I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.
Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?
Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most people were willing to take this sign at face value. Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message. (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)
For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!
Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — [BLEEP] — in his own mind.)
Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse. And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign. Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing? Or do they really, really agree with it?
Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?
As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears? I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.
As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted: