The Paradox of Profanity - What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)

Chapter 11. The Paradox of Profanity

Profanity is powerful. Its repercussions can be measured in your body. A single fuck or nigger hastens your heart rate and opens the pores of your palms. Its impact can also be gleaned from your behavior. Fag makes you scoot your chair away from someone you think is homosexual and makes you think of him as less human. A raised middle finger leads you to interpret people’s actions as more aggressive.

And many of us treat profanity as not just powerful but bad. It’s not uncommon to encounter the belief that it betokens an uncreative or lazy mind or a weak vocabulary.1 The fact that these bad things remain unproven provides little shelter to the offending words.2

These negative beliefs that people have about taboo words and their power often lead to attempts at suppression, not just of slurs, as discussed in the last chapter, but of profanity in general. Self-censorship occurs inside your own head when you self-monitor—internally tracking what’s likely to come out of your mouth next and stepping on the verbal brakes when something taboo is in the works. You also censor interpersonally when you suppress the use of profanity by other people, especially children. For example, you might react to a child’s utterance of a particular word by explaining that it’s not acceptable or appropriate—that it’s a “bad word.” You might go farther and chide or even punish him or her. There’s a long history of punishing children for profanity both verbally and physically, washing out their mouths with soap being one of the most creative and most memorable to its victims.3

And we also display a suppressive reaction to profanity as a society through social and legal institutions. The sports leagues from the last chapter provide a glimpse into how this works on a small scale. In the United States, the three biggest players are the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which regulate the content of films and video games, respectively, as well as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a state organ that regulates broadcasts over the public airwaves. As I briefly mentioned in Chapter 1, one of these institutions’ most visible functions is to suppress profanity.

And yet, all the evidence suggests that existing efforts to squelch profanity are ineffectual. Below, I’ll present the case—not just for slurs but for “bad words” in general—that there are better ways to deal with profanity than to suppress it.

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Let’s begin with censorship at the societal level and look at how it works and why it doesn’t.

The MPAA is an industry organization, founded by the motion picture industry. Among other things, it’s responsible for the film ratings that limit children’s access to movies.4 In addition to violence, drug use, and sex, the MPAA identifies “strong language” in films as inappropriate for children of certain ages. Despite its regulatory role, the MPAA has no published standards for what language leads to what rating—no list of offending words or accounting of how many times each word is permitted to merit what rating. The association’s method is largely opaque. Production companies submit their films to the board before distribution, and the MPAA ratings board, whose members are an anonymous “independent group of parents,” issues a provisional rating. The net result is effectively a sort of censorship. Filmmakers and production companies often self-censor their films in order to reach the largest audience possible, and the ratings board acts as a gatekeeper that can issue seemingly arbitrary requirements and restrict access to the film.

The ESRB acts effectively like the MPAA, but its purview is video games.5 Like the MPAA, it uses unpublished criteria for determining profanity, but by observing the ratings it assigns, we can infer that they depend on the frequency and intensity of strong language. One study that tried to reverse engineer the ESRB’s criteria found that profanity is almost always absent from games rated E (for everyone) or E10+ but is present in 34 percent of games rated T (teen) and 74 percent of those rated M (mature).6

The FCC works quite differently. As a federal commission, it’s legally empowered to oversee all transmissions over public airwaves, which includes broadcast television and radio. The FCC has charged itself with, among other things, enforcing laws that prohibit profanity during daytime and evening hours. Like the MPAA and the ESRB, the FCC has no published list of banned words, but it describes profanity as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”7 Punishments it can dole out range from issuing a warning to imposing fines and even revoking a station’s broadcast license. This has a colossal impact on the language used in music and television. Television production companies and music labels self-censor, avoiding language they think will incur a rebuke from the FCC or from television and radio stations. They or the stations excise profane words that do make it into the artistic product. This happens in a variety of ways, including bleeping offending terms, making alternate versions that replace taboo terms with others, and silencing profanities out entirely, among a number of others.a

A whole host of censorship strategies has been deployed, ranging from repeating the word prior to the profanity to superimposing a sound other than a bleep. One of the cleverest I know of is in Missy Elliot’s song “Work It,” which uses an elephant trumpet to replace a noun in the following couplet:
If you got a big [elephant trumpet], let me search it;
And find out how hard I gotta work ya.
There appears to be no unbleeped (or rather untrumpeted) version of the song.

