Blue Streak:: Swearing, Free Speech, and Sexual Harrassment - Richard Dooling

When the blurb promises that the conflict between the impulse to profanity and social norms will be treated with "insight and humor", we are entitled to expect more than the litany of well-worn stereotypes that opens Blue Streak. Richard Dooling declares straight off that he intends to offend every well-meaning woman, and addresses himself to other men: "Even the title [of Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand] tells you it's definitely not a guy book, because it sounds like a line of dialogue from the last argument you had with your girlfriend." "Men swear and say 'Fuck you!' because they are violent and competitive, and women swear less often because they are benevolent and vindictive." "Men swear, women nag." Dooling doesn't miss any of the tricks of ill-supported gender arguments, including simplistically described, vague invocation of scientific research that supposedly supports his points. He is quite concerned about men's need to assert their lack of effeminacy. He goes on at great length about how victim feminists suppress free speech, whine too much, and haul anyone into court who swears -- in fact, he's the one who sounds like he's complaining about being victimized when he writes, "Swearing is becoming illegal in the workplace precisely because men do it more than women." And he claims that courts, laws, and workplaces are all ruled entirely by feminists who have it in for manly men!

Well, luckily the book doesn't go on entirely in this vein. There are still deep problems with it, especially in the chapters that deal with sexual harassment and the workplace. Dooling covers many important issues, and says many useful things, but persistently spoils his arguments. He confuses lawsuits with law -- with almost deliberate deceptiveness he pulls out a few examples of the most outrageously unjustified-sounding suits and claims that this proves that antidiscrimination law is unworkable -- downplaying the fact that many of these suits lose. He exaggerates and paints with a broad brush, even though many of his points have some justice to them. Weirdly, he heaps insults on lawyers, saying that the law is a "delusional system... vaporous metaphysics" -- weird, because he is a lawyer! He does, as you might expect, explain some relevant legal principles and cases clearly; but his discussion is selective and not deep enough.

But enough of saying bad things about this book. It might seem that I find nothing to agree with, but that is far from true. Speech laws do need to be examined. Dooling has valid things to say among the exaggerations, some good discussions and some very fine bits of prose. I can't think much of the uncritical inclusion of Freudian interpretations, but on the other hand the history of dirty words being left out of dictionaries is wonderful: "It is as if eighteenth-century society matrons had convinced Linnaeus -- the founder of the binomial system of scientific classification of plants and animals -- not to classify snails and to simply omit any mention of them in biology texts. Because snails are unsightly creatures, sticky and repulsive, their presence would defile every other one of God's creatures, and therefore snails shall not be assigned to any known genera or species."

In sum, I'm disappointed by this book precisely because it squanders so many good opportunities. Free speech, and the role of swearing, are undeniably important subjects. If only Dooling had tried to delve a little deeper into the experiences of actual people. I'd love an insightful discussion of what function "bad" language actually has, what effects, and what law can or should try to regulate about it, but this book doesn't provide it.