I’m a teenager. I say a lot of things without thinking; I say a lot of things I shouldn’t. Realizing this, my mom used to have a “cursing jar,” in which I would have to put a dollar every time I cuss. As you can imagine, my language was cleaned up in no time. The scenario got me thinking: what’s wrong with profanity? What makes some words worse than others?
In the words of Mark Twain, “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” We must recognize that profanity is, as Joe Biden would say, “a big fucking deal.” Yet profanity is seldom talked about. This dismissal of profanity only adds to its mystery, its offense, its power. We must realize that to suppress profanity is to suppress ideas. Let’s address the meaning of profanity, the problem with profanity, and the solution for profanity.
In most cases, taboo words originate from taboo acts. Handling feces is obviously frowned upon, and therefore ‘shit’ becomes a forbidden word. Because of the risks and negative connotations associated with sex, words relating to the subject become offensive as well. Because taboos elicit such strong emotions, using profanity provides a strong, fearful excitement, whether consciously or not. This thrill leads us to the most common use of profanity. According to Professor Christopher Fairman, most cursing “has no intrinsic meaning at all. Rather, it is merely a word of offensive force.” Since we rarely use profanity in its literal sense, expletives are essentially meaningless. Because it has no meaning, profanity is only offensive because we allow it to be.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about words. However, profanity does often cause problems. Because of the actions and feelings associated with profanity, expletives can be very offensive. When we are offended, we lose our ability to be reasonable and rational. For example, if I say ‘fuck you’ you’re more likely to lose your cool than if I say ‘I strongly disapprove of you.’ Because of the possible offense, many people promote censorship. The Parents Television Council, a strong influence in media censorship, states that “Because broadcast television and expanded basic cable are so widely available, they are supposed to maintain standards that make them suitable for all ages.” Censorship has occurred throughout history. But we have to understand that ignoring reality, censoring reality, does not change reality. We must directly confront profanity to overcome its offense. To paraphrase Judge Curtis Bok, we should prefer deliberate and informed choices of decency rather than ignorant innocence.
What the F are we going to do about it? Well, first off, let’s stop with the euphemisms. If I say the F-word or the F-bomb or F asterisk asterisk asterisk, you know exactly which word I’m talking about. This only makes it worse. As comedian Lenny Bruce understood, “It’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” By avoiding, censoring, removing, a word, we are simply adding to the power and offense that that word has.
As Professor Fairman wrote, “It is one thing to ban certain acts; as a society we are probably better off. But to [forbid] naming those same acts makes no sense.” We must recognize that words are knowledge. Knowledge is power. Freedom of speech is the foundation of freedom of the mind.
And on that, we can only conclude that censorship is bullshit. The idea is that if someone hears or reads or sees profanity, their entire sense of morality will be corrupted. That’s ridiculous. I’ve had no intentions to offend you, but if I have, please realize, please admit, that hearing these words has not destroyed any belief-system. Profanity hasn’t killed anyone yet. But if profanity is killed, freedom of speech is killed. I agree with Ayn Rand: “There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think.” Words are ideas. To limit our speech is to limit our mind. If you and I are to be truly free, so must our speech, no matter how vulgar.