Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Four Letter Ethics

As I ready myself to step into the world of the seven second delay, I've been thinking about the ethics of swearing.

On the one hand, curse words are just sounds that have been culturally designated as vulgar. To swear in polite conversation is socially unacceptable, but social unacceptability is not the same as immorality. It is extremely impolite, not to mention disgusting, to pick one's nose, but it is not immoral (assuming you wash you hands afterwards). They are your boogers and your fingers and certainly your right to bodily autonomy allows you to introduce the two. In the same way, asking your aunt to pass the gravy at Thanksgiving dinner by requesting the "brown gooey shit" would certainly be frowned upon, but is not immoral. Curse words are just sounds, by employing them in polite speech you have not harmed anyone. You may have made a few people uncomfortable or embarrassed yourself, perhaps, but none of this is of moral consequence. It is merely a difference of how you said what you said, not a difference in what you've said; and if saying it one way was ok, then saying the same thing in different words should have the same ethical status.

The best way to understand the meaning of swearing seems to be through Grice's notion of a conversational implicature. Grice argues that conversation is inherently a cooperative rule-based endeavor and whenever someone says something unexpected in a conversation that seems unhelpful or that clearly breaks a rule, it forces us to make an additional inference -- what he calls an implicature (he was British, he could use cool words like that) to figure out a way that the utterance would not break the rule. In the same way, when someone swears, it seems to violate a rule of polite conversation and requires an additional step to figure out the full meaning of what he said. Often inclusion of a four letter word works like a verbal exclamation point. "Get out of the way!" may work, but not as well as "Get the hell out of the way!" Inclusion of the cuss word indicates the imperative nature of following the advice. John Kerry intentionally swore in an interview with Rolling Stone to seem less effete. There is, of course, an element of class consciousness underlying all of it. Swearing attacks the social structure by showing you refuse to play by the linguistic rules of the upper crust. It makes you a linguistic rebel which is why teenage usage is rampant. But curse words can serve the widest range of functions, many contradictory.

Consider the multifaceted use of the curse word "fuck." It is the Swiss army knife of language. There's nothing it can't express. When considering whether to ask out the girl of your dreams, you may finally decide by saying, "What the fuck?" When she screams "Yes!" into the phone, you may express joy by thinking "Fucking-A!" When you realize you haven't asked her out yet, you may express confusion by asking "What the fuck?" When she says that she is romantically or physically involved with someone else, she may tell you to "Fuck off," leaving you to wonder, "Who is she fucking?" When it turns out to be your best friend, you may at first express disbelief by thinking, "No fucking way," and then anger with "Why is he fucking me over?" The anger may rile you to shout, "Fuck you!" In disappointment you say "Oh fuck" and then shuffle down to the corner bar to drown your miseries and get fucked up. There seems to be nothing that the word cannot express in the proper context.

But none of this explains why it seems to be a completely different case when we get to kids. Swearing may be socially unacceptable, but morally innocuous in the adult world; but it seems different in the case of children. There seems to be something completely wrong with shouting, "Hey kids, get the hell up. Guess who left some cool shit under the god damned Christmas tree? Santa fucking Claus, that's who!" But if there is nothing inherently wrong with cursing, why should cursing in the presence of children make any difference?

My thought, and I'm not sure I buy it myself at this point, is that while curse words are empty vessels that we can use to express anything we want -- they don't have a meaning in and of themselves, but acquire one in the context of an utterance -- they do come from somewhere. They have been selected as the empty syllables we designate as culturally impolite because they used to refer to something and that something is usually either sexual, heretical, or scatalogical and we think that the process of explaining this etymological past will have to include ideas or concepts that are age inappropriate. We may not be saying anything that refers to fecal matter when we say, "Oh shit" because the first basement let that ground ball go through his legs, but we are indirectly referring to it and we don't want kids talking about poopies.

This would explain why it is ok to substitute for curse words and express the same thing. "Sugar" or "shoot" can be used for "shit"; "freaking" or "flipping" for "fucking"; "fudge" for "fuck"; "dang" or "darn" for "damn" -- the idea is that these words while homophonically similar are etymologically distinct. They sound like the curse they are standing in for and so it is clear when I hit my finger with a hammer and say "sugar," I wanted to say "shit" but couldn't because of the company. So "sugar" linguistically points to "shit" but doesn't carry the same cultural baggage because when we use it to refer to something, that something is a nice substance used in cookies and not what we do an hour after eating the cookies.

So even though I was saying nothing about sucrose or feces, by using one word or the other as an exclamation, I was, in fact, making an indirect reference to one or the other, and that reference to something to which I did not really refer might have to be explained to a youngin', and that explanation might not be something that it is morally acceptable to explain to junior, so the fear of the possibility of having to make a possible explanation about something that I did not really refer to is the reason it is wrong to swear in front of kids?

I love language.