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Profanity:

The New York Times Fashion section ran an opinion piece Sunday titled "Longing for a Cuss-Free Zone." Now I don't like profanity in conversation, though I have nothing against it in fiction or in humor. (I often much enjoy off-color jokes, if they're funny, and don't find that the profanity makes them inherently less -- or more -- funny.) But one thing I found interesting about the article is that it didn't really explain why the author longs for a cuss-free zone, or why we should.

So what exactly is wrong with profanity? Let's focus for now on "fuck," "shit," and the like, and set aside both insults and relatively light profanity (such as "damn" and "hell," which are at least pretty light in my big city secular circles); let's also set aside any legal questions about when such speech should be constitutionally protected. Why do I get annoyed -- not tremendously annoyed, but still annoyed -- by hearing a lot of it? Should I be annoyed?

One possible answer is that we shouldn't be annoyed by it. Perhaps we should teach our children not to use it, the theory would go, but only because other people are annoyed by it. Under this theory, the decision to use or not use profanity has become a shibboleth, much like whether one uses "ain't": By listening to whether a person uses profanity you might learn a bit about his social class or his affinity group, and you might want your children to signal membership in a particular class or group. Yet I don't think that's all there is to it.

Likewise, some people suggest that we disapprove of profanity just because we're too Puritanical; if only we realized that there was nothing wrong with sex, or for that matter with excretion, then we wouldn't view "fuck" or "shit" as bad at all.

Another possible answer, which I've heard from some people, is that use of profanity reveals lack of creativity or inarticulateness: If every other word from your mouth is "fucking," that shows that you don't know how to speak in a more interesting and precise way. But I don't think that's right; people's reaction to people who use profanity is quite different (and usually more negative) than their reaction to people who simply speak monotonously, or to people who use imprecise words.

Others say that profanity is wrong because it's vulgar, debasing, dirty, or what have you. But that's just a label or a metaphor -- it doesn't explain why profanity is bad.

Here's my tentative answer (with apologies in advance if it's too obvious): Profanities have historically been ways of conveying anger or contempt. "Fuck," for instance, is often (not always, but often) a reference not just to sex but to sex that involves contempt for one of the participants, and often a reference not to sex at all but simply a signal of anger. The deliberate transgression of taboos has intensified this emotional message: The implicit message is often (again, not always, but often) "I'm so angry or contemptuous that I'm going to use this taboo word precisely to convey the strength of my feeling." And this message remains of anger or contempt to some extent even if, from context, one can figure out that the person isn't angry or contemptuous -- the context can soften the emotional impact of the word, but it often doesn't eliminate it.

And many people are uncomfortable being around other people who are apparently angry or contemptuous. Anger and contempt are emotions that, we've learned, are sometimes followed by other things -- personal insults, or even fights. Hearing people express these emotions, even when one is not the target of those emotions, makes us uneasy and unhappy.

I noticed this most clearly once when I was playing a chess game against a classmate, who swore when he realized he'd made a bad move. I knew he wasn't really getting angry at me; if anything, he might have just been getting angry at himself, or maybe he was just swearing out of habit. But it was unpleasant for me to be around a person who was behaving in an angry-seeming way.

Of course, if people altogether stop using a word to convey a message of anger or contempt, then over time it will lose this connotation. My sense is that this is one reason why, at least in some circles, "damn" and "hell" don't really raise many eyebrows. Likewise for terms such as "bloody," which don't have a visceral effect on many Americans even if the Americans know that the term is (or at least was) a profanity in England.

But so long as these words are often used to convey these emotions, they will carry an angry or contemptuous connotation even if other contextual cues suggest the emotion is not intended. This may also explain why at least many people have a different reaction when they hear the words in a joke, or in something that's clearly playacting: That sort of contextual cue may be so strong that it becomes very clear to us that the anger or contempt isn't real, but purely fictional.

If I'm right, then the main problem with these words isn't "vulgarity" per se or reference to bodily functions per se. Rather, it's that the reference uses words that are often used to convey an emotion (as I suggested, anger or contempt) that people find unsettling and unpleasant.

This, though, is just a tentative thought on the subject -- I'd love to people's (polite!) views on the subject, in the comments thread.

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