There are, by my count, three remaining real profanities in American English, words that may be uttered in polite society only transgressively. Those three words are all personal slurs: one racial, one sexual, one relating to sexual orientation.
In a sense, that speaks well of us. The words that are forbidden are the words that are meant to hurt people belonging to vulnerable groups.
For most of the recent history of our language, English profanities referred mainly to things that were considered private, usually bodily functions of a sexual or excretory nature; a minor legacy of religiously derived profanities survives as well, though the relative impotency of those utterances can be judged by the fact that William F. Buckley Jr. in 2007 published a book titled Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription to minimal controversy. “Hell,” once a word that was not said or written lightly, went lowercase and then went mainstream; like “damned,” it lost its juice once we stopped believing in the underlying concept. “Zounds” — a contraction of “God’s wounds,” the injuries inflicted on Jesus — once was a real profanity; in the late 1970s, a punk band called Zounds put out music on a label called F**k Off Records. God’s wounds do not interest us very much, but the procreative act does, and hence references to it retain some of their profane power.
But not the kind of power carried by the term of abuse that reduces American results to puerile euphemism: “the n-word,” they say.
Professor Peter Gade, the director of graduate studies at the University of Oklahoma journalism school (which exists!), has got himself into what passes for hot water for using that infamous slur in a conversation about slurs. The subject at hand was the social-media expression “Okay, Boomer!” which is a way for callow young whiners on Twitter to pretend that their lack of advancement in life is the result of the repressive forces of Hegelian capital-H History, which members of earlier generations — sing it if you know the words! — just don’t understand. “Okay, Boomer!” is not directed exclusively or even mainly at Baby Boomers (my friend Jay Nordlinger, who is younger than that, reports having the imbecility hurled at him) but instead is intended to suggest that the target is out-of-touch in the now-familiar senescent Baby Boomer mode (cf. Biden, Joe, incoherent ravings of) and blissfully unaware of his generational — you know it! — privilege.
Professor Gade argued that “Boomer” in this usage is an ageist slur in the same way that that unutterable epithet is a racist slur. And he uttered that unutterable slur, which means that a thousand carping undergraduate scolds named Caitlyn are demanding he lose his job and/or be sent to a reeducation camp of some kind.
This is, of course, ridiculous — not as ridiculous as the fact that the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma (motto: Inter oves locum præsta) exists and that young imbeciles spend their parents’ hard-earned money attending it, but ridiculous nonetheless. It is a practical impossibility to have a conversation about slurs — even a deeply stupid conversation involving a man holding what must surely be one of the most useless appointments in all of academia — without making reference to those slurs and, on occasion, using them. To argue that speaking a slur in the course of a conversation about slurs is like using the slur in an ordinary context is something like believing that oncologists must be carcinogenic since there is cancer everywhere they go.
The powers that be at OU have reiterated their fealty to the First Amendment and academic freedom, and also have indicated that they intend to ignore these entirely. “Our university must serve as an example to our society of both freedom of expression and understanding and tolerance,” said Joseph Harroz Jr., who, for his sins, serves at the university’s interim president. “His words today failed to meet this standard.”
But what standard is that, exactly? It is not as though Professor Gade used the word in malice — he used it in the course of talking about how we speak and write, which presumably is within the field of interest of the young ladies and gentlemen at the journalism school at the University of Oklahoma. His comparison may not have been a very intelligent or interesting one, but if that is going to be disqualifying, then things are going to get very quiet indeed down there in Norman, Okla.
The only “standard” that Professor Gade really failed to meet was the one of silly young mini-Maoist campus outrage-hobbyists — i.e., a standard that should matter to no intelligent adult. But, of course, he’s groveling — comfortable academic appointments are difficult to come by.
The more college administrators countenance and encourage this sort of thing, the more of it they are going to get. When the ridiculous quarterwits at the Philadelphia University of the Arts decided that they could not share a campus with Camille Paglia, the only intellectual of any standing associated with that modest little school, the administration there had the guts to tell them to grow up or ship off. The University of Oklahoma, with its multi-billion-dollar budget, could afford to stand up for itself, for its values, and for its faculty. All it needs is all it lacks — guts.