Sorry for those who I offended with the title of my post.
Actually, I’m not sorry. Because, if, with all the horrific things that take place in our world – wars, genocide, political corruption, child abuse, corporate greed, human slavery, environmental disasters, etc. – this is what upsets you, then you and I probably wouldn’t get along anyway.
And yet some people choose to focus their energy and time on this very issue. Bill Cosby, for example, has often expressed dismay over the use of curse words in stand-up and today’s culture in general. He is not alone in this view. Will Smith has shared similar sentiments about the prevalence of profanity in rap music. More recently, if you watched the Golden Globes or Oscars, you probably noticed an abundance of bleeps during acceptance speeches.
And my response to this condemnation and censorship of profanity is to say, fuck that.
In all seriousness, though, I understand where they are coming from and recognize their good intentions. Yet, it seems silly to censor swear words or fret over the use of profanity in song lyrics when there are much more important issues to focus on or draw attention to. Rather than worry about the use of profanity by rappers and “thugs” who let their pants sag low and speak “improper” English, Smith and Cosby would be better off focusing on the poor educational opportunities and lack of positive role models that often make the “thug” life appealing. Rather than television censors bleeping out “bad words” to protect viewers, the F.C.C. should consider why it is still okay for immoral behavior to be glamorized and regularly depicted as consequence free (not that I’m advocating censorship).
The profanity police should think more carefully about where to focus their outrage or even their discomfort. After all, how can one be an arbiter of language and not recognize the mutability of words, the fact that language is not a static thing? Words and their meanings are in constant flux, changing according to the context in which they are spoken. Yet, censors and conservatives with an aversion to curse words ignore this fact.
Take the word considered most foul: fuck. “The first known occurrence of the word (at least the most accepted) is … in a poem in a French/Latin mix which satirizes the Carmelite monks of Cambridge from around 1500. The line reads, “[The clergy] are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely.”2 Used to insult the clergy in this poem, the very people who transcribed most of the written word at that time, fuck was deemed a “bad word.” Thus, it was the context in which fuck was used and not the word itself that originally made it so offensive. And yet, even though most of us aren’t Carmelite monks, we still consider ‘fuck’ profane regardless of the context in which it was or is used.
We also arbitrarily label certain words as “bad” or “off limits”. I say arbitrarily because it is often our social conditioning and not the actual meaning of the word or the intentions of the speaker that affect our interpretation. For example, the science fiction show Battlestar Gallatica uses the word ‘frack’ as the universal curse word, a clever way for the writers to get around the censors and still have their heroes express anger, frustration, and fear in the same way many people often do today, which is by cursing. The fact that no viewers or censors objected to the use of this word, even though the meaning and intention of its use is exactly the same as our more recognizable equivalent, fuck, demonstrates how hypocritical people’s objections to profanity can be. Do you not like fuck because it is those four letters put together in that order OR because it is often used in a derogatory or hurtful manner? If it is the latter, then you should be just as offended by ‘frack’.
And yet we are not. Because our culture does not socially condition people to view “frack” and the people who use it as vulgar reprobates.
Not only is this hypocritical, it also ignores the delight a well-placed swear word can provide. It denies the deftness and nuance of curse words in favor of a one-dimensional (and thus incorrect) view of them as unequivocally “bad”. Yet, according to Wikipedia, “the more vulgar a word is, the greater its linguistic flexibility.” For example, the worst of all swears, fuck, has been shown to have the greatest flexibility. “Linguist Geoffrey Hughes found eight distinct usages for English curse words, and fuck can apply to each” (Wikipedia), which underscores the importance of context in determining whether its use is offensive.
And I think Shakespeare would agree with me. Shakespeare – the man considered one of greatest artists of all time, sculpting the English language into shapes that have lasted for centuries – loved the vulgar and profane. His plays were full of swears and sexual innuendo, the master wordsmith delighting in the “linguistic flexibility” such language provided. Now does this diminish the meaningful insights he delivered in beautiful, poetic language? Of course not. In fact, his ability to weave together the profane and the profound is what allows his works to represent humankind as it really is, showing us that we are and always will be a clash of animal instincts and lofty ideals. And that is what art and entertainment is supposed to do as Shakespeare explains in Hamlet: “to hold as ’twere the / mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own / image, and the very age and body of the time his form and / pressure.”
And when you consider the fact “that roughly 0.5% to 0.7% of all spoken language is swear words, with usage varying from between 0% to 3.4%. [and that] first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up [only] 1% of spoken words”1, it’s hard not to see that profanity is very much a part of human nature and our everyday life.
