If you don’t like swearing this post’s probably not for you.
I’m a big fan of profanity and, much to the chagrin of my family, I swear immoderately. There are times when nothing else quite expresses the depth of one’s feelings or conveys a point with suitable emphasis. I enjoy the judicious use of most swear words and, suitably combined, they can even achieve a certain caustic beauty. Back in the mists of time when I taught EFL, one of my students’ favourite lessons was on the uses of ‘fuck’ as a phrasal verb. It really has quite remarkably varied utility.
But despite my fondness for obscenities, sometimes they jar and other times they offend. It upsets me particularly when I’m with my daughters and someone swears loudly within ear shot; it comes across as aggressive and ignorant. I squeeze their hands for reassurance and they smile back, nervous and awkward. As I’ve got older (and marginally wiser) I’ve learned there are times when using certain words is inadvisable. In front of other people’s children, for one. And in front of my mum, for another. A third is in front of people I don’t know. Unless I want to cause offence (and sometimes I do) I’ve learned it’s generally wiser to refrain from effing and jeffing in contexts where I have no idea how certain words will be viewed. But mostly I either filter out or ignore most extraneous swearing. I’d go so far as to say I couldn’t give a fuck about it.
I’m not precisely sure why I was so affronted by this outburst on Twitter the other night:
— Chris Dyson (@chrisdysonHT) May 28, 2017
The most obvious problem is the fact that this a headteacher responding to an article in the TES by calling the writer a “dick”. Now, obviously, I’d be an appalling hypocrite to object simply to the use of the word dick – really fairly minor league when it comes to swears – it’s more that this is a headteacher tweeting in an official capacity – he even takes the rather childishly bizarre step of banning the writer from his school. Maybe I was being precious, but this struck me as quite extraordinary behaviour. Perhaps foolishly, I drew attention to Chris Dyson’s by making my opprobrium known:
Now, of course, I could probably have been more charitable: anyone can have a rush of blood and, especially on social media, say something they later regret. I initially assumed Dyson had had a few too many, but no, it turns out that he takes the view that he was entirely within his rights and clearly feels he did nothing wrong. The rights and wrongs can be argued, but it’s pretty clear that even if you agree with him, he looks pretty silly and comes across as unprofessional.
To say this is unusual public behaviour for a headteacher of a primary school is one thing, but what really amazed me (and what has prompted this post) was the sheer number of teachers who took the opportunity to support Chris Dyson’s right to call anyone he disagrees with a dick. One popular strand of opinion was that as the writer of the TES article had written something controversial he actually deserved such abuse. Another emerging defense coalesced around the unfortunate fact that I myself had referred to someone as a “cock” some years ago:
— David Didau (@DavidDidau) April 7, 2014
The view was that if I have called someone a “cock” then I have no right to object to someone else using the word “dick’. On the face of it, that makes a certain amount of sense. Yes, of course, it was ill-judged to refer to writer of the ‘magical maths’ blog as a “cock”. It was a silly thing to do and I was in the wrong. No matter how misguided I thought the ideas expressed were, it was out of order to behave like this. But is it really the same thing? In April 2014 I worked for myself and was tweeting in a private capacity. I was then, and am now, accountable to no one. I know at times that I annoy and upset people (Chris Dyson is just the latest person to block me on Twitter) but my views on anything don’t materially affect anyone else. If a headteacher goes round proudly defending his right to call people dicks, deliberately involving his school in the process, it sends important messages.
First, it sends a message to his staff. If they were to agree with the views expressed in the TES article they might fear for their jobs. Certainly they might expect a certain level of abuse from someone able to exercise a great deal of power over their lives. Then it sends a message to the children in the school. They could be forgiven for concluding that it’s perfectly acceptable to call anyone you disagree with a “dick”, and that maybe this would be the thin end of the wedge. Why not call them a ‘fucking dick”? In for a penny, in for a pound. Is raises the question of whether it’s OK for pupils to call their teacher a dick. Might they perhaps conclude that if they don’t like Mr Dyson they are at liberty to call him a dick too? And how would he feel if all the children and staff in his school routinely referred to him as Mr Dick? My guess is that he would take steps to discourage this behaviour, but, so trying, he might discover his moral authority was on shaky ground.
Of course none of this would have been intentional, but we are judged on our actions not our intentions and when we make public pronouncements people who don’t know us will judge us. If I call someone else a cock on Twitter then people who don’t know will, quite rightly, conclude that I’m a bit of prat and that I lack judgement. They might decide they don’t want to employ me, but that’s about it. But if I worked for a school, I think my employers would be well within their rights to take a dim view of such behaviour and, ultimately, I couldn’t be too surprised if they were decide to sanction me.
I’d never encountered Chris Dyson before this incident and have no idea on his qualities as a man or a headteacher, but it seems he’s pretty popular in his community. I’m sure he’s capable of great warmth and wisdom, and passionately believes in the rightness of his position, as do we all. If wants to call someone else a dick in private then that’s neither here nor there. The substantive point is this: the swearing is, to some extent, neither here nor there. The real issue I have is with the idea that a headteacher feels able to ban anyone expressing a fairly mainstream political opinion from his school. This is questionable legally but is also irresponsible and immature. Denying that other people have the right to hold and express contrary opinions is hardly a reasonable position for someone responsible for the education of young people. It is this, I feel, that deserves our censure.
What do you think?