My book club has been reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” this month. I have read it several times, but this time I listened to an audiobook version, and it struck me how much more noticeable — and offensive — racial slurs are when listening to someone read them aloud.
It is easier to skip over distasteful words when reading to oneself, so even though I was aware that the N-word appears 219 times in the novel, it hadn’t really registered before. It occurred to me that I probably skip over all kinds of profanity when reading.
John McWhorter, in his book “Nine Nasty Words,” points out that the social acceptability of profanities changes over time: “Profanity has known three main eras — when the worst you could say was about religion, when the worst you could say was about the body, and when the worst you could say was about groups of people.”
We are living through a significant cultural shift in attitudes toward profanity right now, when many of the seven words George Carlin said could never be said on television — vulgarities having to do with sex or excrement — are routinely used by people younger than 40. That same demographic, however, is much less tolerant of the racial and ethnic slurs Carlin never mentioned.
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This cultural shift has led to an uncomfortable double standard: words that some people feel entirely free to use in private still are regarded as unacceptable in public. In a radio interview, McWhorter reflected on this double standard: “It’s frankly kind of stupid. These mores and rules have a way of lagging behind reality. … The fact that we have to express ourselves here in a way that we immediately wouldn’t as soon as the microphones were off … is an artifice.”
This is the sort of comment that makes me feel not just old, but completely out of step with most of the culture. I know, for example, that many teenagers routinely use the F-word as an adverb or to modify an adjective in place of more socially acceptable words like “really,” “very” or “extremely.” But I don’t like to use it, and I don’t like to hear other people use it.
This may be due to plain old-fashioned prudishness on my part, but I think there is more to it.
The reason I don’t want to use profanities is not just because they are socially unacceptable but because they are morally objectionable. I don’t want to say them because I don’t want to think them. I especially don’t want to develop the habit of thinking of people in vulgar terms, as excrement, as things to be manipulated. Habits have a way of turning into perception.
I know what those who defend their use of profanity are likely to say: “I don’t mean anything by it,” or “It’s just an expression.” McWhorter insists that profanity is not really language in the usual sense. A profane utterance uses words as a gesture — a spontaneous eruption generated by the right side of the brain. It has no connection to reason.
I don’t buy it. Words have meanings, and we know what those meanings are. When we utter profanities, we choose the form they take because of those meanings.
It is significant that even though social attitudes toward profane words has changed over time, their function has remained the same. They serve to invert the prevailing social order — not just reject it but turn it upside down, making the higher lower. There is no such thing as a swear word that lifts up; they always tear down. That is not an incidental feature. It is what they are intended to do.
There is a scene early in “Huckleberry Finn” when Huck’s father goes on a rant:
“Then the old man got to cussing, and cussed everything and everybody he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn’t skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of a general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so called them what’s-his-name when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing.”
Sometimes a strongly worded denunciation of prevailing social norms is called for, namely, in response to particular forms of injustice. But when denunciation becomes a habit, or, even worse, when the habitual and largely subconscious denunciation of social order itself becomes one of the prevailing social norms — when profanity comes to possess a cool factor among those responsible for maintaining social order — we are in deep trouble.
The most fundamental principle of social order in the West is that all people are equal. The social attitude corresponding to that principle is respect.
The shaping of communities that speak respectfully to and about one another is not a mere matter of politeness; it is a significant cultural achievement. Broadly tolerating the use of disrespectful words is a cultural failing.
I am not saying we should never use profanities. I am saying we should not be complacent about the way the words we use — especially the words we use habitually — shape our perception of the world around us, including the people who inhabit the world with us.
If we wish to see others as possessing inherent dignity, as beings worthy of respect, then we should try to use words in ways that reflect what we wish to see. To occasionally fail at that task is not the greatest of sins, but it is shameful to think the effort does not matter.