Offensive Language: Why Swearing ISN'T the Problem
Swearing. It can be beautiful [see The Thick of Its Malcolm Tucker] but it can also become something very ugly. In one sense, swearing is much like flirting, a high-risk social endeavour that helps to assess and push the boundaries of interpersonal relationships. To impishly call a mate a ‘stupid bastard’ or to tell your pal to ‘get to fuck’ is a jocular way to test the strength and trust in the friendship. The online dictionary of Cambridge University Press defines swearing as ‘rude or offensive language that someone uses, especially when they are angry.’ This feels like a very rudimentary definition, as I‘m perfectly able to be ‘rude or offensive’ without swearing at all. For instance, I am rude or offensive when I tell you that your new partner reminds me of Shrek.
Swearing thrives on taboos and a contextual understanding of those taboos. Those golden conversational grenades will only go off if they are thrown into a group who understand the usage. All words are deeply freighted with meaning and some usages might seem totally inoffensive to one group of people in one context, but downright hostile in another.
It seems that swearing has been split into two distinct camps. On one hand, there are instances of swearing that unite, that bring humanity, as a whole, closer together. Consider ‘shit’, ‘fuck’, and other scatological words that reference bodily processes that we all partake in. We all ‘shit’ and we are all inevitably the product of a ‘fuck’. It’s all very cute. These kinds of words are often thrown under the umbrella of non-propositional swearing: outburst swearing, often monosyllabic sounds that register in the brain in the same way that a shout or a shriek does. You don’t think about these words but studies have suggested that they can reduce sensations of pain and reduce the occurrence of violent acts. Sometimes someone is being a twat and you need to express that moment of anger in a way that doesn’t involve punching and/or kicking them, so you tell them they're being a ‘twat’. Much more civilised.
But, how many times have you been told that you have ‘lost the argument’ if you resort to swearing? Whether online or in real life, if an argument breaks out over an issue which you care fiercely about, in all probability you will start to feel some strong emotions. When your benignly sexist uncle can’t see what's wrong with telling a woman on the street to ‘smile’, or when a female friend says she only hangs out with guys because it’s ‘less drama’, you might start to get a little riled and an outburst of ‘ffs’ might be called for. As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has remarked, ‘swear words don’t describe your feelings; they manifest them’. Swearing manifests emotions just like crying or laughing. If someone tells you that your potty mouth has lost you the argument, you tell those people to fuck off, because it is totally possible to be horrifically sexist, racist, or homophobic without uttering a single swear word. Swearing is often painted as the central perpetrator of causing offence, but offence and offensiveness are much more nuanced than that. Swearing and compassion are not mutually exclusive, but hate speech and compassion is.
And it’s this other kind of swearing that I don’t like so much. The kind that isn’t really swearing in my sense of the word, the kind that comes from some archaic tribalism that seems to thrive on the othering effects of ‘us and them’ narratives. These are the slurs. The dividing line between swears and slurs is often murky, but it is something that any prospective swearer should consider before they open their mouth.
When you shout ‘Fuck you!’ at someone, it’s likely that you will probably cause some offence, but the contempt you are expressing is directed only at the person you are addressing. Sucks to be them but this is swearing. Slurs, however, are words or phrases that deride an entire group, or groups, of people. In slurring someone you are expressing contempt not only for the individual you are addressing but also for a wider group to which they may belong. Often, by using a slur, the speaker attempts to make their audience complicit in their contempt by asserting that they are voicing a belief shared by their audience. Slurs beg the compliance of the audience to create an ‘us and them’ scenario.
Often what makes something offensive is not the unsavoury ‘swear word’ [aka. Fuck, prick, shit etc] but the qualifier that directs the word at a certain group. If someone calls you ‘stupid’ you will probably be offended but you’d usually pass it off as one person's wrong opinion or an expression of frustration. If someone, however, called you a ‘stupid woman’, or an ‘idiot woman’ something very different occurs.
When the average swearer decides that one word isn’t enough, you would think that they would usually reach for another word that reinforces the insult, like ‘stupid idiot’ or ‘fucking twat’. When ‘woman’, or ‘black’, or ‘gay’, or any group signifier is added to the swear word, the group signifier is insinuated to be something which reinforces the insult, it intimates a sameness between the insult and the group. It othersthe group and redirects the swear into a weapon of hate speech.
Whether Corbyn did or did not call Theresa May a ‘stupid woman’ the point remains the same: you just don’t hear the phrase ‘stupid man’. ‘Stupid boy’ maybe, but only because it reinforces the ‘stupid’ with the additional associated childishness of being young. ‘Stupid woman’ as a phrase thrives because its qualifier, ‘woman’, reinforces the meaning of the preceding ‘stupid’.
There must be an evolutionary advantage to swearing, by emoting your anger, by expressing it symbolically instead of physically you stand a much better chance of survival. Swearing breaks taboos and can bring us closer together, but these words can be corrupted by context and direction. Offensiveness has more to do with contextual intent and destructive ‘us and them’ narratives. Swearing was never the problem, the act of othering is.