I LOVE words. Seriously, they are some of my favorite things in the universe. If I was singing a ‘favorite things’ song, words would be right there under my family and dearest friends and totally above even chocolate. Probably. On most days.
I spent my childhood reading dictionaries and encyclopedias (which is how I fell in love with Nova Scotia as an 11-year-old, because I got to the Ns and saw the pictures and read about it and though I still have not been, I retain a lifelong fantasy of living in a cottage and riding a horse in Nova Scotia because that’s what YOU DO there, obviously.)
So I have to wonder about this rather bizarre social contract we’ve all made that says some words are inherently ‘bad.’ It’s like we’re all living in the Matrix, and the creator of our world TRIED to give us the perfect world where all words were good and beautiful and we REJECTED it and DEMANDED that some words be bad. We need, apparently, the dichotomy of good vs. evil so much, that we’ve even taken that game to our own language.
I get it, sort of. It’s one way of seeing things. But how about we start to evolve past this? Because words aren’t actually bad. At all. They are amoral. They are each a combination of the 27 letters in the English alphabet (for English words, obviously. Other languages have their own rules, their own alphabets and their own designations for ‘bad’ and ‘good’ words. But since I’m primarily an English speaker, and my other languages are rusty at best, we’re going to focus on English today.)
On Halloween I posted “An Open Letter to the woman handing out ‘fat letters’ to trick-or-treaters” in which I used a fair amount of profanity to inspire an emotional reaction in my readers. While everyone who commented on the article cheered me on, one woman in a Facebook stream about my article (not on my FB page) criticized me for using profanity, saying
Her response made me think about the use of language and the role it plays in evoking emotion. I’d like to share my response to her here, and then talk about why I think we need to get over ourselves when it comes to moralizing language.
1: You made a choice to click on a link to come to MY blog and read a post I wrote which warned that there would be profanity. You could have stopped reading at that point, but you chose to continue. I did not hand this letter to your child last night. So right there, that’s a big difference between us.
2. To argue that the use of profanity negates someone’s valid points or arguments is a sadly narrow way of viewing language and the role it plays in shaping our intellectual and emotional response to a topic. Also, to suggest that my vocabulary is small because I chose to use profanity is an extreme prejudice that simply isn’t true. My vocabulary is quite extensive, and I chose each word in that post with extreme care in order to evoke a very particular kind of emotional and visceral response in the reader. I used language the way it’s meant to be used, with care and consideration for my message and the intended impact (which I’ll talk more about in point 3.) But first, I’d like to encourage you to read this post by another well-known author, Maggie Stiefvater, on the use of profanity, as it perfectly articulates my own thoughts on it.
3. As I mentioned, I chose the words I used carefully. I could have written the entire post using $10 words, but it would NOT have had the same emotional, visceral effect on the readers, and THAT is what I wanted. To suggest that I am no different than this woman is not only a ludicrous oversimplification, but entirely negates the greater social injustice at play here.
Fat-shaming and discrimination of those who are not the size and/or shape others think they should be is one of the last socially approved discrimination in our culture. That’s not to say other discriminations don’t still exist, but the pressure on those who engage in those discriminations is higher. There are more laws and social rules in place to protect them.
Not so with those who are deemed overweight. It’s still okay to fat-shame, and many feel morally justified in doing so. We HAVE to get angry, have to feel this issue DEEPLY in our guts and bones, in order to change this injustice. A heady intellectual discussion would not have incited people to FEEL and GET ANGRY, and it is only when enough people feel it and get angry and start demanding a change in the prevalent social norm of fat-shaming that things will start to change.
And this woman targeted children, which makes her dangerous choices even more reprehensible. If she had chosen to give this kind of letter to a specific race or gender, the entire country would be in uproar and likely she would have been stopped. (And I don’t actually know if she followed through on her plan, if it was a hoax etc, but I know enough people supported her in her intended action that serious changes need to happen!)
So, given the context, and the weight certain profanity has to evoke the kind of emotion I WANTED to evoke in my readers, and given that I gave a clear warning at the beginning of the post for those who did not wish to read a post with profanity, and given that I’m getting angry and calling for a response to a serious injustice targeted AT CHILDREN, I fail to see how I am anything like the woman I wrote about.
So, that was my response, which sums up why I used profanity in that post, and why I still stand by that decision. Now, before we move on, let’s address some questions critics might throw at me.
1. It’s fine for you to say that, but how would you feel if your child started using those words?
We don’t allow our 7,9 and 11 year old to use profanity, and THIS IS WHY. Because it offends you. Because too many people have decided those words are bad. Because it’s important for them to understand social contracts and social cues and to develop the ability to ascertain whether it is appropriate in any given situation to use said words. We make very clear that these words are NOT BAD, just not appropriate for them to use at this time. These words, by social majority, carry a certain weight, cut in a certain way, and just like we are careful with the kinds of knives and tools they use, we are careful with their language development, lest they hurt someone unintentionally. We occasionally swear around them and we don’t shield them from books that have language in them (because, words!) but we talk it through with them regularly so they understand the nature and power of language.
And guess what? Our girls are incredibly articulate and well-read. They have immense vocabularies and they do not, in fact, run around sounding like drunk sailors.
2. Words really are bad. These words mean bad things and shouldn’t be used in polite company.
SHIT — meaning to poop. Poop is not a bad word. Shit is. WHY?
FUCK — meaning to have sex. Sex isn’t a bad word. Fuck is. WHY? For that matter, rape isn’t a bad word, but IT IS A VERY BAD THING, whereas sex is what brings life.
PUSSY — another word for vagina. Vagina, well, maybe congress thinks it’s a bad word, but it’s actually not. And many women prefer pussy to vagina as it’s hard to make the word vagina sound sexy.
BITCH — a female dog. If STUD isn’t a bad word, why is bitch?
HELL -- the place sinners go, based on certain mythologies. I’m not sure what to say about this one? “Ah, hell.” and “Ah, heck.” Seem remarkably similar to me in intent and usage.
ASS (or Asshole)– Something you shit from. Or butt, something you poop from. Still not seeing it.
DICK (or COCK)– another word for penis, which is decidedly NOT a bad word, not even in congress. Probably because of all the dicks there. (Sorry, had to throw that one in. COULD NOT RESIST).
I’m sure there are more, but let’s look at these. Most of these (all of these?) either refer to a part of our human body or a bodily function of one kind or another. In other words, ALL OF THESE are totally natural things, and have benign synonyms that are not offensive to most people. (Since some people hate kittens, I’m sure some people are also offended by the medically correct word for their own anatomy as well, but what can you do?)
And yet, things that are TRULY CRIMES– rape, murder, hate, abuse– these words are freely wielded in our society without any problems.
Now, I’m not suggesting we ban words because the meaning of them is ‘bad’. NOT AT ALL. I’m suggesting we stop banning words altogether. That we allow for the fact that words are amoral, and as such, only have the power we give them. That ALL words have their place and can be used in useful and creative ways to communicate different levels of emotional and intellectual ideas.
These words that are ‘bad’ are really quite useful and sometimes have a whole shitload of ways in which they can be used. (See what I did there?)
To close, I’d like to look at my favorite of these words: FUCK.
It’s incredible the ways in which you can use this word! It’s the most versatile word in the English language, and this hilarious videos shows us why. (Warning: the word FUCK is used in this video. You’re welcome.)
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