David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Criminalize Cursing?: I Wouldn't Swear By It

May 15, 2014

Apparently it isn't enough that Vladimir Putin tries to take over Crimea; now he wants to make public swearing a crime in Russia.

As any of my students could have told you from my teaching career, as well as pretty much most of my colleagues, I wouldn't last long in Russia.  I am no Wolf of Wall Street, which, according to everything I read, may have the world record for the "f-bomb" in a movie, but I do appreciate a good swear word.

Recognize that I am a tremendous lover of language.  I love it when only half of an audience get a "masticate" joke. I treasure opportunities to use "flummox," one of the greatest non-dirty words ever to sound dirty.

I also respect language to connote more than simply an idea.  Donald Sterling's words do say everything one needs to know about him.  Words can hurt and one needs to use them very wisely.

Just as true, though, is Lord Byron's Manfred: "But words are breath," ephemereal, gone almost as quickly as we say them, but still the very essence of life. As a result for me, I am fully aware of the import of language as well as its vacuity when the words are not reinforced by actions. The injection of choice swear words can provide much needed energy to spark catatonic minds, to express frustration, to break tension, to inject humor. 

Maybe I can never really explain this, but as a general rule, I don't think my cursing diminishes the mutual respect I expect in all my interactions. Sure, I occasionally got "he swears" on student evals, but I never once got an official complaint to the dean, or since becoming an administrator, to my bosses.

There is research that suggests swearing is good for your health. (Note, however, that the link has no reference to the guy's *^#%*@ research.  Further googling eventually finds his website and references to swearing aiding dementia patients, as well as swearing as a response to pain, just nothing about a definitive link to me living to 100 because I say "damn" a lot, even if that makes me damned.)

Here's one of my frustrations.  Why is it that the psychologists have the market on curse-ry studies?  Why isn't the Modern Language Association (MLA) all over this?  In case you weren't aware, the MLA just this week did its first discipline review in 40 years and added 35 new forums (while altering another 9 existing forums).  So, we now have accepted research interests in Galician Languages, Literature and Culture; Atlantic Comparative Literacy and Cultural Studies; Global Hispanophone Comparative Literacy and Cultural Studies; Vernaculars and Creoles Language Studies and Linguistics; Animal Studies (I have no *^#%*@ idea what that means); and Memory Studies (I just now remember why I haven't been a member of MLA since I got out of teaching), but no Theory of Swearing, no Profanity and Literature, no Expletive Studies, No Applied Obscenity forums.  Needless to say, I'm *^#%*@ pissed!

There are generic studies of profanity (cussing discussions): Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing generates the kind of irreverent obscenity-laden positive reviews on Amazon.com that you might expect.  Nevertheless, I do believe some theoretical analysis of the way profanity can complement conversations is due.  I am not condoning swearing as a general rule, or even as a routine "attention grabber" in a professional presentation.  God gave us filters for a reason.  Also cursing people directly is only appropriate from the inside of a well-sealed automobile or in a private place long after you were fired by the ^!*#@*. 

I am condoning the use of swearing to express absolutism.  At the end of the beautiful "(Believed You Were) Lucky," Aimee Mann adds a well-placed f-bomb to emphasize just what "you" are missing:

I wish you believed in life/Believed in fate/Believed you were lucky/ And worth the wait/'Cause life could be lovely/ Oh life could be fucking great

(I would have linked to a video, but the only available ones have the edited version, probably for the single release:  *^#%*@ record company!)

So, with all due respect to Mr. Putin, outlawing profane language actually limits the power of language.  But, this is hardly surprising for a man who wants to hold all of the power.