Giving offense

Cecily’s 5/20 comment on my “SCRIMMAGE T-SHIRT” posting of 5/1:

Arnold, with this photo and the Cactus Swim Brief in quick succession, your excellent blog is in danger of becoming NSFW. Is there any chance of “enshrinking” the images where they might startle passers by?

Oh dear, another way to Give Offense.

I can produce a much smaller image, but you won’t be able to tell what the point of the image is unless you embiggen it, which pretty much defeats the purpose of having the reduced version on-screen. The straightforward solution is not to include any such images (in, for instance, the two postings you mention and the shirt-lifting posting) — to eliminate the images from the postings and replace them by links to the images. But then, of course, if you click on the link, the image will appear on your screen, in all of its potentially offensive glory. The straightforward solution for that is to include only links, with a stern warning attached to each link — THIS IMAGE IS NOT SUITABLE FOR WORK, or something like that.

Or just to begin the entire posting with a warning like DO NOT READ THIS POSTING AT WORK, but then I’d have to edit things so that the possibly offending images are at least a screen down from the beginning. (The tag that splits a posting into two parts, separated by a “Read the rest of this entry >>” break, does this work fine if you’re reading a posting from the main blog page, but the visual effect disappears when you access the posting from the blog archives, so this tag isn’t a real solution to the problem. If you access the posting via an address, then you don’t see any break at all, and potentially offensive material is right in your face.)

Or, somewhat more radically, to move all such postings to a new blog (AZ Secreta, or something like that), providing nothing but a link (plus a stern warning) on this blog.

[But then this new blog would have to have access restricted in some way, so that people can’t just come across it and be offended by it. That is, the new blog would have to be subscription-only — as, for example, the American Dialect Society mailing list is (ADS-L subscription comes with a warning that the content and language of postings is unrestricted, subject only to the usual qualifications about off-topic and abusive postings), and many Livejournal (etc.) accounts are. (But note that ADS-L postings can be read by non-subscribers, thanks to the hosting of its archives by the Linguist List; the archives are searchable and readable through the ADS-L home page.)

It has occurred to me that I could just close my current blog and require consent from subscribers to see and read my postings. Of course, that wouldn’t solve Cecily’s problem, since once someone subscribes, the material appears on the screen, just as it does now.]

On the other hand, I could ask Cecily why she’s looking at (and reading) things at work that might offend co-workers or bosses, should they catch sight of her computer screen or monitor her computer use (as co-workers and bosses are wont to do). I realize that “everyone does it”, but, still, I’m not sure why I should have to take that into account when I compose my postings.

The fact is that many readers in this world are offended by all sorts of language and images, and there’s only so much a writer can do to avoid giving offense. (Sometimes, of course, censors will simply block material, as is done extensively on the internet, through enforcement at all levels from individual sites to entire nations.) In many cases, you’ll explicitly decide to disregard the potential offense in your words and images — up to a point (see below). That’s what I’ve chosen to do here, and what the Language Loggers have chosen to do, and the ADS-Lers as well.

Offense can be taken at two levels, at least.

To start with, at the level of topic. Over the years, a series of people have been dismayed at some of the subjects I discuss — sexuality (especially homosexuality), in particular — no matter how circumspect my language. And many more people have dismissed some of the things I write about — ranging from pornography to taboo language and images, casual speech, non-standard varieties, errors in language, innovations in language, slang, jargon, humor and nonsense, children’s literature, folk literature and song, particular registers (recipes and newspaper headlines,in particular), popular verse and song, advertising, and more — as unworthy of or unsuitable for scholarly attention. (And then I also do creative writing of several sorts and I make collages, so I get criticism on the content of these works too.)

Then, there’s the level of expression: what is explicitly said or shown; language and images. On the net (and of course in print) I’m constrained by providers and publishers. Stanford has (so far) been tolerant of what I send out from my university e-address, but there are all sorts of things I wouldn’t store on my Stanford website.

