Profanity can offend, but it also can be a tool for insight, understanding

by David Holub

Apparently some people out there really care about profanity.

I had a short story (meaning fiction, as you know) published recently in “Zumag: Life in Montezuma County.” The story, called “A Bird in a Church,” is about a guy who finds himself at a wedding where a warbler is trapped, flying about the sanctuary, disrupting the ceremony, buzzing the crowd, harassing the minister, stealing the ceremony. I’d written the story a number of years ago (and last year, adapted it into my one-man show, “We Are Broken and We Are Whole”) as an expression of my time of feeling trapped in a marriage, desperately seeking a way out.

And yes, I used profanity. To spare the sensitive out there, I twice used a word that begins with “S” (once preceded by the word “horse”), one that starts with a “D,” one an “H,” and (gasp!) one that starts with “F.”

The two angry letters I received went straight for the profanity. One anonymous letter writer said, “How can you print something like this – a story about a little bird that’s lost its way and you use such profanity – that could have been a sweet story of a beautiful wedding and a special love Bird. You are disgusting David Holub – whoever you are –” (apparently profanity is verboten, but insulting someone directly by name is cool). The other letter – signed at least – discusses how he assumed initially that the story “would be cute, maybe funny or inspirational. I became a bit uneasy after reading on for a few paragraphs and disgusted as I read on.” He went on about the “use of words that are not fitting any publication” and how “if that story was ‘adapted’ as is stated on page 32, why did you not ‘adapt out’ those impolite, unnecessary and uncivil words?”

The discussion here is not that these people took offense to my story – that’s their right to live in such a fragile world. As a writer and artist, I have two strong beliefs: (1) The worst response one can receive is indifference, and (2) When I dedicated myself to writing seriously, I vowed to never censor myself.

Rather, my curiosity is to the aversion to profanity itself. And these people are the absolute least of my profanity concerns, as I have battled a much larger profanity patroller, one I care infinitesimally more about: my mom, who laughingly says she sometimes has to read DGO with a black marker, to eliminate choice words from her reading experience. She’ll likely be mortified reading this. I get it.

But I will argue that there is absolutely a time and place for profanity, in literature especially.

I think about a conversation I had with my mom. I once founded and edited a journal of literary humor, called “Kugelmass.” In the first issue, I somehow attained an essay titled “Sensei” written by Simon Rich, who wrote for “The New Yorker,” and went on to write at “Saturday Night Live.” “Sensei” was a true story from his childhood, about a karate class he went to in Brooklyn, taught by a guy with the how-perfect-name Ethan. Ethan had shown up to class one day having been beaten up by crack-using street punks. He wanted to explain to his class of children why he didn’t use karate in his fight, how it’s actually a worthless skill, and how no one fights using the “Rules of Combat,” and how all the kids in his class were not there to learn karate, but sent by their parents to lose weight.

“I’m a fraud, kids. A total fraud,” Ethan said. He admitted he had not grown up in Tokyo and “Hyundai” was not the Japanese word for “Eight.”

The essay was a coming-of-age tale about a grown-up broken and courageous enough to see himself after the incident as peers to these kids, admitting he did not, in fact, have all the answers.

The kids end up forgiving him. He’d taught them curse words, told them the plots of dirty movies. That day he’d introduced them to the words “crack cocaine.” “So what if he wasn’t from Tokyo,” Simon had thought.

They ask him to tell them more about crack cocaine, and he obliges, saying, “Why the fuck not?”

That was what my mom had zeroed in on. “Why did he have to use that word?” she asked me.

I told her why he had to use that word. Because he was speaking to his students as if they were on his same level. That’s how he talked to his friends, and why not them? Simon Rich’s inclusion of that word was not only intentional, but necessary. We understood the place Ethan was in, all in one word.

So yes. I need not say anything more about my story or its use of profanity. Only that the story I wrote came from a particular place, from a particular character’s point of view at a particular time. And that character sure as fuck meant every word he said.


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