Can swearing call out the real obscenities?
Are we bringing profanity more into the mainstream because we’re starved for honesty?
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?