Sunday 12 November 2017

‘FLIPPIN’ ‘ECK, TUCKER’ – When Is It Appropriate To Swear in Class?

(A conference paper given as part of my PGCHE earlier this year.)

Two things I should maybe say before starting.  Firstly, it would be a little dishonest to discuss contentious language without using it, so I’m going to swear a certain amount during this paper.  If that bothers anyone, I can only really suggest you leave the room for a quarter of an hour.

Secondly, for those who aren’t British or middle-aged, I should explain my title.  In the late ‘70s/early’80s, there was a BBC television series called Grange Hill, set in a comprehensive secondary school just outside London.  It was a children’s programme, so there was no swearing in it.  Anyone who’s ever worked in a secondary school will know that creates a problem of realism, which the scriptwriters dealt with by using euphemistic swears, so that the characters, including one Tucker Jenkins, would often say ‘Flippin’ ‘eck’!.  Now, in real life, so secondary school child has ever said this but, as viewers, we accepted it, as a substitute for the stronger language that the characters would actually be using.   It’s an example of the way in which an audience accepts a convention, so long as it’s clear.

For most people in the room, the answer to the question in the title of this paper is probably ‘never’, and that’s fine – I have no especial interest in getting people to swear either more or less.  However, in my discipline, it’s more complicated.  I teach Creative Writing, so the thing I teach  – language – is also the material I teach it with.   Writers need, by definition, to understand the ways in which language works, so that a willingness to explore language, including its problematic aspects, may be considered an essential part of our community of practice.  Someone who has a problem with swear words, as such, probably shouldn’t be studying writing.  This is made especially clear with some of the texts that we use – you can’t afford to be prissy if you’re teaching or studying the television series The Thick of It or Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and Fucking, which I took a group of first years to.

I often make this point early on in the first year.  I teach an exercise in which students have to think of someone in their own life, write down ten things that this person has said, read them aloud in pairs and then for each student to say what they would conclude about the character from those ten lines – age, gender, ethnicity, attitudes.  It’s an exercise in the way in which dialogue reveals character.  When the students are writing their initial ten lines, someone will often stick up her hand and say ‘Is it alright to swear?’.  To this, I always say the same thing ‘Fuck, yes.’.

This serves a number of functions – it gets a laugh, which is always useful, it establishes the principle that no use of language is – in and of itself – barred within the seminar room.  It also, indirectly, introduces one of the threshold concepts of creative writing, which in linguistic philosophy is called the use/mention distinction. 

‘When a word is used to refer to something, it is said to be being used.  When a word is quoted, though, so that one is examining it for its surface aspects (typographical, phonetic etc.) it said to be being mentioned.

(Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, p. 9)

I’d argue that to quote a line from someone else, or to write in a script is to mention it rather than using it.   My own ‘Fuck, yes’ occupies a slippery place between the two – it appears to be a use, but because of the context in a conversation about swearing it’s actually a mention.  (That’s why it gets a laugh.)

So far, so good.  I think it’s uncontroversial to argue that a creative writing lecturer can mention swear words in an educational context.  Is it ever alright for students or lecturers to use them?  I think that’s more complex.  The university regulations don’t say anything on the subject that I can see though they do say that students must not use:

‘violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, defamatory or offensive behaviour or language whilst on University premises or engaged in any University activity’  (Middlesex University Regulations, p.59, B.3). 

 ‘Indecent’ and ‘offensive’ are of course quite ambiguous terms, especially in an environment as diverse as Middlesex.  Again, I think this relates to one of the central concepts of dramatic writing, which in this case is a core concept rather than a threshold concept, and this is the idea of ‘actioning’.  

This was invented by the director Max Stafford-Clark, and is based on the idea that every line of dialogue can be linked with a transitive verb, that expresses the character’s intention in saying it.  The important thing is not what’s said, but the action that’s behind it.  If you look on YouTube, you can see a video of an actor saying the same line ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ with the actions of seducing, patronising, jeering and about twenty more.

Now, this applies to swear words as much as to any others – it’s fairly obvious that ‘Fuck off!’  (I threaten)  is different from ‘Fuck off!’  (I wind up). 

Once you start thinking in terms of the actions rather than the words, it becomes a lot clearer.  I think it goes without saying that neither we nor our students should ever use (as opposed to mention) swear words such as racial, homophobic, gender-based or ethnic slurs where the action is to threaten or insult.  (Nor should we ever do those things without swearing.)

Similarly, we should never swear with the intention of excluding, as with the macho swagger of Malcolm Tucker.    My first year film students seem to understand this instinctively – on the code of conduct that the wrote for a film production course one of the rules (along with ‘Don’t be a dick.’) is ‘Don’t swear too much.’

The wording here is interesting – it seems to acknowledge that it’s unreasonable to expect people in a creative environment not to swear at all.  So, does the same thing hold true for lecturers?   It seems to me that the central principle here is that of authenticity – of what therapists call ‘congruence’.  This is a concept that was identified by Carl Rogers, one of the key thinkers of the humanistic school of educational theory, and the originator of patient-centred counselling, as one of the core conditions in which such therapy can take place.  Within the counselling profession, it’s defined as relating to one’s clients as an authentic human being:

“What you say and how you say it rings true.    You do not hide behind professional facades or wear polite social masks.  Congruent communication is characterised by honesty and sincerity. […]  Congruence does not mean ‘letting it all hang out.’.”

(Richard Nelson-Jones, Introduction to Counselling Skills: Texts and Activities, p.50)

Congruence in a teaching context means that you don’t swear as macho swagger, like Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It or to be ‘down with da kidz’, but equally that you don’t self-consciously avoid it, like the writers of Grange Hill.  Either way, your students will pick up that you’re not being authentic and, at least in my discipline, that’s death to the teaching environment, which depends on a degree of self-revelation.    The playwright and writing tutor Noel Greig says something very similar in his book Playwriting: A Practical Guide:

‘… I do believe that, if we are going to challenge any group or individual to reveal their souls through a creative practice, we must be prepared to offer something of ourselves, in whatever way is appropriate to the circumstance.’

(Noel Greig, Playwriting: A Practical Guide, p.203)

The key word here, of course, is ‘appropriate’.  I’d just like to finish up by telling a story of an occasion where I did swear in class, where I will absolutely defend my right to do so, and a rather unexpected consequence.

I give a first-year lecture on Tragedy, in which I recount the story of Oedipus.  One of the things I say is that people are often mealy-mouthed about this story.  People will say that it’s the story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother.  No, it’s the story of a man who kills his father and fucks his mother.  I would argue that, in that case, the sentence needs the swear word – I could say ‘sleeps with’ but that’s an euphemism, I could say ‘has sex with’ but that’s clumsy.  No, the sentence needs the opposition of the two words, both Germanic, both monosyllabic, and with those alliterative K sounds.

So, I gave the lecture; a week later, one of my students took me to one side, and showed me a meme that had been going round the class:

Now, I have mixed feelings about this - I wish it wasn’t grammatically incorrect, and I’m a little worried as to where they found the photo - but broadly, I was very happy about it – at the very least, it shows that they’re listening.  So, if you ask me if it’s ever appropriate to swear in class, my answer has to be (wait for it)  ‘Flippin’ ‘eck, yes.’ 

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