Columns / Discourse / May 6, 2015

The power and politics of cussing

In high school, I once had teacher claim that cussing shows a lack of vocabulary among the cusser. As somebody who frequently has a sailor’s mouth – but rarely thinks about why that is – I’ve thought about why we cuss.

Firstly, I came to the conclusion that swear words are, nonetheless, words. Why does dropping an f-bomb evoke a similar reaction among certain people as a death threat? After these thoughts and some research via Google, I found that the consensus among psychologists is that we swear to relieve pain. It’s no wonder that when we feel physical pain the first thing that is often expressed is a cuss word.

Yet, how does this work in terms of emotional pain? Well, more often than not we swear. No wonder swear words are viewed as irrational language in modern society where we view emoting as irrational and cold stoicism as rational.

After neglecting this question for a while, I started thinking about this while reading about the riots in Baltimore this past week. Many of the talking heads labeled the rioters as irrational. Yet, is it more rational to participate in a system of institutional racism than to fight against that same system? If it is deemed more rational to fight against the system of institutional racism, than how does one go about it? When is peaceful protest rational and when is violence rational? Can swearing often be used as a short term and low key way of fighting oppressive systems?

Since, generally, the oppressed are those with less of an education and often less of a vocabulary, could my former high school teacher be confusing a lack of vocabulary with a lack of agency? What else can you do if any other form of pain relief is irrational?

But what about the oppressors and those who benefit from oppression? What about those who do not feel emotional pain as often? Are the powerful also willing to swear, albeit more selectively? Let’s go back to Baltimore for a moment. There would be no riots if not for police brutality, just like the swearing of the oppressed would not be necessary if it was not for the swearing of the oppressors. As the oppressors are almost always the ones in power, they are the ones that decide the cultural norms such as what words are or are not swear words.

For example, the Jim Crow-era plantation owner might use the same swear word to describe one of their sharecroppers as an unemployed white person would describe President Obama. Swearing is not just limited to racial insults, but open to insults of gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, ability etc. Swearing is about power and is rarely, if ever, used to describe somebody who is viewed as an equal to the swearer.

The last component to this question of mine is a bit more personal. Some of you may know I have Tourette’s Syndrome. While random swearing is inherently a symptom to Tourette’s, it is often viewed as the sole component of Tourette’s Syndrome. Tourette’s happens due to a lack of control over one’s stress hormones.

Stress can happen to the oppressed, as the oppressed live in a society where much of their identity comes along with societal disadvantages. Stress can also happen to the oppressors when they view their position in the world as under threat. Thus, swearing is about both power and the stresses that come with it. Swearing is not inherently violent and should not be viewed as such. Doing so does not address the problem, because swearing is not the problem, but where the swearing comes from is. In a general sense swearing comes from stress and/or fear.

As I implied earlier, language is a mechanism constructed by humans to communicate. Thus, why do humans take these constructs so seriously? The answer is the same for why we feel something when Dumbledore falls off the astronomy tower in “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” or when Max sends the “wild things” to bed like his mother in “Where the Wild Things Are,” or even why Barack Obama was able to evoke a sense of optimism and idealism when he ran for president in 2008.

Words are powerful and how those words are conveyed is vital in how power is projected. Much like the unbreakable curses in Harry Potter, swear words are the most powerful words, as they evoke much more emotions than most other words on their own. Swearing is a form of empowerment, it makes the powerless slightly more powerful and the already powerful even more so. It is also an easy form of empowerment. All that is needed is to speak the swear word and say that word with passion and meaning. It is said that a well lived life is about feeling and experiencing those feelings.

Thus, swearing enables one to bring some sort of meaning to one’s life when there wouldn’t be any. Yet, there must be a balance. Swearing can hurt. It can evoke bad memories and experiences. Thus lies a major philosophical quandary. For life cannot be whitewashed, yet life cannot be unbearable either. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that “the man is a political animal.” Swearing furthers Aristotle’s notion and the primary question that Aristotle raised with that assertion: How is power distributed and how is it utilized?

Sam Klingher

Tags:  Aristotle cursing cussing oppression politics power stress swearing

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