There are plenty of potential objections to what the FCC does, especially the mysterious way it defines profanity. But according to the US Supreme Court, the commission does have the right to function as it does. We know this from a 1973 decision, in which the FCC squared off against a radio station that played George Carlin’s profane standup routine “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”8 The routine is (ironically) about the words that the FCC bans, which Carlin identifies as shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits (although, of course, there’s no official list). He then goes on to elaborate on his impressions of each word. (According to Carlin, tits sounds friendly, while fuck has a little something for everyone.) The FCC reprimanded the station, which challenged the FCC’s right to censor profanity as a violation of the right to free speech. But the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s action, stating that the government has a compelling interest in “1) shielding children from patently offensive material, and 2) ensuring that unwanted speech does not enter one’s home.” It also ruled that the FCC has authority to prohibit “indecent” broadcasts during daytime hours (when children might encounter them). And most importantly, it decided that the FCC can determine for itself what constitutes indecency.

In addition to these media regulation bodies, the legal system often acts as a de facto censor of profanity. As we saw in the case of the mom arrested for saying fucking bread around her kids in a supermarket, laws exist all over the country that, interpreted in specific ways, make it illegal to use profanity, especially around children. There’s a good case to be made that these laws violate our First Amendment free speech rights:9 as we’ve seen, there’s no evidence that profanity of the Fucking type intrinsically causes harm. But logic hasn’t often prevailed in this arena. The bans exist as a reaction to profanity, with the intent of negatively sanctioning people who deviate from normative linguistic behavior.b

Even words that merely sound like profanity are often tainted. For example, in 1999, the assistant to the mayor of Washington, DC, David Howard, was forced to resign his post for calling a budget niggardly. So was a Florida drug counselor who told a client that he was being niggardly about opening up during his drug rehabilitation. To be clear, niggardly has nothing to do with nigger, either in its history (it’s related to niggling) or its current meaning (it means “stingy”). And yet, the mere similarity with a taboo word is enough for a repressive reaction to kick in. See Dowd, M. (January 31, 1999) or Mayo, M. (November 11, 2011).

But these efforts have been largely for naught. People are still being exposed to profanity, and they’re still using it. Exposure to profanity on television has not decreased over the last three decades; if anything, the frequency of strong profanities has increased.10 As musician and professor Tom Lehrer put it, “When I was in college, there were certain words you could not say in front of a girl… . Now you can say them, but you can’t say girl.”11 Films and video games similarly have seen no decrease in the use of profanity in a similar time frame, with profanity increasing especially in video games. The type of video game that now receives a T or M rating, either of which overwhelmingly includes profanity, essentially didn’t exist twenty years ago.

Nor is censorship through bleeping or other local strategies effective. People still infer what the bleeped words were. One clever study12 had people read sentences with either profane words (like This custard tastes like shit) or censored versions (like This custard tastes like s#!t). After reading the sentences, participants performed a memory task to see whether they remembered exactly what they had seen. They would see one of the two sentences, with s#!t or shit, and had to say if this was the exact sentence they saw before. When shit replaced s#!t, most people had no idea. A full 59 percent of the time, people answered that they had seen exactly that sentence previously. In other words, more than half of participants had encoded the word shit in memory and thought they had seen the uncensored word, even though it was actually censored to begin with.

Bleeping also doesn’t decrease people’s impression of how much profanity the program they’re watching or hearing contains. One of the few studies to investigate the effects of bleeping presented people with one of two different versions of A Season on the Brink, an ESPN biographical documentary about basketball coach Bobby Knight.13 The uncensored version included seventy-six instances of curse words—Knight is renowned for his vitriolic temper and quick trigger with colorful language. The censored version had all those words bleeped out. People were shown one version or the other, then asked to rate how offended they were by the program and to estimate how much profanity it used. People thought the bleeped version was significantly less offensive, as you might expect. But surprisingly they also thought that the bleeped version had more profanity: people who saw the bleeped version estimated that there were fifteen more curse words in the film on average than people who saw the unbleeped version. So bleeping increases the perceived frequency of cursing.

Even when censorship does have the desired effect of limiting exposure to certain terms, it has unintended and counterproductive consequences. Language is a moving target, and outlawing a word today will inevitably lead to new words sprouting up in its place tomorrow. Censorship is like a game of linguistic whack-a-mole. For example, when Matt Stone and Trey Parker made their feature-length South Park film, they were aiming for an R rating. But the first cut they submitted to the MPAA ratings board came back rated NC-17, which would have reduced its potential viewership to a small fraction and killed its chances of breaking even financially. So the filmmakers submitted a series of revisions, responding to each edit the ratings board recommended. But because Stone and Parker aren’t exactly fans of censorship (their movie itself is an anticensorship screed), they tried to get away with every bit of vulgarity they could. As Matt Stone said to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “If there was something they said couldn’t stay in the movie we’d make it ten times worse and five times as long. And they’d come back and say ‘OK, that’s better’.”14 For instance, it’s been reported that the film originally included a song called Motherfucker, but that when it was rejected, Stone and Parker replaced it with the arguably equally offensive (and certainly more novel and memorable) Unclefucka. Additionally, sources report that the title was originally South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose, but the MPAA categorically rejected the word Hell, so the film was retitled with a plausibly more offensive double entendre: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.15

In sum, the various ways we react to profanity by trying to limit it are grossly ineffectual. They generally don’t decrease how much it’s used, and even when they do, new words spring up in their place. Bleeping or other word-internal censoring strategies still activate the same words in the listener’s or the reader’s mind to the point where they’re usually indistinguishable in memory from the real thing.

