About offensiveness

When I’m writing for PopMatters or Bookslut, I usually use my Gmail account to communicate with editors, publishers, and possible interview subjects.  This week, though, I was writing my former dissertation director to set up an interview about his new book, and so I used my .edu account, since that’s how we keep in touch.

There’s a formula for these e-mails: I wrote to say that I wanted to do a feature interview for Bookslut, and sent him a link to one I’d done in the spring about neuro-psychoanalysis.  I figured this was a slam-dunk, and since he’s famously fast at e-mail, I thought it would all be arranged in a day.

But . . . a day went by, and then another, and then a third.  Just as I was starting to doubt the legitimacy of my interviews and book reviewing and such, I happened to check my spam folder.  (Well, not my spam folder–I read the e-mail of blocked messages that our school’s spam filter held in quarantine.)

Sure enough–there was a response!  All was well in the world.  But wait!  This was a response to a personal e-mail–why would it have been flagged as spam?  When I logged into the spam product to unjunk the message, the program said that the e-mail was flagged as “likely spam” because it was “sexual in nature.”  Sexual.  Because of the word Bookslut?

Now, we can laugh at the clumsiness of the implementation, but there’s surely a broader point: There’s not, at present, a reliable way to make judgments about the content of the message by the presence of specific words.  It might be the case that most messages with the word “slut” are offensive, but not all will be.  (I think I teach at least 3 or 4 poems or novels each semester that have this word–heaven help the students who write with questions about them.)  As Saul Bellow puts it, “Everybody knows there is no finesse or accuracy in of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.”*

* I got this quotation from Mark Edmundson’s The Death of Sigmund Freud, about which more next week.

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