Friday, March 8, 2013
The F-word, Revisited
There is a time and place for swearing. In fact, in some situations, a swearword provides better rhetorical effect than any other word could possibly embody. There is, if you will, a kairos for swearing.
There is also a method to swearing. As I wrote in 2011, there are three basic categories of rhetorical swearing: attention-getters, intensifiers, and ironic swears. Sometimes these three work together, sometimes only one or two are at play. I won't get into it here because I think 2011 Robyn did a decent rundown of how this works.
I'll talk about two new angles I've taken on this thing: the (im)morality of swearing, and the (un)education of swearers.
The "Morality" Problem
I wish to discuss how swearing, both in daily conversation and for rhetorical purposes, pisses off a certain audience, and not in a constructive "get riled about this!" way. This bothers the hell out of me. Not the swearing! The needless offendedness and backlash that inevitably pops up in your comments feed when you drop even a perfectly timed F-bomb. Not that I don't think people should have their own stylistic word preferences. Shit, I get nauseated when I see the word "delicious." It's a preference. And readers who shy away from literary works or essays because of "language," or worse, readers who insult and denegrate the writer for using "language," need to realize that their preference for prude writing is just that -- a preference. Not something you need to hate on good-natured, foul-mouthed fuckers for.
No amount of There you go again with the bad language you stupid bad person! can take away the rhetorical power of swearing. Just ain't gonna happen, sanctimonious bastards.
So why does it bother me so much that someone has a lower vulgarity tolerance, and may not prefer my writing? Don't get me wrong -- I am tolerant of all readers' preferences in writing and rhetoric. If you don't like to read me because I have a potty mouth (potty fingers?), that's cool. But what I am not tolerant of is when readers turn a writer's work into "evidence" of the immorality of the writer's character, based purely on the writer's word choice.
A disclaimer before I go further: Certainly there are offensive words that negatively reflect upon a writer's ethos. As I said in 2011, hate speech is not rhetorically effective, nor is it okay. You may be allowed by your first amendment rights to utter all sorts of disgusting things about other human beings, but being hateful with language in ways that judge folks for their color, religion, sex, etc, is just the worst kind of assholery. And sometimes it IS against the law. To remain morally neutral, you must be an equal opportunist with your swears. Or even better, to remain morally actually a pretty cool person, swear only at fuckers who deserve it, and only swear upon the subjects of their foul acts or dubious characters that make them swear-worthy.
But this brings me to my big point about most of the great swearwords that provide rhetorical effect -- they are not offensive to any particular group of people, in fact, when used as intensifiers or in other vacuous applications (i.e. using "fuck" in ways that have nothing to do with intercourse) swears are morally neutral. They do not express goodness or badness of the character of the utterer, any more than his or her other word choices. Cusswords are often loaded with value judgments, yes. But even those values are slippery. Something that's "fucking awesome" or "awesome as shit" is good. These bad words imbue things with positive or negative value, and the way that works is up to the writer or speaker. There is nothing inherently immoral about swearing. With the exception of words designed to hurt people for no good reason (see above), Words are Words. Some are more powerful than others, some are more elegant, some are more earthy. But no word is "worse" than other words* just because it ended up on the FCC's list of words you can't say on TV. It is an arbitrary value judgment that we attach to the word when we think that way. Just as with any other word we perceive as intense or insulting, swearwords may make the subject of an author's disdain seem worse, and the words may very well be the best suited words for the occasion.
*(This makes me think of language parity -- linguists argue (and so do I) that no language is "better" or "worse" than any other language. I think there is a sort of internal language parity too. Some words may be better for certain situations, just as some languages are better at expressing certain kinds of thought, but that does not make those words superior to the other words in the language.)
There are many factors that may cause people to be averse to profanity, but here are a couple that I find problematic:
First, one of the earliest and most widespread types of swearing was taking the names of deities in vain, and making dirty jokes out of religious mantras or prayers. If we hold onto some stupid idea that all swearing is actually blasphemous (i.e. immoral), it comes from this association. But words like piss, shit, fuck, etc. have nothing to do with blasphemy, and derive their power by association with bodily functions. "Goddamn"...well that's blasphemy. But it's a good one!
Second, swearwords like "shit" and "fuck" existed as everyday words in Germanic languages (like Old English), before the Norman French had their way with English. The words were still vulgar, but "fuck," for instance, has probable etymological roots in several non-vulgar North Germanic words for "intercourse" and "penis." One theory is that from 1066 AD, the cultural push for the English aristocracy to speak French probably pushed Germanic expressions of disdain and Germanic words for bodily functions into a class of speech considered to be only worthy of peasants. So like many linguistic trends, it became a class thing. So today, people who don't cuss think they are classy, and they think those who do are of base character.
But I think it is often the truly classy people who know exactly when and how to use those age-old, four-letter intensifiers. Here is a classy lady anecdote from Online Etymology Dictionary:
In 1948, the publishers of "The Naked and the Dead" persuaded Norman Mailer to use the euphemism fug instead. When Mailer later was introduced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, "So you're the man who can't spell 'fuck' "
The Education Problem
Many swearing haters, especially those you meet online, in your comments feed, object to bad words because they think educated people shouldn't use them. As if having a vast vocabulary means you are only permitted speak or write in words that have far more than four letters. If you use a swearword, it matters not how cogent your argument is, how hilarious your story may be -- it only matters that now EVERYONE KNOWS YOU'RE STUPID. At least that's how the angry commenters see it.