This is why it is important not to be offended by words unless they are used with certain intentions or in certain contexts. If I say, Fuck! after hitting my thumb with a hammer and you look at me with disdain, I would ask you to lighten up a bit and to recognize that it’s just a word that symbolizes frustration and pain and nothing more at that moment. On the other hand, if I walk up to you and say, go fuck yourself! Well, then I understand why you would never want to talk to me again.
This is why censorship is silly. It assumes profanity is wrong regardless of context. It refuses to recognize the nuances in language and in doing so, inhibits human expression. After all, there’s something emotionally satisfying about letting out a string of profanities when you are pissed off or something completely visceral about yelling “Holy Shit!” when someone jumps out at you from behind a door for a practical joke. (Trust me, I’ve tried “fudge” as a replacement and it did not do the trick.) In fact, Keele University researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston found that “swearing relieves the effects of physical pain,” with Stephens going so far as to say, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.” And yet even in their article, “Why the #S%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief” published in the Scientific American in 2012, they demonstrate the reluctance of the “refined” to lower themselves to the base level of those who swear by “censoring” the very subject of their research! As if readers don’t know exactly what word those random symbols replace. As if, in our heads, we aren’t reading it as “Why the Fuck Do We Swear? For Pain Relief”. Still, at least their article argues that swearing is a widespread but perhaps underappreciated anger management technique rather than issuing a sweeping condemnation of profanity as many do in our culture.
Now some of you might still have objections. You might ask me if I want my nieces or nephews to go around cursing out other kids on the playground? And my response is, of course not. But I say that not because I think it is so awful for a child to utter a profanity but because children do not possess the wherewithal to understand the nuances of context. They do not know when it is offensive and when it is not offensive to swear. Moreover, I’d be much more concerned about children being exposed to words like “retard, faggot, or nigger” and the hateful or ignorant views that usually go hand-in-hand with their use than with a child yelling out “shit” or “damn” on the playground.
Hey, what about racial slurs? What are they so bad but swears are not? Didn’t you just say it’s all about context, which would mean that even words like “nigger” or “faggot” are “okay” to use as long as we consider the context in which we are using them?
To some degree, I would argue yes. Context should always be the utmost consideration. However, I will also tell you that my general rule is to avoid saying words that have the potential to hurt others. Not hurtful to their sense of appropriateness but to their sense of self. For example, when I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even after having a multi-day discussion about why the abundant use of the word nigger was so vital to the message of Twain’s book, I could not bring myself to utter it aloud. That word is so charged, has so much history, and the thought that I might hurt even just one student by saying it was enough to make me refrain.
But that’s not to say that someone else using that same word is wrong. This is why the old argument that “it’s not fair that they can say it but I can’t” holds no merit. Again, it’s all about context and situation. I am a white person and an educator, which is why it’s hard to think of a time or place in which I would ever feel comfortable saying the word nigger. Because I cannot control how my students will interpret my use of the word and it has the potential to be very harmful. However, if you are with your friends who know exactly what you mean and whom you know will not be offended, who am I to say it is improper to utter.
The same thing goes with profanity. As a teacher, I know it would be viewed as unprofessional if I told the kids to “get their fucking homework out.” I might lose their respect or receive a few dozen parent phone calls. I also wouldn’t say similar things in front of a grandparent or perhaps even you, if I knew you would be truly bothered by it.
And that’s what Bill and Will Smith and other language purists need to realize. Getting hung up on profanity distracts us from real offenses or turns us into self-righteous hypocrites. Take the French film Fuck Me, which was changed to Rape Me for its American release (Wikipedia). How is this new title any less offensive than the original, if not more so? And yet, the more violent and charged word choice, rape, was deemed acceptable by censors while the one with the “bad word”, fuck, was not.
Similarly, more attention was paid to Vice President Dick Cheney’s saying “Go fuck yourself,” to Senator Patrick Leahy in 2004 than the fact that Leahy was calling out Halliburton‘s sole-source contracts in the reconstruction of Iraq (Wikipedia). Sure it was unbecoming and unprofessional for the man only a tragedy away from the presidency to use profanity, but how is that more outrageous than the fact that he exploited an ill-conceived and horribly destructive war for his company’s financial gain?
And this is at the heart of my defense of profanity. We need to care more about issues that actually matter rather than being indignant about someone dropping an f-bomb on live television. So often humans get hung up on style over substance. We focus on the superficial rather than the material. And in doing so, we spend our energies on things that don’t really matter when we could be focusing on the issues that are truly problematic and that actually affect us. Instead of worrying about issues of substance, we focus on easier targets like profanity.
So the next time you hear someone swear and feel offended, ask yourself if there isn’t a better outlet for your outrage.
1 from “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words” printed in Perspectives on Psychological Sciences in 2009
2 From Ranker.com article entitled “Origins of the 7 Dirty Words”