“Those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves.”
—Neil Peart, 1981
Did you know that Blindsight contains 73 instances of the word “fuck” and its variants? I’ve recently been informed of this fact by a high-school teacher down in a part of the US that— well, in the name of protecting the identities of the innocent, let’s just call it JesusLand.
The ubiquity of “Fuck”— not just in Blindsight but in other contexts as well— carries a number of ramifications. For one thing, it implies that the characters who use it have better vocabularies and language skills than those whose mouths are squeaky clean. It also means that they probably have a greater tolerance to pain.
And in the case of this particular teacher— here in the Twenty First Century, for chrissake— it means she could lose her job if she taught Blindsight, unexpurgated, to her advanced English class. Apparently high school students in her part of the world are blissfully unfamiliar with this word. Apparently all sorts of calamities might ensue should that precarious state of affairs ever change.
It’s a hard scenario to wrap my head around, even though I myself had a relatively genteel history with profanity back in childhood. Raised by Baptists, I must’ve been eleven or twelve before I even used words like “damn” or “hell” in conversation; even then, I could only live with such unChristian lapses by telling myself that at least I limited myself to “clean” swearing. I never lowered myself to the truly dirty stuff like “fuck” or “cunt” or “asshole”.
It cut no ice with my mother, who— as First Lady of the Baptist Leadership Training School— had appearances to maintain. When I pointed out that my use of such mild expletives didn’t hurt anyone, her response was always the same: “I find it offensive. That’s all you need to know.” I suspect it was this idiotic response— that unthinking preference of gut over reason— that inspired my defiant and long-overdue upgrade to F-bombery shortly thereafter.
While I changed, though, my parents never did. When my first novel came out decades later, there was Fanshun, sadly shaking her head— not angry, just very, very disappointed— wondering why her son, who had such a way with words, had to ruin a perfectly good book with all that profanity. Especially since she had, in years past, gone so far as to suggest non-offensive alternatives for me to use.
One of them, believe it or not, was “zounds”.
Neither of us knew back then that “Zounds” was the “fuck” of its day— a contraction of “God’s wounds“, referring to the stigmata of Christ and purged from yesteryear’s polite literature the same way “fuck” is purged from mainstream outlets today (by spelling it “Z— ds!” and leaving readers to figure out the fucking omissions for themselves). Gadzooks— a similar contraction of “God’s hooks” (i.e., the nails of the crucifix)— was apparently considered equally vulgar, back before it ended up as a common expletive in Saturday comics and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that taking offense at the word “fuck” is, rationally, no less nonsensical than objecting to “gadzooks” or “zounds”— in fact, those latter words should by rights be more offensive, since they hew closer to “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. (As far as I know, no part of scripture forbids taking the name of sex in vain.) Should be case closed. Case shouldn’t have even been opened in the first place, in any rational universe.
Cut to the present, and here we were: me, author of a book I’m pretty damn proud of in hindsight; she, a teacher who wanted to share that book with a gang of unusually bright students. Standing in our way— reluctantly, I’ve been told— was a department head who quailed at the prospect of teaching a novel that gave so very many fucks. Apparently there’d been trouble in the past. Jobs lost. Parents throwing shit-fits over course material they might have described as progressive, if such folks had ever been able work their way up to three syllables. So, this teacher asked, would it be okay if her students read a bowdlerised version of Blindsight? One from with all the f-bombs had been expunged?
It was a tougher question than you might think.
On one hand, it’s not as though I hammered out the novel thinking Oh boy, I’m gonna introduce fuck to a whole new generation! That’s what this book will be remembered for! I didn’t even think about the use of profanity, beyond the obvious need to ensure that my characters had consistent speech patterns. Blindsight‘s essential themes could have been conveyed in language pure as the driven snow— and it’s those themes that matter, not idioms of dialog. Here was someone who wanted to introduce her students to riffs on evolution and neurology and human nature that a lot of post-grads never dip their toes into. Here was someone who not only wanted to educate, but challenge. Christ knows I would have benefited from more teachers like that during my own slog through the educational process. I’m not seriously gonna throw a monkey wrench into her aspirations over a few expurgated curses, am I? Am I?
It’s not so much the change itself that rankles. It’s the demand for that change. Where it comes from. Where it leads.
Because my work— whether you regard it as art, literature, or florid pulpy hackwork— is my work. You may love a painting or revile it, but you don’t walk into an art gallery and demand that the curator put duct tape over all the yellow bits in various paintings— no matter how easy it would be to do that, no matter if the basic theme of those paintings survives the mutilation. If the sight of yellow elements in paintings offends you, the solution’s simple: don’t go to the fucking gallery.
But these vocal Jesusland parents, who have the staff of this school so terrified: they are evidently not the kind who say I find this book offensive so I will not read it. They are not even the kind who say I do not want my children exposed to this so they will not read it. (If they were, students whose parents objected could simply be excused from that part of the class— problem solved— but this was never presented as a option.) These parents— these hysterical, brain-dead dipshits with the room-temperature IQs— would say instead I find the profanity in this book offensive so I will have it removed from the curriculum. I will have it removed from the library. I will have it removed from whatever parts of the world I can intimidate into bowing to my demands.
I find it offensive. That’s all you need to know.
