Editor’s note: This article is about profanity and therefore necessarily includes some profanity and substitutes for profanity.
A graduate assistant at Louisiana State University, Marcus Venable, has become a casualty in the unending “culture wars.”
He has been fired from his teaching assistantship at LSU after leaving a profanity-filled voicemail for Louisiana State Sen. Mike Fesi, who voted to ban gender-affirming health care for children.
Here is what Venable said: “You did not produce any g**d*** evidence to support the claims you made about people being harmed by transgender care, yet we’ve had tons of empirical evidence telling us there’s an increased suicide risk for people who don’t get this care. So you, you big fat headed motherf***er, I can’t wait to read your name in the f***ing obituary. I will make a goddamn martini made from the tears of your butt-hurt conservatives when we put your f***ing a** in the ground, you fat f***ing useless piece of s**t.” He concluded, “F*** you. I hope you have a terrible day. Go f*** yourself.”
No one would defend this outburst, but I doubt Venable had any notion that his private voice message would go viral. There’s no doubt Venable used grossly offensive language, but the senator probably has received as much or more disdain in his career. Rather than offer more condemnation of Venable, and not willing to offer him a full-throated commendation, I want to have a critical conversation about the role of profanity in our culture.
Profane offense taken at profane outburst
The predictable outburst from conservatives after Venable’s voice message went viral also contains the profane, the disgusting, the smell of a major overreaction.
Louisiana Legislature conservatives demanded LSU fire Venable. Sen. Stewart Cathey of Monroe, Rep. Blake Miguez of Erath, Rep. Beryl Amedee of Houma and Rep. Beryl Amedee of Erath also shared tweets denouncing the LSU instructor. One of Louisiana’s Republican members of Congress couldn’t resist taking the easy potshot at Venable: “I’ll be your huckle bearer, Mr. LSU Professor.”
The public piled on as if they had all just won the baseball national championship in Omaha. Internet users immediately took to Twitter to condemn Venable for uttering such derogatory remarks.
One Twitter user commented, “WTF my daughters attend @LSU and this is appalling!”
A second user exclaimed, “Without a doubt @LSU will soon be looking for a new professor to fill this imminent vacancy. What decorum. What graciousness. What exquisite language coming from a college professor.”
A third Twitter user seethed, “I wish LSU would take action against him BUT college professors seem immune.”
A fourth one wrote, “Not a normal person. Sadly, professors like this are an easy A+ all the students know. Just serve him back his personal opinions and you get the grade. My kids had that experience in mandatory college brainwashing classes. Not worth the trouble to think or discuss — they can’t. They are mentally not OK and completely irrational. Just. Write. Their. Opinion. Keep your head low!”
Criticism can be a two-edged sword
Critics often overplay their hand and end up smearing not only the alleged violator of decorum but painting themselves as the moral police of language.
There are a number of problems with these outbursts of outrage.
- Venable is not an LSU professor. He is a graduate assistant, a teaching position below an instructor, a lecturer, an assistant professor, an associate professor and a full professor.
- The attacks on LSU are irrational. Venable doesn’t work as an official spokesperson of LSU. There are more than 4,500 graduate students on the Baton Rouge campus and they are not all implicated in one profane message. The interesting move to find fault in LSU because a graduate assistant erupted with a profanity-laced voice message is a typical conservative trope. Smear everything connected to the perpetrator of the awful language. Somehow LSU is at fault for the voice message.
- There are more than 4,500 graduate students currently enrolled at LSU. A large number of these students have teaching assistantships. One bad TA doesn’t make for a blanket condemnation of all graduate assistants.
- The reputation of LSU is not sullied by Venable’s profanity. Their reputation, like that of most universities, is already sullied by the pitiful wages they pay graduate assistants. The list of violations that sully a university’s reputation makes the profanity of Venable appear ridiculous and incidental.
- Using one profane message as a paint brush to smear all liberals is its own perverted form of perversion. It is a reaching for the “low-hanging fruit” to attempt causal relationships that will not hold.
There’s no denying Venable’s profanity was not said with a civil tongue. He shows a distinct lack of good manners and a lack of awareness.
“At the extreme end of bad taste, his uncivil language was still civic minded.”
There’s an instant desire to whisper, “Didn’t your mama teach you better?” but let’s leave his mother out of it. This doesn’t, however, rob his words of potential truth value. At the extreme end of bad taste, his uncivil language was still civic minded. He expressed what many Americans feel when faced with the cold, calculating, disgusting anti-transgender legislation aimed at children.
John W. Jordan, in Profanity from the Heart, argues there’s really no need for moral outrage in a world that “sometimes can be a really f***ed-up place, where truly horrible things happen; things that might otherwise be unspeakable but for our ability to use words that rightfully express our horror, our outrage, our resilience, our resolve, our humanity.”
When politicians use political power in excess to limit, demean and hurt other human beings, they should not feign such shock when the suffering they are imposing on others has been pushed to inhumane limits.
An unexpected, unlikely speaker broke all decorum, every convention, in what he naively thought was a private message, in an attempt to put things right. Those who wish to take advantage of a graduate student who didn’t grasp the way his words could be used to condemn him and cost him his job should instead spend their energy on wishing the victims of injustice in this nation be unkilled, unbombed, un-demeaned and unhurt.
Venable exploded the myth of civility, the pretense of civility, thus affording his critics to howl, “At least I am not as vulgar as Venable.” He pushed the limit of our highly expressive and explosive language to register his protest against injustice.
“If his profanity compels us to face the ways we hurt people in need of healing, then his rhetoric has accomplished a purpose.’
And if his profanity compels us to face the ways we hurt people in need of healing, then his rhetoric has accomplished a purpose that may lead to a rethinking of refusing health care to transgender persons.
What if Venable spoke from his heart because what he felt in his heart was sheer outrage at injustice? I argue Venable’s outburst against civility and decorum was aimed not so much at the state senator but at the injustice that is preserved and perpetuated in some state legislation. His profanity rips the mask off traditional decorum and language usage and expresses his angry and frustrated exhaustion at the anti-transgender law.
Yet the practice of policing profanity remains an elusive discipline. Profanity produces anxiety and fear in the public. Melissa Mohr tells us, “Behind the anxiety about swearing lies a fear that civilization is a thin veneer, barely covering a state of chaos. There’s a sense that we are always just a single profane message away from mayhem. On the conservative side, there is the fear that they may be what they have been called in the profanity-laced voice message. There is also a conservative glee at being able to paint all liberals as this kind of profane creature. Here at last, they think, is definitive proof that all liberals are emotional, profane and crazed critics.
Pushing the limits here, I want to ask, what if aside from the language the graduate assistant used, he was exactly right about the cruel legislation passed to eliminate health care for transgender people?
For example, when President Trump referred to certain African nations as “shithole countries,” Southern Baptist pastor and Fox political consultant Robert Jeffress responded: “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.”
I offer the same defense for Marcus Venable. “Apart from the profanity, Mr. Venable is right on target is his sentiment.”
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy. He is a graduate of LSU.