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But trying to ban language is more than just ineffectual. The practice is actually its own worst enemy. Here’s what I mean.

We know that taboo words aren’t taboo because they’re intrinsically bad. We’ve seen over the course of this book that profane words are just words; they’re made up of sounds and enter into similar (although not always identical) grammatical patterns to other words. There isn’t a fixed set of profanity in a language—words meander into and out of taboo-ness. Over time, words move fluidly from banal to profane and back again—think about the histories of cock and swive (the now deceased, archaic predecessor to fuck). Nor is there anything unique or defining about what taboo words mean: even if they tend to draw from certain semantic domains, they can denote the very same things as mundane words (like penis and copulate). And in fact, a culture doesn’t even have to have taboo words if historical vicissitudes haven’t conspired to give it any. In other words, there’s nothing deterministic about any particular words having to be profane in any given language at any specific time.

And that means that our beliefs about profanity are largely a social construct. The same word can provoke radically different reactions in different cultures or at different times. In Great Britain the word wanker is bad, slightly worse than nigger. On this side of the pond, it doesn’t even register as profane. And even within a country, when people speak different varieties of the language, there’s remarkable variation. Nigger is profane, except, as we saw, among some speakers of African American English, where nigga is a commonplace word that can be used positively and pro-socially. Profanity isn’t fixed. It’s variable, it’s context-sensitive, and it’s relative. It’s the product of cultural attitudes toward specific words, attitudes that can differ radically from person to person and from culture to culture.

But for these cultural beliefs to exist, they must somehow be instilled. They must be propagated. And this is where it gets interesting. How do you know which words are the bad ones? Think about your own life experience. How do you know that cunt and nigger are bad?

I suspect you’ll come to the same conclusion as sociologists. The things that create and perpetuate these normative beliefs about words stem from the contexts in which those words are used. You can infer what people mean to do with a word by observing how they use it. If you see someone acting violently toward another person while using a slur, such as shouting You’re a fucking cunt!, that’s good evidence that the word is meant to cause harm. This is surely part of the story. But notice that the situations in which people use the words aren’t enough. For instance, you wouldn’t infer from You’re a fucking cunt! that all the other words in the sentence, like you and a, are also meant to cause harm. So in addition to learning about words from how people use them, you also learn from how they avoid them.

Profane words like fucking and cunt are socially suppressed. People have told you that they’re bad. As a child, you might have been scolded or spanked. When your uncle stubbed his toe and yelled holy fucking cock ass fuck!, your mother might have chastised him for swearing in front of the kids. There are subtler signals too. When parts of words are bleeped out, or even when you simply notice that people use words in informal settings that they avoid in more formal settings, you learn that those words are not socially appropriate. Adults act as though some words aren’t to be said in public, by children, or around children. Children learn precisely that lesson. That’s where taboos come from. That’s what makes those words profane.

In other words, paradoxically, the taboo words in a language are taboo because of the very actions people take to limit their use. The remedy is the cause.

Profanity isn’t special in this regard—cultural norms in general are regularly propagated from person to person and from generation to generation via personal behavior and social and legal institutions that constrain taboo behaviors in certain contexts. I’m sure you can think of many, many socially constructed taboos that go hand in hand with personal and institutional opprobrium. Polygamy, for instance, is commonly practiced throughout parts of northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia and the Pacific.16 But it’s taboo in many countries, especially countries with histories of important Christian influence, like the United States, where it’s legally banned. Other taboos that vary cross-culturally and are accompanied by personally or institutionally imposed sanctions include things like incest (legal in Côte d’Ivoire, Spain, and many other countries)17 and open defecation (practiced by 1 billion people worldwide).18 In places like the United States, not only laws but early childhood instruction, admonitions, and punishment by caregivers and authorities reinforce taboos about these behaviors.

But compared to polygamy, incest, and open defecation, which could arguably compromise the health of communities that practice them, most profane words (perhaps except slurs) pose little known danger. Mores about taboo words in general are more similar to stylistic faux pas. For example, wearing a mustache has been seen as dirty and suspicious in different times and places in the United States. I’d guess that wearing Bermuda shorts to a funeral would meet with disapproval most anywhere in the country. Facial tattoos and piercings have historically been banned or otherwise negatively sanctioned—and still are to varying extents. These behaviors violate social conventions not because they endanger public health but because of a tacit social agreement about the things we do and do not do. But there’s nothing intrinsically bad about Bermuda shorts or mustaches; the taboos reflect the cultural values we apply to them. Likewise, the actions people take to negatively sanction profanity create the norms surrounding it.c

The arbitrariness of profanity might be important for its social purposes. Other arbitrary things like hair or clothing styles are able to signify social meaning—and to have meaning that changes over time—precisely because they’re arbitrary.