But isn’t that always the way it is? The line is rarely Abortion’s not for me but rather Abortion should be outlawed. Fundamentalists who demand that their creation myths be inserted into science classes tend to look at you funny when you suggest that likewise, we could insert passages from On the Origin of Species into the book of Genesis. The Ayatollah did not simply opine that The Satanic Verses wasn’t his cup of tea: he literally put out a hit on Salman Rushdie.
Maybe I’m going off the deep end here. Maybe I’m being a self-important dipshit myself, grandiosely equating a bit of petty bleeping with homicidal fatwas and the bombing of abortion clinics. Certainly there’s no denying that Blindsight‘s troubles down in Jesusland don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to these other things, conflicts where lives are all too often at stake. But that’s kind of my point: I’d hoped that we’d won this small battle at least, that we could move on to bigger fights. It’s been a while since Catcher In the Rye was in the news. A few years back I read something about the fundies raising a stink over The Handmaid’s Tale— but that article left me with the sense that those protesters were some kind of relic population, kept alive only because of a captive-breeding program (sponsored by the Smithsonian, perhaps). PEN still has its work cut out for it but they focus overseas, on third-world totalitarian regimes that imprison or murder writers of “offensive” or “subversive” material.
I’d hoped that over here, we’d won on the profanity front at the very least. It’s hard to imagine a smaller victory. There’s still the ongoing war to be fought against the creationists and the racists and homophobes and the trans— hell, let’s just save ourselves a few lines and call them phobics, generic— but by all that’s holy, swear words? We haven’t even come this far, here in 21st-Century N’Am?
Evidently not. Educators in this place literally fear for their jobs, because they want to teach a book containing the word “fuck”.
I’m not claiming that Blindsight, stripped of profanity, would lose something essential. In fact, it’s the very triviality of this censorship that bothers me; it seems like such a ludicrous thing to get worked up about, such a high price to pay for something that really doesn’t matter. Such a little thing to risk one’s livelihood over. So let’s give in, and save ourselves the tantrum. Let’s pay this small, unimportant price. And Nineteen Eighty Four‘s Newspeak dictionary will have one fewer word in it, and Fahrenheit 451‘s grass-roots dystopia will burn one more book that someone considers offensive (That’s all you need to know). Only next time it will be the ideas and not the slang, it’ll be the political statement you have to cut if you want to keep your job, and it’ll be even easier this time because we’ve already taken the first step down that slope.
But that’s okay. After a few more iterations the problem will solve itself— because none of us will have the vocabulary to express dissent any more.
Back here in the present I suggested some workarounds. Maybe they could run the bowdlerized edition off on a Gestetner that blurred the words unto illegibility (I figured, given the outmoded attitudes at play in that part of the world, maybe their educational equipment might be equally antique)— at which point the teacher could simply point them to my website where the original text lay in wait. I seized upon the the department head’s reported objection to teaching a “non-classic” book containing profanity; did this imply that books regarded as “classics” got a pass? (I’m pretty sure To Kill a Mockingbird gets taught without having been purged of the word “nigger”, for instance.) As it happened, Omni had recently stuck my name on a list of “Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All Time”, right up there with Orwell, Wolfe, and Le Guin. It was completely bogus, of course— my name doesn’t belong anywhere near those folks, not yet at least— but somehow it had slipped in, and maybe that would be enough to classify Blindsight as a “classic”? No?
Okay, then. Maybe she could replace every instance of the word “fuck” with the name of some local personality, evil and/or corrupt in some way— someone whose name could be used as a common epithet in some dystopian future. I didn’t know who that might be— “Cheney”, “Harper”, and “Trump” would all be candidates on the federal scale, but I didn’t know anything about the local one. Since the teacher knew the locals, though, I figured I could trust her expertise.
That’s the option she went for.
And that, as far as I know, is where things stand. She says she’s cool with me blogging about this (I’ve filed off the serial numbers), and I’m told the students themselves are privy to our email conversation. (She’s also bringing “Mr. Robot” and the BSG reboot into the discussion, to illustrate various strategies by which one might get profanity past Standards & Practices; for this and other reasons, I think she’s pretty cool.) I expect I’ll be Skyping with the class somewhere along the line. There’s little chance that any of those students will go home thinking that the characters in Blindsight used word like “heck” or “fudgemuffin”. No one will be fooled; in that sense, nothing will be censored.
And yet, I still don’t know quite how to feel about this. Some part of me still thinks I should’ve climbed onto some higher horse and refused to budge, out of sheer ornery principle. There’s not much chance the book will read smoother without the fucks than with them; in that sense, the reading experience has probably been compromised. On the other hand, Blindsight is hardly the smoothest reading experience anyway, even for people with a degree or two under their belt. (I’ve told you all about the smart-ass who asked me when it was going to get translated into English, yuk yuk yuk, right?). I don’t care how “advanced” this class is; if the biggest problem they have with Blindsight is the rhythm of its curses, I’ll consider myself insanely lucky.
I should consider myself insanely lucky anyway. There are whole libraries of books that any teacher could go to if they wanted to turn their kids on to the joy of reading or the challenge of SF; pretty much every one of those books would be more famous than Blindsight, easier to read, and way less work. And yet, this person has chosen to climb uphill, doing all the heavy lifting herself. She has become Sisyphus, because she believes that something I wrote might matter to people she teaches.
How often does an author get to say that?