Monday, April 1, 2013

Bad Language
What the Mutiny on the Bounty can tell us about the troubles in an American University

Events over the past year at Saint Louis University have puzzled many members of the University, the local community, and (so it would appear) even some of the Trustees tasked with overseeing the direction of SLU.

What has gone wrong? SLU is an outwardly successful institution. It is headed by a president whom many hold to be a charismatic and transformative figure. It employs responsible and skilled administrators and staff. It is capable of attracting highly qualified faculty drawn from around the nation and from overseas. It is dedicated to working with talented and motivated graduate and undergraduate students. The University’s research and teaching are recognized nationally and internationally. It is situated on a campus which has been comprehensively redeveloped. Its finances are reputed to be healthy.

And yet this same institution has fallen into an abysm of self-recrimination.

Senior and mid-ranking administrators have resigned (or been fired): most recently two Deans of the Law School, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and a Departmental Chair. Positions have been left unfilled or turned over to "interim"  appointments, to the extent that the term "interim" has become almost part of the SLU administrative brand.  Senior faculty have resigned from University committees. Votes of no-confidence in the President from three representative bodies of the University (the Student Government Association, the Faculty Council of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Faculty Senate) have been passed by overwhelming majorities. Membership of the Facebook page, "SLU Students for No Confidence" currently numbers some 1200 individuals. So debased have our relations with one another become that an outside agency has been called in to survey the "climate" of the University.

Fear, mistrust, despondency, and anger abound. Like Don Corleone in The Godfather, one might ask: "How did things ever get so far?"

Here’s one answer. But first, we have to unlearn some history.


The mutiny on the British naval vessel, HMS Bounty, is one of the most infamous stories that have come down to us from the great age of fighting sail in the eighteenth century. In December 1787, the Bounty set sail from England bound for the South Seas. In command of the vessel and its complement of 44 officers and men was Captain William Bligh. Bligh was a highly skilled navigator. His courage under fire was undoubted. In the class-ridden British navy, he had overcome social disadvantages to gain promotion ahead of his peers. He enjoyed the unequivocal trust of his superiors, the Admiralty.

But the voyage of the Bounty went disastrously wrong. Off the island of Tonga, in the early morning of April 28, 1789, a significant proportion of the crew, led by the ship’s lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, mutinied. Bligh and a small band of loyalists were cast adrift in a 23 foot long launch. Thus began one of the great epics of the sea. Drawing upon all his navigational skill, Bligh sailed the tiny craft across 3,500 miles of the Pacific. Eventually, he returned to England, and the Admiralty began a relentless search for the mutineers. Some remained in Tahiti. Others, led by Christian, established themselves on the remote island of Pitcairn. Their descendents live there still.

Why did the crew of the Bounty embark on this desperate course of action? Contrary to what you may have learned from Hollywood (the mutiny has been the subject of no fewer than three movies) Bligh was not physically cruel. In fact, as historians of the mutiny have recorded, he flogged his crew far less than other British commanders in the Pacific in the period. Neither (as Bligh would later claim) were his crew simply seduced by the Polynesian women, the infamous "sirens" of Tahiti. His men were well fed, though there were accusations that the officers and men of the Bounty were allowed less than was customary in the way of rations. Bligh’s seamanship was unquestioned. His sense of purpose and duty were equally unquestionable. He was, it would have seemed, the right man for a difficult and demanding job.

But Bligh was an appalling commander. He cared far more for the vessel’s cargo (breadfruit trees) than for those whose job it was to help him sail the ship. He was splenetic. He was given to violent and unpredictable rages – "tornadoes of temper" as a contemporary wrote. He was unpredictable. He promoted and befriended his officers, and then suddenly rounded on them. Above all (and this takes us to the heart of the matter) he had fallen into the habit of deploying what came to be termed "bad language."

Bligh’s language was not particularly obscene or profane, at least not by the naval standards of the time. Rather, it was dislocating. It was "bad," the historian Greg Dening writes in his classic account of the mutiny (Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theater on the Bounty) because "…it was ambiguous, because men could not read in it a right relationship to his authority." His language was designed to humiliate the highly skilled seamen over whom he was put in charge. It was the language of scorn and disdain. Beyond this, Bligh seemed oblivious to the effect that his mood swings and his language had on those around him. The ship became (as one seaman wrote) a kind of hell. Bligh behaved, in other words, as though he lived within his own universe. Invested with his own authority, he cared for nothing but the discharge of his duty, which he conceived within catastrophically narrow boundaries. Significantly, he accused his crew of "ingratitude," betraying, in that term, a narrowly paternalistic rather than a professional understanding of the mutually inter-dependent roles of commander, officers, and crew. Eventually, the officers and men under his command decided that enough was enough. While some remained loyal to the ship’s captain, others chose the course of mutiny: a capital offence in the Royal Navy.


What do the travails of a notorious failed British commander in the late eighteenth century have to do with the continuing crisis at an American university here in the Midwest?

As a child, and, later, as a keen amateur sailor, the story of the Bounty has always fascinated me. But in my capacity as a professor of English, and hence as a student of language, I am also interested in the ways in which words – whether kind, careless, thoughtful, or provoking – affect people. Despite what we were told at school – "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" – language has an immense power to wound. When language is itself abused, wielded with artful malice or disdain, used as a weapon, given or withheld as part of the manipulation of subordination and authority, then the results can be shockingly unpredictable.

Saint Louis University, led by the President, has fallen into the habit of "bad language," of using words not as elements of reasonable discourse, but rather to manipulate those who work within its confines.

