The Power to Curse or to Bless: On Swear Words

The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.
To those of you who dislike swearing, it is perhaps worth considering how much power you are willing to let certain words have over you.

If I can shock you, interrupt your train of thought viscerally and change your mindset with a word, merely because you have chosen and trained yourself to be offended by that word then you give me a power over you that I don't deserve. When understood, it is therefore possible to express something with great force, in a way that you can be certain will remain with the recipient for some time, by the careful use of specific words.

I promise to mostly use that power judiciously and in a considered manner, but the only person who can remove that power is you; and to do that you have to choose not to be offended. If you have any respect for my intelligence it is worth considering that when I curse it is not because I am out of control, but maybe because I understand what I am doing. This of course is only worse...

(And sometimes I use this power to deliberately force you to not take offence and to reduce the power these words have over you: for which you may think the less of me, whilst I believe I am genuinely helping. Both of these things are our respective rights and the only reasonable recourse either party has is to complain. I am sure we will all play our part in this. Those of you able to recognise and enjoy instead I salute.)

If you think that being offended by "curse words" is the right thing to do then you will already have all sorts of reasons at hand as to why I am wrong to think like this. I promise you that all you do is give me, and others perhaps less honourable than me, utterly unnecessary influence over your state of mind. And after all, when it comes down to it "you" are ultimately little more than a "state of mind".

I'm not talking about gratuitous swearing. This has no impact because it is easy to filter. It is only in the power to shock that these words have any effect. But when you have spent a lifetime training yourself that they are "bad words" then you, by deliberate choice, give them the effect of their affect.

This is why I choose not to be afraid to swear. If you tell me that you are not afraid but you merely choose not to do it, then I'm fairly convinced you're kidding yourself. That of course is your choice, and as always I may be wrong. I do test my ideas empirically however and feel I have reason for confidence in this area.

Naturally however, in the truly immortal words of Ben Goldacre, "I think you'll find it's more complicated than that". Each of the specific words we find distasteful has a root and a history, a reason for our fear and disdain. Mainly they refer to fecal matter and bodily excretions, sexual organs or the sexual act itself. Why we fear and disdain, or are so willing to fear and disdain these words and are willing to let them embody concepts that arouse disgust within us is itself another extremely interesting topic. At the risk of causing further offence, I would intimate that fear of the body and fear of the raw sexual act are at the root of why these words are chosen to be imbued with particular significance.

The key question I believe is this: if swearing is "wrong", is it because swear words are intrinsically bad words or because they express concepts that are intrinsically bad? To answer this we have to be willing to ponder what it means for a word or concept itself to be "intrinsically bad" and unacceptable to express. Without addressing that question in detail, my experience is that the mere process of rationally examining this question inescapably leads you to the conclusion that it cannot be never acceptable to express an ugly concept because there is much in the world that is very ugly that we must often discuss. Additionally, a word in itself, a mere sound or collection of letters, cannot be "intrinsically bad" because when you get right down to it language is nothing more than the expression of concepts. Words themselves are empty vessels to be filled with meaning by the recipient. (Wittgenstein has much to say on this topic, unfortunately in an utterly impenetrable manner, which itself is perhaps a terrible irony.)

The most common argument I hear amounts to little more than "I must be offended by swearing because other people are offended by swearing, and if I too am not offended then I risk causing offence". I am genuinely sorry to find that argument ridiculous. But I do.

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