Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Musings on the Use of Profanity


Quoting The Terms of Service: The content of this site is user-created and not pre-screened. Read/enter at your own risk.

With those words, the Oracles grant every Disciple in Ankhet free license to say virtually anything. The only restrictions are legality (the Terms of Service also caution that, if it's illegal outside the game, it's illegal inside as well) and the prospect of retaliation if one's words offend someone else. I'm not planning to discuss "poking the lion" today, however; instead, I'd like to talk about a certain type of communication that crops up occasionally.

I tend not to swear much when I'm writing. Maybe I'm just repressed, but I generally feel that I ought to be able to get a point across without using profanity. It's certainly not the only way to write, and there are plenty of Disciples who curse with some regularity, and a particular Disciple might use profanity when writing or speaking for a broad variety of reasons.

The Nature of Profanity

Some people -- typically younger people -- may think that it's "cool" to swear. I don't hold that opinion myself, but I suppose it depends upon one's upbringing. It is not uncommon for adults to try not to curse in front of children, lending profanity an air of mystery. Children are often disciplined for swearing, further contributing to the impression that profanity is something only for adults. Thus, younger folk may swear a lot in an attempt to prove that they are (or should be treated as) adults.

Many people commonly use profanity to add emphasis. There is a significant difference between "Why did you just Doom me?" and "Why the fucking hell did you just Doom me, shithead?" Profanity in such cases need not always signify disdain for the target, but it often does. (Of course, it may be unwise to signify disdain in the hypothetical example I just used. It rarely accomplishes anything, and can easily exacerbate the situation.)

Sometimes profanity can be cathartic. Who hasn't been moved to curse when stubbing one's toe or dropping a pile of papers? I'm not sure why a stream of invective makes anyone feel better when that happens, but a degree of mental satisfaction does seem to result. The same principle can apply here in Ankhet: Disciples have confessed to feeling better after blowing off some steam by cursing at someone else.

Finally, there are those who indulge in profanity purely for the sake of shocking or offending others. Even these fall into two categories: those who shock with the intent to amuse, and those who shock with the intent to generate negative attention and cause grief. The latter are sometimes called Trolls.

Individual and Communal Responsibility

As noted above, the Oracles have given the citizens of Ankhet significant freedom of speech. But, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, with freedom comes responsibility. Each of us has the freedom to choose what to write. Each of us also has the freedom to choose how to respond to what others write. And with each choice we make comes the responsibility for the outcome of that choice.

It is ultimately up to each of us to decide, as individuals, what sort of Ankhet we wish to tolerate. As everyone probably knows by now, there has been a recent torrent of vulgarity in the Commune. This is not the first time. There has also been a recent rash of Disciples Silencing each other's posts for using profanity. Again, this is not the first time. Some Disciples have even attacked others for excessive profanity. You guessed it: not the first time.

Yet there are probably hundreds of profanity-laden posts throughout the Commune that have not been Silenced. Clearly profanity has its place in the Ankhet community. Just as clearly, profanity is not immune from censorship. A few personal opinions, then, on the subject of profanity in Ankhet:

* First and foremost, I believe that giving Disciples freedom to express themselves is more important than ensuring a family-friendly Ankhet. This is, I think, why the Terms of Service say what they do: if a Disciple crosses the line, it is up to the community to take action. It is my personal choice to take such action only sparingly.

* I believe that an unpopular Disciple's use of profanity may provide a pretext for Silencing that Disciple's posts, or even for attacking that Disciple. I also believe, however, that more respected Disciples could probably get away with posts containing identical profanity with no repercussions.

* Notwithstanding the foregoing -- the right of individual Disciples to curse all they like -- I believe that the overuse of profanity detracts from whatever point the writer may be trying to make. I mentioned earlier that I generally think I ought to be able to get a point across without using profanity. In fact, I think that anyone ought to be able to do it.

I'll admit it: I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to excessive vulgarity. Anything that demeans, belittles, lessens, or puts down someone else seems inherently wrong and unacceptable to me. It is possible for a post to overcome that predisposition, of course, but it makes the writer's job harder than it needs to be.

Regardless of whether the writer actually has a valid point, the addition of excessive profanity to that point makes it unnecessarily difficult for the reader to see the point's validity. It also gives any would-be detractors something on which to focus their attention, rather than whatever point the writer was trying to make. All of this contributes to my belief that excessive profanity does more harm than good.

* For those who use profanity for emphasis: profanity loses its emphasis when it becomes commonplace. Imagine listening to a quiet piece of music, and suddenly hearing a blaring loud chord. Now imagine listening to another piece of music that is uniformly loud. In which piece is the increased volume more likely to have an effect?

* Finally, what of the true Troll, who not only uses profanity to shock or offend but also delights in getting attention from others by making them unhappy? There has always been one way and only one way to deal effectively with such people: DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. They want attention, of any kind. Even getting a post Silenced is a victory to them, because they have prompted a reaction. I truly believe that the best approach -- the one most likely to result in the Trolls becoming bored and going to Troll somewhere else -- is not to respond in any way.

We are, ultimately, a community of adults, or of those who wish to be treated as adults. It is therefore up to us to decide what sort of Ankhet we want. Do we want a heavily-moderated community in which any post containing the slightest off-color remark is promptly censored and harshly punished? Do we want to see Disciples constantly spewing deliberately offensive filth in every Forum, free from any repercussions no matter how much harm they cause?

I think that the ideal solution, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

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