I have a theory about this, and you're going to think I'm a snobby bitch but here it is: it is mostly uneducated people who like to point out that a writer's swearwords are proof of A) no imagination and B) no education. Their own lack of education and imagination makes them angry -- your blog bio says you have two degrees or your latest article is about something esoteric. That riles them, and if they disagree with what you have to say they will need some irrelevant point to cling to (she said "Goddamn!") to prove you are wrong, because they are incapable of a serious response to your positively ingenious point-making.
It also riles these less-informed readers when you talk about everyday things that they feel are their domain. In my above-mentioned 2011 entry on swearing, I talked about a lady who hated on me for hating on Jimmy Buffet. My use of a single swearword negated anything else I said in that entry, which was merely a rant that was obviously my own opinion about some bad music, not a philosophical argument on the merits of Margaritaville. She took a casual swearword ("dumbasses") and and said I might as well be saying a hateful word ("retards") and I was therefore politically incorrect. I never said that word. That was her association, her mind thinking in hateful ways. I was just out to make fun of some drunk dumbasses.
I won't say anything more about the uninformed reader, because I've shown my snobbishness enough. What I will say besides all that, is from the point of view of the educated potty-mouth.
Why do we use these words if our vocabulary runneth over with more sophisticated ones? Because, as I said above, they are sometimes the absolute perfect word for an occasion.
Let me explain. Cusswords are some of the most flexible and versatile words in any language. Ask a linguist! You can use "fuck" as almost any part of speech. You can use "shit" to mean just about any noun or group of nouns or class of things. This lack of specificity is not something that automatically makes a word a good word choice -- I note "W.C." on my students' papers all the time for using vague, non-specific words like "nice" or "large." But for all their ambiguity, swearwords don't often lose their potency like other vague words tend to do. Their very intensity prevents that loss -- and the effect of using a catchall like "fuck" or "shit" emphasizes one's exasperation, or the hugeness of the class of things being discussed, or the egregiousness of those things. The phrase "I don't take shit from anyone" has always been a powerful one for me. It can mean so many things, and that swearword is exemplary of the ballsy attitude one has to have if one truly does not wish to take said shit.
All that being said, this doesn't mean you should swear like a sailor. Overused swears, like any overused words, become less effective. And because of their sharpness to the ear, they become cacophonous. But the well-timed, rightly applied, and situationally appropriate curse can have a weighty rhetorical effect not only because of the power of the chosen swearword, but because of its unexpected presence in an otherwise academic or conservatively written piece.
Finally, swears are much like pathos. They are not totally logical (even if their meanings can be) and they don't say anything for your ethos except that you probably have balls, and are a regular guy unafraid of regular words. But the emotional appeal of swearing --which is a valid rhetorical appeal -- cannot be overlooked. We can be riled by swearwords in a good way. Put into action by them. It's the written equivalent of the shake of a fist to accompany a cry of injustice, or the purposeful slapping together of hands to accompany a cry to get to work.
Anecdote time, and then I'll leave you to practice your dirty-talk.
I recently got into a most distressing (and eventually very funny) argument with a young lady. She isn't too much younger than me, and she is not exactly an accomplished wordsmith. She pulled the vocabulary card on me!
Here's the short of it: she was messing with me in a bad way. I've had personal problems, health problems, and deaths in my family this past year. 2012 shat on me. Then she appeared at the edges of my life and immediately saw to it that my problems were even worse then they had been. I am not a confrontational person. But this girl knew what was going on, and kept on anyway. It came down to me telling her "Don't fuck with me."
She lost it! "You're attacking me! You truly are an awful person! I'm just trying to defend myself! And you're SWEARING at me! OMG SWEARING!!!" etc etc. (That one f-word was the only swearword I used in the whole conversation.) I tried to calm her down. I actually said (and my husband thought this was hilarious) that I only swore because the f-word was the most rhetorically appropriate word for the situation. She said it showed I have no vocabulary! (I've got some vocabulary for you, girl...she didn't even comment on the rhetoric thing because I'm sure she had no idea what I was talking about.) I didn't say anything else. Maybe she thinks she won. It wasn't worth arguing with someone who can't appreciate the following:
When someone is fucking with you, what better way is there to put it? Stop molesting me. Stop making things uncomfortable for me. Stop saying mean things about me. Stop trying to turn my loved ones against me. Stop texting me, it's 3am. STOP FUCKING WITH ME covers all of that. And then some. And the fact that I said it has nothing to do with my saintly morality (ha!) or my hard-won education. Is has to do with choosing the right word for the right situation.
There is a rhetoric of fuck, and a kairos of fuck. Dealing with crazy bitchez is a right occasion for that word. So is making a joke, because well-timed swearing makes a lot of people laugh. It might not make you laugh, and it might not work an effective rhetorical peroration on you -- but you have to appreciate its rhetorical and humorous effect on many human beings, of all walks of life. (Parrot-heads excluded.)