I’m a Boston driver by nature and nurture, seasoned with additional experience on the expressways of Chicago, the freeways of Los Angeles, and the gridlock of New York, so I tend to mutter a lot while I drive, addressing all the many shortcomings of the drivers with whom I’m forced to share the roads. It doesn’t improve their driving any, but it does wonders for my blood pressure.
One short drive with Eldest when she was about five years old forced me to confront the extent of my not-so-inner monologues while driving.
I had just come to a stop at a red light when a car pulled up alongside us.
“Is that him, Daddy?” she asked from the back seat.
I glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. She was pointing at the car beside us, the driver of which was a complete stranger to me.
“Is that who?” I asked.
“The fucking asshole,” she replied, big blue eyes full of innocent curiosity.
It’s one of my favorite stories from her childhood. I told it to a roomful of family and friends at her 15th birthday party. I’ll tell it at her wedding.
In the great unfinished novel Dead Souls , Nicolai Gogol wrote: “A Russian likes spicy words; he needs them as much as a glass of vodka for his digestion. What’s to be done about it? Such is his nature. He doesn’t like anything without flavor.”
The quintessentially English G.K. Chesterton observed in Heretics: “Let no man deceive himself; if by vulgarity we mean coarseness of speech, rowdiness of behaviour, gossip, horseplay, and some heavy drinking, vulgarity there always was wherever there was joy…”
In The God Particle, Leon Lederman wrote of Ernest Rutherford, often referred to as the father of nuclear physics, that he “was known for his profound belief that swearing at an experiment made it work better, a notion backed up by experimental results, if not theory.”
The value of coarse language is its coarseness: its shock value, its impropriety, its rawness.
Overuse of coarse language therefore deadens its impact, thereby diminishing its value and purpose.
Profanity is on my mind because it’s something I’ve been struggling with for most of my adult life, and because over the weekend I happened to watch a very engaging debate about the use of profanity. You can see it here:
I recommend watching the whole thing: if the subject matter doesn’t necessarily grab you, at least enjoy the spectacle of two adults amiably discussing a topic on which they disagree dramatically: you don’t see that a lot these days.
The particular question they’re debating is the title of the video: Can any idea connect with this culture without “adult language?”
It’s something anyone writing for public consumption has had to to grapple with, and thanks to social media virtually everyone is writing for public consumption all the time these days.
On the one hand, vulgarity adds nothing to the actual substance of a message. It is, as Gogol noted, mere flavor.
On the other, those kids in the back row don’t give two fucks about your refined sensibilities, and you may need to liven shit up to catch and hold their attention.
Bill Whittle makes a strong practical case for the strategic use of salty language when trying to reach audiences that one might otherwise have a hard time reaching.
Alonzo Rachel makes a strong case that doing so is counterproductive and hints that in many cases doing so would also be hypocritical.
I won’t elaborate further on the particular nuances of their individual positions: it’s not a long video, and if you find this kind of thing interesting you should watch it. (If you don’t find this kind of thing interesting, I assume you’re no longer reading this—probably because I didn’t capture your attention with a whole shitload of fucking vulgarity, you shallow piece of shit.)
However, I’m not entirely sure that tossing f-bombs around serves any real purpose of communication. An audience that won’t hear you out unless you pepper every sentence with a lot of expletives is no different than a audience that’ll tune you out completely if you violate their dainty ears with rough language. They’re just different kinds of snobs. Linguistic prima donnas. Prigs.
At one point early in the video embedded above, Bill Whittle suggests that coarse language is “like the protein shell around a virus.” This is because, he elaborates, profanity has the ring of truth to a lot of people. The implication, I suppose, is that such people find rough talk a hallmark of sincerity: that because it’s raw it must be sincere, and if it’s sincere then it must be true. (Or at least digestible.) So by packaging an idea in a wrapping of profanity, you may be able to slip it through your audience’s defenses: they ingest the protein shell without realizing they’ve swallowed the virus.
There’s nothing wrong with adapting your rhetoric to your audience. It’s Aristotle’s golden rule of rhetoric: know the mind of your listeners. I’ve done theatre, radio, journalism, books, poetry slams, video game scripts, political speeches, blogs, advertising copy, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting, and I’ve always worked to tailor my style to my audience and my medium, and never once have I thought to swear more, or swear less, as part of that. I’ve only ever tried to be sure I was swearing appropriately.
Writing skits for A Prairie Home Companion, I obviously didn’t have characters calling eachother cunts or motherfuckers.