Consider: until very recently both faculty and members of the Board of Trustees have been enjoined to remain "silent" – to ignore attempts at communication, which betrays the very core of any idea of a University. Some senior administrators have publicly accused faculty – whose job it is to uncover truth in their various disciplines – of "misrepresenting" the University: of lying in other words. Another administrator publicly admonishes those who have questioned the President's actions to "go find another job." Senior Trustees have written e-mails (I’ve seen them, I shan’t quote them) to members of the faculty of an almost childish level of disdain and sarcasm. I’m told that trustees have themselves received equally hostile communications. The recently resigned "interim" Dean of the Law School began his term in office by publicly proclaiming (in what turned out to be a futile gesture of loyalty) that he was not the President’s "butt boy." This Dean's office, as well as the office of the President whom he served, was demeaned by his facetious jocularity.  More recently, a faculty representative compares discussions with members of the Board of Trustees to being "cross-examined under oath" in a court of law.

These are all examples of "bad language" – language used to humiliate, discourage, and provoke. This is not the language of simple disagreement, or of a robust exchange of differing views. But, that it has been allowed to flourish, and that its takes its tone from the most senior level  of the University, leads us to the heart of our current crisis at SLU.

Consider further: the rules and regulations by which we govern ourselves and others are encoded within language – laws, resolutions, charters, declarations, memoranda of agreement and incorporation, and (even) constitutions. For these "instruments" (to give them their technical term) to operate, they have to be publicly divulged. But the language by which SLU is ultimately governed – the bylaws of the Board of Trustees, the minutes and resolutions of the Board  – are withheld from faculty, staff, and students. The eighteenth-century British Admiralty – an organization not renowned for its liberality of speech – never went quite that far. King’s ships were governed by the terrible "Articles of War." This was the code which regulated life within the "wooden world" of the Royal Navy. Once a month, the entire crew – officers, men, and (on some ships) women – were summoned to hear these articles solemnly read aloud.  The purpose of this ceremony was to remind everyone on board, from the commander to the most humble ship’s boy, that their lives were not governed by whim or arbitrariness, but that there existed a system of accountability, no matter how ferocious it was in its application. By contrast, within the brick and concrete world of SLU, access to these most basic governing documents – the language of accountability – is denied. Instead, a language of secrecy, spurious "confidentiality," hierarchies of silence and privileged access, regulate the University’s transactions between its constituent members.

This, again, is "bad language." "Bad language" (which can embrace both speech and silence) has become commonplace at this Jesuit university. It is no longer even worth remarking upon, so habituated have we become to its use in our community. In its presence, some fall silent out of fear. Others, just as in the case of the unhappy ship HMS Bounty, who protest against the tenor and tone of command at Saint Louis University, are held to be acting out of baser motives: of being in a small minority, of petulance, of refusing a lawful authority.


How did the story of the Bounty end? Not happily, is the answer. The mutineers almost all died violent deaths. Some were caught, and hanged. After Bligh returned to England, the Admiralty set up a court of enquiry. Their Lordships were disturbed by what they learned: Captain Bligh was (in the words of another contemporary) "a most disagreeable Person to have any dealings, or Publick business to transact with; having no regard whatever to his promise or engagements however sacred, and his natural temper is uncommonly harsh, and tyrannical in the extreme."

Bligh was nevertheless exonerated and promoted to further command. And yet his habit of "bad language" never left him; indeed, as he grew older, so it grew worse. In 1797 a second crew mutinied against him. In 1805, following a further incident, he was reprimanded by the Admiralty and admonished to be "in future more correct in his language." In 1808, incredibly, this time having been promoted to the governorship of the New South Wales colony in Australia, he was the subject of a third mutiny, with his own officers imprisoning him on board his ship.

For all his courage, skill, and talent, Bligh was a disaster. His name has become a byword for tyranny. His first lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, would become a prototype for disloyalty. And the ship itself, the Bounty, was burned and sunk off Pitcairn Island. No vessel in the Royal Navy would ever again bear the name of this ill fated vessel.

But who were the real villains of the story? The Commander who could not discipline his tongue? The crew who refused his authority? Or those Lords of the Admiralty who, blinded by misguided loyalty, perhaps dazzled by their captain’s former accomplishments, were unable to summon up the moral courage to put an end to the havoc which had been wrought by an officer for whom they, both collectively and individually, were responsible?

Perhaps, in this local quarrel, and in the old story of the Bounty we might learn something larger about the role which language, good and bad, plays in the role of our institutions: in schools and universities, in boardrooms and in the workplace. For we have all, at some point, had to deal with Captain Bligh and the misuse of language.

The author of this essay, Jonathan Sawday, is the Walter J. Ong, SJ Chair in the Humanities, and Chair of the Department of English at Saint Louis University. He has skippered small sailing vessels over many years, chiefly in the coastal waters of Scotland, England, France, California, and north-eastern Australia.


  1. Claude Pavur, S.J.April 1, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    Wonderfully written and most instructive, Jonathan. Oversight must go in many directions simultaneously, even if it works by devices that differ as appropriate to the various points of origin. Abusive speech and treatment should be called for what they are and halted earlier rather than later in the game. There has to be good and honest judgment on the part of superiors. They must know all the pertinent details to be able to make good judgments. Hence a certain amount of transparency and communication are essential all along the way, and those under authority have a responsibility to represent matters of concern as forcefully and directly as the issues seem to demand.

  2. Jonathan: Thank you for writing this. I mourn for myself and the many other administrators and faculty with prestine reputations that were railroaded out of the university by the President -- forced out by lies, innuendo, false accusations -- in an environment within which we (us no longer at the university, not by our own choosing -- and there are MANY of us) were not allowed to do our jobs and apply our expertise and experience for which we were hired in order to support faculty in teaching the next generation of students. By the grace of God and an extremely supportive network of family and friends, I have moved on. Your eloquent words describe this horrible situation to a "t". I pray for resolution soon. Gail M. Staines, Ph.D. (former AVP for University Libraries)


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