans, not just in a social-economic sense, but in a more powerfully dehumanizing one. My use of the full word “nigger” instead of the more politically correct “N-word,” for example, may have made some of you uncomfortable. As it should. If I were to replace all the “nigger”s with “n-word”s the effect would be much less powerful. How truly profane, then, it would be to replace “nigger” with “slave” in Twain’s novel.
To sanitize Huck Finn is to take away from it one of its most striking and powerful characteristics.
That’s not to say that we should use profanity for its own sake. But if the profane, in the words of J.L. Austin, “does something with words,” if it points to or re-orients our understanding of what it means to say or use those words, it serves an important and productive purpose. In making us uneasy, such profanity challenges an otherwise fallaciously cheery worldview.
It’s a sad day in America when people become comfortable reading Huck Finn.
But let me go further: there’s nothing about the word “nigger” that is inherently bad. Its social context and use make it so. As children, most of us have been chastised for using “bad words,” yet words themselves have no intrinsic value. When a child uses a “bad word,” he or she very rarely knows what it means. Can a word then be “bad” if it is devoid of its profane meaning? Parents who wash their children’s mouths seem to think so. This moral indignation at profanity is the result of a failure to distinguish between the word and the act or idea it seeks to represent.
There’s little difference, for instance, between “fuck” and “screw” if uttered in the same context. If anything, the metaphor implicit in “screw” evokes a much more pornographic image: a long phallic tool, fitted into an awaiting slot, and twisted with some effort and grunts of exertion. How’s that for profane? So next time you hear “screw you” on television, ask yourself this: is it actually less or more vulgar than “fuck you”?
The FCC and society at large would have you believe that the word “fuck” is somehow more profane than the word “screw.” And no one seems to ask why. I’d like to take a page out of the child’s book and ask, why, why, why?
Why, for example, am I less of a professional writer if I use profane words?
Professionalism and the Profane
People often think of professionalism and profanity as diametrically opposed. It’s the reason Rahm Emanuel catches so much flack for his creative language.
And what about me? I’ve got a few degrees under my belt (a lot of good that’s done me). Does that implicitly produce me as a “professional?” How would someone account for my colorful vocabulary? Are you a professional if your profession is considered profane? Can I be a professional in “the oldest profession”? Will I receive mainstream attention if I publish an article on my experiences as a Vietnamese American pornstar? Or will I be relegated, as so often has been the case, to a marginalized oddity? Will the editors of the New York Times or CNN say to me, “You are not professional enough,” or “You do not represent normative society”?
I raise these questions to draw attention to the fact that professionalism has increasingly become detached from its literal referent. Instead it’s used as as a stand-in for sanitized language and uncontroversial ideas.
For that reason, I truly am grateful for Vietnam Talking Points and its promise to synthesize different Vietnamese experiences. Even as my editor’s caveat warns, it never censors. It lets me testify to my own experiences and recognizes that Vietnameseness is not something that can be encompassed in a singular monolithic identity. Perhaps I experience the world profanely or can best express those experiences through the profane. Would I be any less Vietnamese? Should I be shunned and ostracized for my difference?
We need to look beyond standard narratives of racial and cultural identity by being honest and open even about controversial issues. And if some people are uncomfortable and offended? Good. Dialogue begins in disagreement. Sometimes people need to be poked and prodded out of complacency. If it takes a profanity-laced pill to do so, I say open up and stop being such a fuckin’ cry baby.