Within the context of ALA policy and the professional practices of librarianship, critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment. Similarly, use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.
When Carlin rattled off the seven words you can’t say on television, they gained the musicality of a poem, an incantation that summoned to mind whatever images you wanted those words to stand for. Because that’s all words are–they are symbols for larger, messier thoughts that are imperfectly expressed. Carlin knew this, and pointedly commented on how some “dirty” words were situational. Ass, for instance, was okay when it brought to mind a donkey; but it was decidedly not okay when it brought to mind someone’s posterior. Bitch was fine for dog breeders, but not for a man referring to his cruel girlfriend. Carlin, with the ribald glee of a manic linguist, tore apart these words and put them back together like a master sculptor.
Note that when he performed this piece (and he performed pieces; Carlin was know for the careful writing, rewriting, and honing of his work), he was not directing these words at anyone in particular. He was not demeaning a gay man by calling him a cocksucker. He was not attempting to intimidate an outspoken woman by calling her a cunt. He was exploring the power and impact of these words in a raunchy yet cerebral exercise that poked fun at how much power we give to these sounds that inherently have no power of their own. The only power words have over us are the power we give to them, power that is given by the intent behind them and the way we say them.
It is precisely that distinction that means that Intellectual Freedom lovers everywhere have nothing to fear from the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences. Because it is not meant to curtail lively, intense, thoughtful intellectual discourse. It is not meant for the George Carlins, Richard Pryors, and Margaret Chos of conference presenting. It is meant for furtive come-ons and anger filled insults that are designed to demean, intimidate, and take down other people. It is meant for the person who scrawls cocksucker on the picture of a homosexual keynote speaker. It is meant for the disgruntled male who calls a colleague a ball busting bitch after she adroitly points out errors in his proposed idea. It is meant for all the people who use words as weapons, which is often a prelude to physical violence as well.
Further, you need to consider that if you’re going to listen to a speaker, especially a keynote speaker, you should have some idea about their style and approach. I’m happily looking forward to David Sedaris at PLA this year, and being familiar with his work I fully expect some profanity and tales of disturbingly hilarious subject matter. For people who aren’t into that, you have the choice of not going. Most street harassers don’t afford people that sort of courtesy. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I’d like to subject you to a tirade about how much I enjoy your tits in that blouse and what I would like to do to them. All right?” Having your choice taken away is another important factor when it comes to deciding if something is frowned upon, whether it’s part of a statement of conduct or not.
So for anyone who is planning on saying “fuck ebook borrowing restrictions!” in their next conference presentation, keep that f-bomb in there. Even if someone does complain, the statement is not meant for you. Fuck in this instance is an intensifier, a rallying cry, a sharp blast designed to grab attention and incite action.
But I and many others are damn comforted that if someone tells me to shut the fuck up because they don’t like what I have to say, I have that statement as a starting point to push back and find some recourse.
And just for fun, here’s a video I found of Louis CK honoring George Carlin at the NYPL.
Baby, do you understand me now
Sometimes I feel a little mad
But don’t you know that no one alive
Can always be an angel
When things go wrong I seem to be bad
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
-The Animals, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood