Sunday, July 8, 2018

Is Profanity More Honest?

Taboos about impolite, even profane locutions have fallen. With the sole exception of network television, people feel no real compunction about cursing and swearing at each other. It’s a sign of coolness. It’s even a sign of liberation and honesty.

So we think. Yet, ask yourself this: when Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a cunt, was it a sign of coolness, liberation and honesty. Bee used the word to insult and demean the president’s daughter, to lower her status by reducing her to a vulgar epithet.

And then, what if a man calls a woman a cunt? What if he does it to her face? What if he does it behind her back? Surely, he is not engaging in playful banter. He is diminishing her by reducing her to a vulgarized term for a defining sexual characteristic. Again, the purpose is to reduce her status, to make her more vulnerable, even to abuse her.

Most women, under such circumstances, will immediately end the conversation. They will not revel in the knowledge that the man who used the term is more open and honest, even more authentic.

And yet, vulgarity is running wild these days. Is it an accident that relationships between men and women have coarsened? If it an accident that women are often harassed and groped. It might happen to women who regularly use obscenities. It might happen to women who never use such language. What is and is not acceptable language creates a cultural environment that is not congenial to comity.

Does it matter that a woman does not speak like a lady but curses like a drunken sailor? If she does, what message do men receive from her self-degradation? Could it be that liberated women’s new profanity-filled expostulations have contributed to a cultural environment that invites disrespect. Or, at least, creates the wrong impression.

Proper language creates one impression; a torrent of obscenities creates another. It's about self-definition. One understands that people, and women in particular, whose mouths spew forth obscenities believe that it makes them strong and empowered. But, believing does not make it true.

One ought to point out that using curse words might have something to do with cursing someone. That is, with uttering a malediction, uttering words that are intended to harm directly. At the least, curse words demonstrate a hostile intent… especially when directed at another individual: “Fuck you,” “Eat shit” and “Up yours” are not endearing. They do not create trust. They do not suggest that you want to be friends with someone. They suggest that you want to exploit or abuse someone.

The expression: “what the fuck,” does not appear to do anything more than to vulgarize a specific action. And yet, if we commonly use language that debases a specific sexual act, many people are going to conclude that said action is more profane than sacred… and that it comports vulgarity and hostility. It is no longer a transaction between two people. It becomes a way to abuse another person.

Now, the world of social psychology has offered up a brand new research study which supposedly demonstrates that people who curse more often are fundamentally more honest and even more authentic. As my reflections suggest, the authors of this study have no idea what they are talking about.

The study uses some impressive contortions to make its point. It suggests that people swear more often in Connecticut and New Jersey than they do in South Carolina. It then points out that public integrity— whatever that means— is higher in the northern states. Ergo….

And yet, taxes are also much higher in Connecticut and New Jersey. People are fleeing those states in droves, to the general chagrin of those who remain. Perhaps voters are using profanity to express their impotent rage. Taxes keep rising. Rising taxes drive people out of the state. When people leave the state taxes go up again. And the states fall into economic stagnation. Shit, you say.

For all I know the pervasive use of obscene language shows a breakdown in social capital, a diminishing of social trust, a failure of people to cooperate and to work together to solve their states’ problems. It might be that when people are cursing each other out, they do not feel that they belong to a community, but feel that they are constantly in conflict with each other. Or else, that they are living out a drama.

I would also add that it takes far less intelligence to use profanity than to speak correct English. People who curse all the time are showing themselves to belong to a lower social class. People who curse others are showing that they want to reduce those others to a lower social class.

That appears to be a contradiction. It might very well be. And yet, what if cursing someone out is a way to speak to him in terms that he will understand?

The research is obviously nonsensical. Are you more likely to trust or to get along with someone who calls you a motherfucker than with someone who addresses you by your name? One understands that members of some tribal groups use derogatory terms of address to create gang solidarity. And yet, if you are an adult doing business or a local community council trying to hold a meeting, you are not going to do much business if you are calling each other assholes.

Are you more or less likely to want to make a deal with someone who calls you an asshole? The researchers imagine that people who curse each other out are more trustworthy. Ask yourself: would you trust someone who calls you an asshole? Would you trust someone who is slandering you? If he does, if the charge is meant seriously, your primary task will not be to make a deal. You will first need to erase the stigma he is trying to attach to you.

As for the research, Quartz offers a summary:

Gilad Feldman of the Department of Work and Psychology in Maastricht University in the Netherlands led an international research team whose goal was to resolve a conflict in social science, which is split on the matter of swearing and straightforwardness. On the one hand, using profanity is taboo and people who do so may be more inclined to break other social norms, including committing crimes of dishonesty—and so swearing has been associated with moral turpitude, the paper explains. On the other hand, blurting curses is positively associated with authenticity in certain situations—for example, people accused of crimes who are actually innocent are more inclined to swear during interrogations than those who are guilty and denying their crime, other studies have found.

Did you notice that swearing has a double meaning? When you use swear words you are attacking the person you are addressing. And yet, when you swear on the Bible, you are giving your word and vowing to do whatever you say you will do.

As for the situation where someone is falsely accused of a crime, he would want to attack and disparage his accusers. He is not merely protesting his innocence. He is trying to hurt those who are interrogating him. Since they are assaulting him, he is returning the favor.


Leo G said...

A telling of the old joke about the difference betwixt a c*nt and a pussy

Anonymous said...

It is a matter of personal experience that any woman who routinely uses the word "fuck", will. The late, great, Tom Wolfe referred to them as "cum dumpsters" in "I Am Charlotte Simmons". It's a tell.

As far as the "study" goes, it's just another example of psychological cargo cult pseudoscience.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: People who curse all the time are showing themselves to belong to a lower social class.

That was my conclusion as a teenager, similar to my opinion about smoking and drinking. Later I saw in both cases, my parents didn't really drink or "cuss" to explain my own disinterest. I don't ever recall my dad swearing, and I was surprised even once he said "Oh nuts!" when he forgot something and had to drive home again. While my mom, one of 7 kids had more passion, and had phrases like "Damn damn double damn" in a moment of family private rage at least, but I never recall her labeling people.

I go with the idea that less you swear generally, the more people will know something is very wrong when you do. But I also don't take offense at swearing, and I tend to take name-calling literally and don't respond since it often doesn't make clear literal sense.

On honesty, I remember a comedian in the early 1990s who said everyone was a creep or an asshole, and he explained an asshole is someone who will tell you the truth, someone whose motives are transparent, and creep is someone who won't and who isn't, and I thought that was a useful distinction for remember.