I was reading a Grand Rapids Press article about Monday's city school board meeting at which the members approved by a 5-2 vote, with Superintendent Bernard Taylor's backing, the use of The Literary Experience as a textbook in City High's Honors English class. As readers of L.A.W. are well aware, this textbook contains the Suzan-Lori Parks play "Topdog/Underdog" and provoked controversy because of excessive foul language and graphic depictions of sex. Reporter Rick Wilson repeatedly wrote that it was the play's "profanity" that raised hackles.
Also I noted that in the lead editorial a few days earlier, the Grand Rapids Press was quite high on having City High students read Parks's play: "College-bound seniors -- the ones who would be using the book -- are generally mature enough to handle an edgy work with profanity and sexual content. In fact, they should be encouraged to read the unassigned stories in any textbook they have." [Our emphasis.] Others supporting the use of The Literary Experience have also repeatedly spoken about the play's profanity and the need to expose high schoolers to it.
Well, OK. But is it too much to ask all those who are ardent in their commitment to this "foul language as literature" education project to get a clue about their subject? As far as I know, Parks's play contains no profanities. It does have more than a hundred uses over a run of 70 pages of variations of "s---" and "f---", neither of which are profanities. The former is either a vulgarity or obscenity depending upon its usage, and the latter is almost always an obscenity (although arguably the indiscriminate use of "f---" over the past few decades has so reduced its force that some usage of it is now merely vulgar).
In brief, if it is such a good idea to teach the kiddies swear words, then teach them! That means understanding the difference between a profanity, an obscenity, and a vulgarity. A profanity is sacrilegious. It takes God's name in vain, which the utterance of neither "s---" nor "f---" do. So the dispute over Parks's play has nothing to do with profanities. Indeed, in light of the secularist dogma that predominates public education these days, any grievance against genuine profanity in the classroom would likely bring down the wrath of the ACLU as a violation against the separation of church and state. Yes, I exaggerate, but you get my point: Few today work up much of a fuss over real profanity.
So the dispute lies with the obscenities and vulgarities in Parks's play. An obscenity is a depraved or disgusting reference to the body or bodily functions, most often sexual or scatological. Therefore, "f---" is clearly an obscenity, and "s---" often is. Therefore, Park's play is obscene not profane on account on the usage of those words, not to mention the graphic depictions of sex. Finally, a vulgarity is a crude or crass expression that lacks an obscene connotation but remains impolite, mild examples of which are the words "ass" and "crap".
One way to remember the differences is that these days a vulgarity will probably get you in trouble only with your grandmother, an obscenity with the FCC, and a profanity with the Almighty. Now you know how to swear, folks.