Vulgarity Isn't Honesty (or, Who's Welcome Here?)
I unfollowed a former student on Twitter a couple of months ago because he was tossing words like “bitch” and “whore” into his tweets like marshmallows into hot chocolate. Today, I unfollowed a guy named Ted Dziuba because of this post defending—actually, praising—the use of foul language. He probably doesn’t care, but I’m hoping you will, so here goes.
The key sentence in Dziuba’s post was:
People like me, Zed Shaw, and Zach Holman will give you a brutally honest answer if you ask for it.
That’s bullshit, in the strictly technical sense of the word. People who drop the f-bomb (or the c-bomb n-bomb, and for all I know, the q-bomb and λ-bomb) into conversation aren’t telling you the truth any more than Paul Graham and other pundits that Dziuba is so jealous dismissive of. If they’re trying to smother listeners with anodyne non-information, then the foul-mouthed brigade are trying to distract us by throwing burning bags of dog poo onto our porches.
But there’s an important difference. Words like “fuck”, “bitch”, and “nigger” aren’t just meant to shock; they’re also meant to intimidate. Women, ethnic minorities, people with varying sexual orientations, the disabled, and the bullied have all learned the hard way that those words are warning signs of attitudes that start at “you’re not one of us” and rapidly get worse. I don’t know if Dziuba, Shaw, Hansson, and others who excuse themselves by calling it “frank” or “honest” are actually racist, misogynist, or homophobic. What I do know is, they’re sending the same signals as people who are. (And yes, they have defenders and imitators who are people of color, female, and/or LGBT. So what? Some people will do almost anything to fit in…)
Having gone through a phase like this myself in my twenties, I suspect that a large part of what’s driving the potty-mouth brigade is a desperate need to be accepted by the high school cool crowd that cut them cold when they were teenagers. But that kind of ten-cent psychoanalysis isn’t even worth ten cents these days, and anyway, I don’t really care about their reasons. What I do care about is that the makeup of our profession is as skewed as it was thirty year ago when I first started programming—that a lot of people are choosing not to pursue interesting, well-paid, white collar careers because they’re made to feel unwelcome. If you can convince me that saying “shit” over and over again is going to fix that, I’ll apologize for this post. If not, I’ll continue to consider you part of a problem that you, for all your self-proclaimed honesty, aren’t honest enough to face.
Later: the first three responses to this piece were (a) vitriolic and (b) anonymous, so I’m closing off comments for now.
Later: in response to email, no, I’m not expecting this post to change how the people I’m complaining about talk or act. I just want to let the people their words and actions are driving away know that some of us are on their side. To paraphrase Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of meanness is that people of good will are too afraid of being called prissy to stand up for what’s right.