I swear a lot. In writing, if not so much in speech (but, fuck it, also a lot of times in speech). Swearing is awesome, because it adds a little extra punch to your sentence that lets people know you mean business! Or, at least, I guess that's how most people characterize the function of swearing. Personally, I don't really give a shit. That "punch" is meaningless—it's a construct—I swear this much because I like to push back against outdated, constrictive, distracting forms of propriety that I don't believe in. When people bitch at me about swearing in articles about grievous, mind-boggling, viscerally enraging hypocrisies and human rights violations—that's what's interesting to me. That tension, that decision to prioritize meaningless bullshit over tangible real-world harm. Fuck you, and fuck your delicate sensibilities.
Over the weekend, Salon posted a fun little look into the etymological, cultural, and socioeconomic history of swearing (an excerpt from Melissa Mohr's book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing). Being a shrewish shit-scold, of course, I particularly enjoyed this part:
With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. Bitch can now be applied to men and women, as can cunt. In the 19th century shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — the “West Somerset Word-Book” defines it as “a term of contempt, applied to men only,” as in “He’s a regular shit.” Now, women too can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit.
When swearwords don’t become more equal-opportunity, they often begin to be used solely for women — Geoffrey Hughes calls this the “feminization of ambisexual terms.” Words such as scold, shrew, termagent, witch, harlot, bawd, and tramp were all at one point in their histories terms for men; furthermore, the terms were usually neutral and sometimes even adulatory. Scold, for example, comes from the Old Norse word for “poet.” When these terms were feminized, they perjorated, going from neutral or positive to insulting. Buggerbucks this trend, too, going from a word used of men and women equally to an insulting term reserved almost exclusively for men.
Language is powerful. Language pushes and pulls on our culture and culture pushes and pulls on language, and acknowledging that power can have a profound effect on actual human lives. Reverence for language means both opposing its restriction and encouraging its responsible use. I want people to wield their words freely but carefully; anyone who thinks language doesn't hold real power has no business making a "free speech" argument in the first place. The dissemination of the printed word, the right to assemble and dissent, the spread of literacy among oppressed populations—these are the things that drive major cultural and political shifts. The way we talk about things can directly affect the way we feel about things, and the way we feel about things of course affects the way we act on things. Fucking duh.
The problem is that people mistake the "language is powerful" argument for "it stings my granny when you say the fuck word." The history of swear words is interesting, but swear words themselves don't matter one fucking bit. Swear words are what people whine about when they want a cheap way to derail an argument. Swear words are for people who don't have anything real to complain about. I wish my life (or, at least, my awareness of the shit going on in the world) was simplified to the point where swearing could be my top priority—where swearing could be worth complaining about. But fuck that.
When I say "language is powerful," I'm talking more about intent than about the actual arrangements of letters. What are you saying and who are you saying it to? Are you punching up or down? Do you have a reason to be angry?
Do I somehow care less if someone calls me a "filthy pig" instead of a "fucking filthy pig"? Fuck no. And should you somehow care more if I say "fuck the pope" (because of the Catholic Church's track record as a global anti-gay, anti-prophylactic, child-molestation cover-up racket) than if I'd said "I strongly dislike the pope"? Should you really be more offended by the swearing than by the fucking behavior of the fucking Catholic Church? Not from where I'm fucking standing. The fact that people get more offended by "fuck" and "shit"—any swear words that aren't ethnic or gendered slurs—than by life-ruining concepts like institutionally protected pedophile priests, or violent anti-gay rhetoric, or the puritanical refusal to cover women's reproductive healthcare, or blatant rape apologia in the mainstream media, or the grindingly self-perpetuating wealth disparity in this country, is FUCKING KOOKOO-BONKERS, YOU GUYS.
So it's not that I don't care about your granny's feelings, it's not that I don't care if people are offended—it's that I can't care. It's just not a fucking priority. This fucking world is in the shitter, and I'm not going to hold back just because some people have been socially conditioned to jump at certain combinations of letters (combinations that don't systematically oppress anyone) that they've heard a million times before. It's nonsense, and I've got bigger fucking problems.