Monday, September 14, 2009

Where Is Your @$%!&*ing Final Paper?

I missed most of President Obama’s speech Wednesday night, but I’ve been getting tons of messages about S.C. Representative Joe Wilson heckling him during the address, screaming “You lie!” from a seat in the audience. Even though it does seem a little weird and disrespectful that a Congressman would decide to voice his objections in such a backalley way (and he’s since, of course, apologized), was this vulgar display all that qualitatively different from, say, Wilson going on FOX News later on that very evening and calling Obama a liar after the fact?

I actually don’t want to talk about the kind of rage that prompted Wilson to publicly yell at the standing President, but it reminded me of one of academe’s double standards around public displays of hostility.

What are we to make of the athletic coach who shouts at his or her players for making a bad play?

I’m not just talking about Bobby Knight-style tossing of chairs across basketball courts. He’s something like the King of Sports Rage. But so many coaches do it, even seemingly mild-mannered ones. And sometimes with four-letter expletives as rhetorical garnish. “What the @#&!$^% were you thinking on that play!? Sit the @!#$& down!!!!”

I spent four years at Duke University watching from the stands while two relatively even-keeled coaches (Coach K and Coach G) periodically hurled quite enraged charges at their undergraduate players. I remember thinking, what would people say if faculty treated those same students that way?

“Where’s your @&#!&!ing paper? This final paper is absolute @&#!!*!”

It would be absurd. Outrageous. But why do coaches get away with such abuse when these very students don their athletic uniforms? It seems like just the kind of arbitrary social convention that demonstrates a version of what anthropologist Mary Douglas once described as the central importance of culturally specific understandings of “matter out of place.” Things get deemed profane/dirty/obscene/vulgar as a function of “where” they are, not just “what” they are. For some reason, we think about the classroom as the wrong place for university employees to curse at their students. What makes basketball courts or football fields more appropriate? Does the presence of the crowd somehow matter? What is it?

Of course, just one of the many differences between a coach shouting at his/her players and Wilson snapping at Obama is that the coach and athlete consider themselves to be fighting for the same goal, literally on the same team. How many people in Congress really think about their colleagues “across the aisle” with a similarly inclusive attitude?

(Previously published on The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog and in the Durham Herald-Sun.)