Writing dialog for Hitman, on the other hand, I can’t think of what nastiness I didn’t put into the mouths of NPCs.
My bilingual life has also given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on the very nature of profanity.
The worst Danish swears, translated literally to English, sound practically Victorian: The devil with it! That fiendish thing!
But the same Danish pedagogs and teachers who would tell my daughters and their peers not to use such filthy language were utterly indifferent when the kids said fuck or shit, in English, because those just aren’t as “dirty” when used in otherwise Danish sentences.
It was shocking to me the first time I heard a pedagog ask a classroom of kindergarteners, “Who stepped in dogshit? I can smell the shit, everyone please check your shoes.”
The Danish word for shit—lort—simply isn’t a swear word in Danish the way it is in American.
I’ve wasted your time on all of this because unlike every other medium in which I’ve ever written, I have no idea who my audience is on this blog (assuming I even have an audience). I don’t know you guys at all. But I respect you enough not to assume I need to lather my prose with a bunch of fucking profanity to get your attention, or that I need to censor shit like that to avoid offending you.
And if my respect for you was unwarranted, you can eat a cold bowl of fuck.
And with that, the final word on the subject will always belong to George Carlin:
On the one hand, I was raised to avoid profanity as a matter of course in any polite company, and probably as a result, have an innate dislike and disdain for excessive or casual profanity, to which comes a sense that this is simply sloppy and shows lack of either discipline or creativity, since using the same 3-4 words to fill the role of every adjective, every other verb and some of the nouns, tells me whoever is speaking is not spending even a minimal effort when communicating.
On the other, the ubiquity of cursing now has reduced the impact to near nil in terms of shock effect, so it is more a minor if recurring irritant, although the more I think about it the more I see it as yet another sign of the crumbling of our civilization.
I recall that social barriers against profanity were still significantly higher in the US back in the 80s than in Denmark (at least in Connecticut where I lived). Public profanity, including as heard on television (for example when reporters were getting vox populi reactions in the newscasts) was getting more common throughout the 70s and by the early 80s, the milder Danish cusswords (for helvede, sgu, satans, for fanden) were used commonly by ordinary people being interviewed on television. These are essentially the equivalent of damn or crap, but still not in the heavy duty league of fuck or cunt.
So, when I moved to the US, I made an unconscious initial miscalculation when estimating the appropriate level of profanity. In one of my first forays into explaining something in class, I ventured to use “damn” without thinking and immediately understood from the sudden silence that fell on the classroom that I had transgressed a minor taboo.
Lesson well and truly learned I modified myself accordingly and suffered no further mishaps.
I guess I am old fashioned enough that the extremely casual use of the English words fuck and shit as used in everyday Danish still manages to offend, especially when used in the media. I guess it is primarily the learned response from my time in the States that considers these words to be inappropriate in public speech to begin with and added to that an annoyance that the speaker seemingly has no idea that this is so. Further, the bankruptcy of language that is evident when you can’t or won’t even curse in your own damn language, because you somehow have this idea that using English profanity makes you cool (my best guess), makes you look idiotic, frankly.
Communication being a critical skill for humans, being able to communicate clearly and precisely ought to be highly valued. Exercising care and control with the way you use your language is a way of showing respect to the listener, while using profanity liberally does the opposite; it shows you have no care and put no effort into the way you communicate and do not value the listener as someone meriting more effort than grunting.
From a communications point of view, in a society where profanity is rarely used, the occasional deployment will – due to its rarity and sparse use – have a dramatic effect. And naturally, since avoiding profanity requires more care, and a greater vocabulary, use of profanity quickly also became a marker of social and educational class.
Society, by raising a high barrier against profanity, signals that communication should be worth of effort and that skill in communicating should be valued. Of course, by doing so, it also grants significant power to the profane words the way anything rare becomes valuable and potent.
And – humans being humans – that is of course why children are so attracted to naughty words, and since our entire civilization is becoming increasingly infantilized, it is small wonder that quickly things devolve to the point that everything is cursing to make a sailor blush and the words have lost almost every power they once had.
Yelling “Fuck You” does have the benefit of being short and direct and leaving no doubt as to your general attitude, but a witty but polite putdown is so much more elegant and devastating. When you stop holding wit up as an goal to achieve, you will find you quickly lose the ability to recognize, cultivate and command it.
Such a society is surely to be pitied. Or in the vernacular, we could just say it is fucked.
Agreed: very few foods can’t benefit from a little seasoning, but too much seasoning and you’ve ruined the dish. And “too much,” with profanity as with cayenne, isn’t really very much at all…