Concerning profanity…

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I became really comfortable using profanity. In my childhood and teen years, I followed the instruction (though certainly not example) of the adults around me and eschewed profanity as coarse and vulgar. I believed that people who resorted to using words deemed inappropriate did so because they didn’t have any other words at their disposal, which remains a popular view among a certain group of people.

My views have since changed substantially. I believe that it is possible, and in some cases quite reasonable, for a person with an exceptional grasp of the English language (or any language, for that matter) to elect, on occasion, to use words that express a degree of violence, rage, alienation, disgust. The question is: Should we always speak (and write) sweetly and politely? And my answer is, no, we should not. There are things in this world that can’t always be spoken of in a measured tone, and we lose a degree of emotional honesty when we censor ourselves or allow ourselves to be censored.

I now take exception to the term “bad words” as if some words are inherent sinners. I can’t think of the state of the world, of the realities of genocide and hunger and slaughterhouses and war and racism and not think “shit.” I’ve even been guilty of thinking “fuck.” And saying it. Can you really make an argument that the word “fuck” is more offensive than the fact of war? And as long as we have war–people killing one another for oil and god and nothing–why would we bother waging a campaign against a four-letter word? Doesn’t that indicate that our focus is misdirected? Shouldn’t we be more offended by actions than by a string of letters expressing the fear and rage and vulnerability that are the defining characteristics of humanity?

And who gets to decide which words or phrases are objectionable? I’ll freely admit that there are some words that are worse than nails on a chalkboard to me. I can’t stand the term “making love.” Honestly, that phrase is bile-inducing for me, and while I might grimace and explain that I hate the term, I’ve never taken it upon myself to have it banned. And, if we want to be perfectly frank, the fact that this term for sex is freely referenced on television and in conversation, while its synonym–“fucking”–which means precisely the same thing is dismissed as a “bad word” is utterly incomprehensible to me. It’s natural that you might prefer one to the other, but to gasp in shock or distaste when someone uses one instead of the other seems more like a social affectation than genuine emotion.

So why do I curse? Sometimes it’s just plain shock value. Now shock value has also been given something of a bad name in recent years by people who believe that shock and expressing a higher idea or value are mutually exclusive. They are not. Read just about any short story in the hands of a deft writer–Edith Wharton, Roald Dahl–and you’ll find an ending that intends to shock. Because to shock is merely to surprise, to undermine your expectations, to help you see the world a bit differently.

But it’s more than grabbing someone’s attention. Mostly, I curse for myself. It’s the verbal equivalent of punching a wall or kicking the table you just stubbed your toe on. It’s my only means of assaulting AT&T for the piss-poor Internet connection I pay for each month. Sometimes, it’s the only war I can wage on my migraines, the only thing that made me feel better when I was sick a little over a year ago and didn’t know why. In fact, Mythbusters did a segment confirming that swearing increases people’s tolerance to pain. I don’t know why. But, based on my own experience, it’s a means of asserting control of a situation, of empowering yourself. Maybe that’s silly. But, when you really think about it, there’s a lot about language that’s kind of ridiculous. But that doesn’t change how terribly important it is. There’s even a term for the emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language: lalochezia.

I also recognize that deciding that certain words are “bad” and discouraging people from using them is another method of asserting control of a situation. But it’s a simplistic way of thinking about and looking at the world. It’s a nice enough idea, separating everything into tidy categories, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate. But if we’re going to put up those walls, I’m not sure I want to be trapped on the side of polite, inoffensive chitchat with people who can’t withstand a four-letter word without requiring smelling salts. Especially when those same people seem immune to the brutalities and atrocities of the world.

Maybe part of me understands that if we’re sweeping words and people into simplistic boxes, I’m not going to fall into the neat and tidy category. Not because I’m a horrible human being, but because I’m not afraid of the word “fuck.” I don’t need people to be good or bad. In fact, I’m not even convinced of the existence of good and bad. Just people, most of them doing the best they can with what the world dishes out to them. Some of which defies the limitations of language to express how magnificent and beautiful the world can be. And some of which just makes you want to go, “well, shit.”

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