On Language Log and my blog, I’ll go a bit further, since these sites aren’t entirely for scholarly/academic purposes. But WordPress places restrictions on expression, ruling out obscenity and pornography (though without any guidelines on the second). I’ve chosen to interpret these restrictions in the current fashion of the national courts in the U.S. (putting aside the strange restrictions on network broadcasting, since I’m not on a broadcast network): since taboo language (whether merely mentioned or actually used) can be displayed and uttered publicly, and most body-parts can be displayed publicly (penises and vaginas are out, but almost everything else gets by), and sexual activities of a wide variety can be written about or suggestively alluded to in images (so long as the writing and imagery isn’t clearly intended only to arouse, and nothing more), I’ve pressed things up against the line, going about as far as I can go without actually setting off alarm bells at WordPress (or Apple, where I store my images on an iDisk). See the underwear postings and the Sundance poems.

Now, plenty of people are going to find some or all of this edgy material distasteful or straightforwardly offensive, therefore unsuitable in a public place. I’m sorry, but this place, though public, is also open, and I think all of the material deserves airing, for a variety of reasons. (It’s also true that in my country, at least at the moment, there is no right not to be offended.)

Still, I have plenty of material that’s over the line. Writing in draft for several books:

Reflections on a Sexual Life (fictionalized autobiography or autobiographical fiction, take your pick, plus a good bit of what might be thought of as participant-observer anthropology; I’ve posted versions of some bits of this material on the newsgroup soc.motss);

Sundance and Butch;

Gayland (which might split in two: a set of essays, a few academic in tone but most decidedly not, on the construction of Gayland; and a parallel set of analyses of images).

Plus collections of images for the Gayland project, including images from both popular culture (like the underwear ads) and gay porn, and also my “XXX-rated comic homoerotic collages” (as I billed them for the two showings I’ve had of them, in 2003 at a Palo Alto gallery and in 2005 at the Stanford Humanities Center).

All of this material has the capacity to arouse people sexually — many readers and viewers find it arousing, hell, I get turned on by a lot of it myself — though that’s not its main point (which is to provoke both thought and laughter). But it’s definitely into the Pornography Zone,.

In any case, I need to find a new place for storing text and images and a new venue for on-line publication and display (behind a suitable Wall of Consent). My much put-upon computer consultant has been scouting out the possibilities. Stay tuned for news.

(Once the Wall of Consent is in place, I might consider moving merely edgy material behind it, though I’m of two minds about that possibility.)

6 Responses to “Giving offense”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    OK, I must ask–why are people who are concerned about the nature of images on their screens reading blogs at WORK? Or is this a rhetorical question?

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    Ditto Shadow Fox.

    I also note that the pictures in question are about as revealing as the pictures on most mainstream magazines as…Cosmo. The difference isn’t their revealingness or sexual content. It’s the fact that they’re pictures of men in a gay context, and that’s being more strongly objected to than women in a straight context (which is just same-old). Le sigh.

    Anyway, that stuff aside, I like your posts on gayland and similar topics, and I hope you don’t remove them or make them harder to find. I like reading your serious (as in, “thorough”) analysis of gender and sexuality topics, and I hope you keep writing them.


  3. mollymooly Says:

    @Cecily: If you are using Firefox, try




    Other browsers have similar options in their settings.

  4. Cecily Says:

    Blimey! I wasn’t expecting such a comprehensive response. I almost wish I hadn’t mentioned it.

    I would add that I didn’t find either image offensive, but realised that they might startle anyone in the vicinity who doesn’t know the context. “I’m just reading a work-related blog about language” would probably have as much credibility as “reading Playboy for the articles”!

    Regarding the ethics of reading such things at work, use and understanding of language is related to my job, though I often reserve the more general blogs, such as this, to lunchtime or just before or after work.

  5. Late spring 2003 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Giving offense […]

  6. Academic collages « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] creations. And unlike the collages I referred to in my recent “giving offense” posting, which are XXX-rated (for sexual content) and so not fit for WordPress, these are decorous (well, […]

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