Can swear­ing call out the real ob­scen­i­ties?

Are we bring­ing pro­fan­ity more into the main­stream be­cause we’re starved for hon­esty?

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER

Is it just me or does swear­ing seem to have got­ten a bit of a boost in the zeit­geist? First there was the 2015 Lan­guage Sciences special is­sue on slurs, which re­vealed that a flu­ency in pe­jo­ra­tives cor­re­lated with a flu­ency in lan­guage in gen­eral. Other re­cent re­search has re­vealed that swear­ing can have a ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect, act­ing as a kind of re­lease valve when you’re an­gry or in pain. Then there’s the T-shirt, shared widely on Face­book, that reads “I’m a classy well-ed­u­cated woman who says f*** a lot.” You can now find this de-facto slo­gan printed on mugs and jew­elry all over the web. You can also find the Swear Word Col­or­ing Book for Par­ents and the pro­fan­ity-en­riched #mom­life colour­ing book. And, lest the main­stream PR ma­chine miss out on all the fun, Kraft Din­ner started an on­line #swear­likeamother ad cam­paign. And com­ing soon: the movie Bad Moms 2, sure to be as richly lay­ered with swears as was the first Bad Moms.

You can see how the whole thing quickly started tip­ping to­ward not only women, but moth­ers. I’m not sure why this is. Per­haps be­cause moms (sweet, nur­tur­ing, whole­some moms!) who get all sweary are one of the last taboos, and there’s a cer­tain glee that comes with break­ing taboos — the sense that a truth is go­ing to be set free. To wit: re­search also shows that peo­ple who use pro­fan­ity now and then are per­ceived to be more open than those who don’t. It’s in­ter­est­ing that this trend is get­ting so much trac­tion on Face­book — maybe it’s a re­ac­tion against the rit­ual of post­ing care­fully groomed, fre­quently mis­lead­ing mo­ments that broad­cast only the “best” ver­sion of our lives.

Are we — in the age of “al­ter­na­tive truth” — bring­ing pro­fan­ity more into the main­stream be­cause we’re starved for hon­esty? I’ve never been a par­tic­u­lar fan of Justin Trudeau’s, but he went up in my es­ti­ma­tion af­ter I read a pre-elec­tion pro­file of him in The Globe and Mail in which he oc­ca­sion­ally used the F-word in the com­pany of the jour­nal­ist do­ing the pro­file. Why is this? It was just one ar­ti­cle and it was a long time ago — why do I re­mem­ber so clearly that he swore a few times in it, and that I re­spected him more for it?

Of course, it’s only the per­cep­tion of open­ness we get from swear­ing — there’s no guar­an­tee of ac­tual hon­esty, as Trudeau’s demon­strated (as have most politi­cians). Our prime min­is­ter promised to be a cham­pion of the green econ­omy, but then he ap­proved a mas­sive oil pipe­line. Be­fore he won the elec­tion, he promised to bring in elec­toral re­form; af­ter he won, he de­cided the cur­rent sys­tem was just fine. Then again, I don’t think he’s been swear­ing in front of jour­nal­ists since he won the elec­tion, so maybe the lack of pe­jo­ra­tives is part of the prob­lem and the con­nec­tion be­tween swear­ing and hon­esty is ac­tu­ally pretty f***ing strong.

I’m re­minded of the 1998 film “Bul­worth”, in which War­ren Beatty plays Jay Bul­worth, a bru­tally dis­il­lu­sioned Cal­i­for­nia sen­a­tor who re­al­izes, fi­nally, that there is no worth in the bull he’s been spout­ing. He ar­ranges his own death and in the mean­time — now that his ca­reer is ef­fec­tively over — de­liv­ers harsh truths with harsh lan­guage that dev­as­tates care­fully groomed pub­lic re­la­tions bab­ble. When a TV jour­nal­ist asks him why he’s us­ing so much “ob­scen­ity” all of a sud­den, Bul­worth ex­plodes into a stun­ning rant, item­iz­ing “the real ob­scen­ity:” cor­rup­tion in pol­i­tics, mass in­car­cer­a­tion of black men, third world in­fant mor­tal­ity rates in South Cen­tral LA, chil­dren with ma­chine guns, the im­pos­si­bil­ity of liv­ing on min­i­mum wage …. “Ob­scen­ity?!” he asks in­cred­u­lously, again and again: “Ob­scen­ity?!” Bul­worth would have even more ob­scen­i­ties to rage about to­day — Trump, Syria, global warm­ing … take your pick.

Al­low me to cir­cle back for a jiffy and say that as a mother, I have sworn in front of my kids a few times. OK, many times. It has been, I hope, ju­di­ciously and cre­atively done, so as to demon­strate the long, proud tra­di­tion of An­glo-Saxon pro­fan­ity that has given us gems like SNAFU, and more re­cently, clus­ter***k. But above all, swear­ing is a sig­nal that I’ve been pushed. Too. Far.

Wouldn’t it be some­thing if we, as a so­ci­ety, could send that same sig­nal, with Bul­worth-style dis­rup­tions call­ing at­ten­tion to what, ex­actly, the real ob­scen­i­ties are?

Latham Hunter is a writer and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­tural stud­ies; her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies, mag­a­zines and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.

Why do I re­mem­ber so clearly that he swore a few times in it, and that I re­spected him more for it?

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