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How Should Teachers Tackle Profanity in Literature?

HarshawnRatanpal · social issues · opinion · 10/03/2020 · edited

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When an author pens a word, it’s done with intent. The writer chose, out of the near-infinite possibilities within the English language to settle on the very ones you see printed in the final draft of his work. And these final works, such as the literature many of us read for school, sometimes contain profanity. If a teacher wants to read the book aloud with the class, there could be a dilemma of whether or not the profanity should be read out. Despite the potential drawbacks, high school classes should not avoid reading such words aloud. 

The words are most often important to the particular point the author is trying to convey. For example, J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye, often read in AP English Language, is a coming of age story of the main character Holden Caulfield in the 1950s. Holden is an immature and confused teenager who is unwilling to accept the reality of adulthood. To convey the theme and Holden’s characterization, Salinger includes swear words, like “damn,” into Holden’s vernacular. 

Salinger uses these words for specific purposes. To avoid the words in a class where the text is heavily analyzed could cause a significant point intentionally made to go unnoticed. 

Yes, some of the words may make some students uncomfortable; however, oftentimes the purpose of literature is to evoke emotions to further prove a point. While listening to the constant words used to convey Holden’s frustration might evoke negative feelings, it also helps readers empathize with Holden and get to know and understand the other characters. In summary, the words cause discomfort not by unfortunate side effect, but by purposeful design. 

A widely-read, classic book many seem to feel strongly about is, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The book deals with race issues at both a personal and institutional level. Loosely based on Lee’s own life experiences in 1930s Alabama, the plot centers around a court case in which Tom Robinson, a Black man, is falsely accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a White girl. Lee’s attempt to include the racist attitudes throughout the book entails the use of racial slurs. 

The use of these racial slurs should not be overlooked; these words have historically been used to demean and discriminate against ethnic groups—in this case, Blacks. As such, before reading the book, it may be necessary for teachers to have a discussion with their students on the context and impact of these words.

Of course, the discussion and the usage of these emotional words can be extremely uncomfortable, and they should never be used derogatorily, which was their original purpose. Hearing this word on a regular basis was a reality at the time, and the book can help audiences realize the ugliness of the situation and reality.

Additionally, there are many heinous things taught in school that still ought to be taught for the sake of educating students on the injustices of the past in the hopes that this knowledge can help prevent them in the future. The mass genocide of innocent racial, ethnic, ideological, political, and behavioral groups during the Holocaust is one of the most vile things to ever happen in human history. However, shying away from our past for the temporary relief from discomfort could potentially lead to students not garnering the empathy needed to understand the atrocious nature of the Holocaust. 

Similarly, if a student is not fully exposed to the racial attitudes and injustices, not only is Lee’s original message less impactful, but also an opportunity is lost to confront these issues directly and to understand them better. 

Take, for example, the protagonist from To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch. Finch is a young girl who has little exposure to the outside world and the harshness of reality. Early on in the book, Scout uses the racial slur because she doesn't know any better. Only after her conversations with her father about the word and her first-hand experience with characters like Tom Robinson does she garner empathy for the Black community; until she was directly confronted with the issue, she was ignorant. In the same vein, to truly grasp the feelings and facts of the picture that Lee is painting, students should be fully exposed to the slurs used in the book. 

In my own academic experience, this issue has come up a handful of times. Whether it was in To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, The Crucible, Catcher in The Rye, or Frannie and Zooey, each teacher I’ve had has tackled the harsh language differently. It appears the best approach is the way one of my teachers tackled a book with racial slurs. Before we read the book, we engaged in a long class discussion about racial issues and slurs. In order to maintain the author’s original meaning and intended effect, she would read the text in its complete form while giving students the option to skip over certain words if they would like. This seems to be a healthy compromise as students are not forced to use words they don’t want to use, but they are still exposed to the issue and its weight by hearing and reading it. 

Similarly, even if the offending word is something akin to “damn,” students who have a moral objection to using the word need not say it.  This compromise could also help expose students to words they may encounter in the real world. Even if a student is comfortable reading profanity, auditory exposure can still be shocking; hearing offensive words in a safe classroom setting where substantive discussion can take place could help students understand and deal with future exposure to such words.

Obviously, there are an innumerable amount of special cases and caveats that teachers ought to consider. Perhaps a certain class displays a clear lack of maturity to handle serious topics, in which case it seems that maybe the teacher needs to carefully consider other options on how to deal with it. However, in his or her decision, teachers should consider the benefits of confronting controversial topics, and words, head on.

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