Profanity and Censorship

I am looking for feedback on this topic, because I really want to understand individual perspectives, not just society’s as a whole. Why is profanity so offensive? No, seriously. I’m going to give you my own personal take on it, but before reading on, please take a moment and consider why it offends you. Just you. Not your spouse, kids, boss, teachers or minister. For the purposes of this particular discussion, when I talk about profanity, I mean words that are considered vulgar. I suppose the same question could extend to obscene gestures as well, but I am just going to illustrate my point with words today.

I’ve not done any formal research into the psychology of profanity, or even necessearily the history of it. After chewing on tihs topic for a while this afternoon, I fully intend to, but for now, I just want to consider my own personal response. I am interested in any resources you may have to recommend in the comments, though.

So here’s the deal: I have been told that cussing is a sign of a lazy writer/speaker/whatever. It shows a lack of creativity and education. But the thing is – and this is really my whole argument – profanity, it’s just words. Is it more creative to call someone an idiot than a shit-for-brains? Well, Dostoevsky named an entire novel “The Idiot,” which is fairly well revered in the literature canon, so maybe so. But seriously, when I want to complain about my car, I could call it a clunker or a lemon, or just a fucking piece of shit car. You tell me – which of those three best communicate to the reader how I truly feel about the car? They’re just words – strings of characters with very specific meanings, which should be just as available in the arsenal of language as any other word. Yeah, they’re considered, base, classless, the stuff of low comedy. But it all comes back, again, to why?

So let’s think about some of the words that are most taboo (I’ll admit to a fair amount of naivete here, so my list may be a bit pedestrian): Fuck, shit, asshole, cock, pussy. Yes, that should be enough for now. On their own, every single one of these represent perfectly normal biological functions or parts. Ah, but they are functions/parts we don’t talk about. But why? Okay, don’t get me wrong. I don’t go outside naked, or have sex in the front yard. But they aren’t genuinely offensive, are they? They come up in non-dirty conversation. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have non-dirty words for them. We wouldn’t “make love” or “poop” or have “sphincters,” “penises” or “vaginas.” There wouldn’t be words that are acceptable in prime-time sitcoms, like “screw” or “crap.” Yeah, still seen as crass, but these get by the censors.

Another thought: does it have anything to do with the emotions that are being conveyed? If I say, “You fucking cocksucker,” instead of, “You jerk,” one would gather that I’m a lot angrier than if I’d just opted for the latter. Are we, as a society, afraid of these words because of the strength of [negative] emotions they convey? Can we agree that trying to reduce/eliminate the words that express these emotions does not make them go away?

The thing is, it really does seem to just come down to the words. Society has placed a distinction on these particular words for whatever reason. Then we go out and find new words, more acceptable-sounding words to replace them, because these distinctions have restricted our ability to effectively communicate. Frak, frig, darn, shoot, heck: these are understood to be the “nice” versions of the words they replace. So the question remains: why are the original words so bad?

Honestly, I’m not trying to belittle anyone who truly finds these words offensive. You’re entitled to that opinion. For reasons that are entirely my own, I find trench (and similarly styled) coats quite disturbing, and I doubt anyone will ever talk me out of that (although David Tennant’s giving it his best shot), so changing your mind is not my main purpose here. I really just want to understand why certain words hold such sway over so many people that, despite their commonality, they don’t even appear in today’s most common attempt to recreate life: family television.


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