Wednesday, 18 January 2017

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.


  1. Your arguments and justifications for your apparently judicious and thoughtful use of strong language seems to me, as you have written your essay having identified yourself as a Christian', to be disingenuous. Moreover, it is difficult not to notice your lack of recourse to scripture. Jesus stated that 'out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,' also 'it is not what goes into a man's mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of it.' James, in his letter, also exhorts us to 'bridle our tongues.'

    God grants us repentance; let's try not to be arrogant about sin, and sinning.

    Besides all that, your arguments may have been, ostensibly, clever, but you were actually shouting crap.

    James Anstice

    1. Thanks for your comment James. You find my arguments ostensibly clever but my conclusion to be "shouting crap". That doesn't seem a particularly helpful approach to discourse.

      You say don't be arrogant about sin and sinning. I assume this means that you think the use of particular words to be sinful (as it is the use of particular words - and why I don't think that labelling their use as sin is helpful is the whole point of my article). Can you explain why you think that?

    2. And for the record I refute your assertion of disingenuousness and am saddened that you would think that of me. I'm happy for you to disagree, and I'll happily discuss it - but if you assume bad faith on my part then we can't even have brotherhood let alone discussion!

      I agree with the scriptures you quote, but I do not think that the mere use of specific words is enough to fall under them. I think intent and heart is the point of those scriptures. That's what I'm arguing - if it is the concept being expressed that is unacceptable then the words you use to do it matter not. Let's try and think a bit more deeply James rather merely succumbing to social conditioning and labelling that Christianity. (Because it's fake.)

  2. Thanks for replying, Michael,
    You seem offended, particularly in the second part of your reply. You shouldn't be. You must have known that you were writing something controversial, and in a public place, so to speak. Moreover, you mentioned at the top the fact that you are a Christian, as well as a member of the Jesus Fellowship, therefore you are, to a degree, purporting to represent Christ and this church, even if that wasn't your intention. I believe, therefore, that anyone has a right to express their view in return, and you should prepare yourself for that (be less inclined to be offended, I mean). Your mentioning the fact that you are a Christian at the beginning was the only clue there that your article was written by a Christian at all.

    Re my use of the word 'disingenuous.' All Christians (all people, maybe) are disingenuous when they justify their sin. We've all done it. I was merely pointing out (I do swear myself sometimes, particularly when someone cuts me up on the road, and doesn't wave an apology) that we should acknowledge our sin rather than invent (in your case) strange philosophical justifications for it. Also, there is a reason for which swear words have always been considered to be outside of polite conversation. It is somewhat unkind to try to persuade people, even if their views are brought about by centuries of conditioning, that that if they find the sort of language you are speaking of offensive or unpleasant, then the fault is with them.

    When you say that you agree with the scriptures I cited, I would have thought that was enough and an end to the matter. But there are plenty more: scriptures. I'm sure, for example, I remember that Paul said 'do not let any filthy talk come forth from your lips,' or words to that effect. Loads of scriptures. Enough, in fact, for me to be absolutely certain that any Christian who justifies his own use of such language is being disingenuous. So my advice is, don't be offended, just repent. You could possibly write another blog publicly apologising for the first one.

    Finally, in regard to your comment about de-brothering me. We're supposed to'exhort one another daily,' etc. We've come to a sorry pass if we can't take a bit of upbraiding from one another. Besides, I'm not sure that all this de-brothering one another is really allowed, you know, fellowship of the saints and all that.

    Bless you. I'm sure I could write more but you're probably fed up with reading this by now.


  3. It doesn't seem to me like you understood what I said, nor are you particularly interested in understanding. I'm not interested in arguing. If you can engage with any of the substance or details of what I wrote then maybe we could have useful discussion.

    1. For the record I said nothing about "de-brothering" you. We just can't have any useful discussion on this topic if you just want to insist that you're right without understanding what I'm actually saying. As I said, I'm pretty sure you don't understand my reasoning, you've just decided my conclusion is wrong and are ranting against that in a forceful manner without being willing to understand. You're "not even wrong". So I don't see any possible value in discussion. I'm quite happy to stay your brother and be friendly to you.

  4. I agree with your premise, but I still don't think you should swear too often. It removes the point of it. It's like throwing around the word "love" too liberally... it loses all meaning.

    That being said I swear all the time and pretty much can't help it. It's pretty much become a part of my "natural vocabulary" if there's even such a thing.

    x Sarah

  5. You didn't use the (non) word 'de-brothering,' that was my term, or interpretation of your saying that we might not be able to have 'fellowship, let alone brotherhood.' Anyway, sorry but I've only just seen your reply, and I'm glad that you agree with Sarah, above, that we shouldn't swear too often (I assume that's what you were agreeing with), whatever yours or her reason might be. I would add that society might become, or has become, suffused with it, as is evident from the fact that it has become people's 'natural vocabulary.'

    Anyway, I'm sure it was good for you to get some support in this matter. As for us, we'd better agree to disagree on this one.

    1. Hey James, Over use of swearing is distasteful - I just think it's genuinely expressive and not always wrong. I'm quite happy to agree to disagree on it.