So by actively prohibiting profanity, we’re acting like a dog licking its wounds. Let me spell out the analogy. Dogs (like humans) have a natural inclination to lick injuries, and for good reason: saliva may speed healing. But there’s also a downside. Overlicking can lead to a granuloma, a lesion potentially infected with staphylococcus. A suppressive response can turn a tiny nick into a large, enflamed, and infected hot spot.19 Like dogs’ wound licking, our response to profanity creates a runaway process because it exacerbates the conditions that trigger a progressively more and more aggressive response.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see these normative behaviors in ourselves and our neighbors. Many of us have been inculcated with these beliefs, just as with other socially constructed norms, since our early childhood. Three-quarters of Americans believe in hell.20 Most have believed in it since childhood, and we perpetuate the same belief in children in large part by reenacting the same routines that led us to believe those things in the first place: describing hell’s uniquely unpleasant conditions and identifying those acts of an ill-behaved child that will land her there. We recreate hell for our children in the same way that we create word taboos for them. Early indoctrination into beliefs has effects that persist through adulthood.d

Some people even extend these taboos into mystical realms. The Chinese word for the number four, si, is homonymous with the word meaning “death.” As a consequence of this chance overlap in sound, many Chinese people are superstitious about saying the number four. The same is true in Japanese. It turns out that these superstitions about taboo words can have serious consequences. A paper in the British Medical Journal compared death figures among Chinese and Japanese Americans from 1973 to 1998 with those of Caucasians. They counted how many deaths occurred in each group on each day of the month. And they found that Chinese and Japanese Americans had significantly more heart-related deaths on the fourth day of each month than you would expect by chance, whereas the Caucasian deaths on the fourth showed no such peak. Some people are so superstitious about word taboos that they are literally scared to death. (Note though that no such increase in deaths exists for Friday the thirteenth in Western countries.)

This creates a remarkable paradox. Our parents and the culture we grew up in programmed us to suppress profanity. But our reenactment of these same suppressive responses as adults gives profanity the power it has. Excessive licking exacerbates the wound. Profanity is a monster of our own perpetual creation.

# $ % !

For the most part, this all seems rather harmless. The book-length love letter to profanity that you’re holding in your hands might have tipped you off to the special affection I have for swearing. I think that in general we shouldn’t worry so much about profanity. Aside from the special value it holds for science—we learn things about language, the mind, the brain, and society from profanity that we simply couldn’t know if we pointed our microscopes elsewhere—it has practical social benefits.

For one thing, swearing increases your tolerance for pain. In several recent studies, people performed something called the “cold pressor,” a task in which they’re instructed to stick a hand into very cold water (five degrees centigrade) and keep it there until they can’t bear it any longer.21 This measures their pain tolerance. What happens when people swear during the cold-pressor test? In one experiment, people were told to say a swearword (like shit) or a control word (a word that could be used to describe a table, like wood) during the task. And sure enough, the people told to swear tolerated the painfully cold water significantly longer than those told to say the control word. Intriguingly, male subjects in the swearing condition also reported that the cold water was less painful than did those in the nonswearing condition, though women in the two groups reported that it was equally painful.e

Why does swearing alleviate pain? One hypothesis is that it creates an elevated feeling of aggression. It’s known that people who are more aggressive have higher tolerances for pain, and it could be that swearing hooks into the brain systems for aggression. People might be swearing themselves into a state of high pain tolerance. Swearing is special in terms of how it works in the brain, and in this case the automatic physiological reactions you have to uttering profane words allow you to better tolerate pain.

And profanity has other proposed possible benefits. Timothy Jay, for instance, notes a long history of theorizing that profanity may have cathartic benefits.22 Perhaps a well-placed fuck can alleviate anger that would otherwise come out in the form of physical or interpersonal aggression. Maybe swearing while you drive actually makes you less likely to take out your anger or frustration through your driving, thereby making you and those around you safer. Jay also notes that people often report feeling better after swearing23 and that the place of profanity in some humor (so-called working blue) suggests that it might create an experience of relief. Moreover, there’s evidence that some people perceive the use of profanity as a valuable social tool. One study reports that people—more so men than women—find that profanity demonstrates social power and makes the person who utters it more socially acceptable.24

For the most part, as we’ve seen, profanity does no harm. A fleeting fuck yeah! fades in comparison with things that demonstrably harm children and adults. There’s good reason to believe that children might not be well served by exposure to violent or pornographic images until they’re old enough to digest them, and of course no one could reasonably object to working to protect children from abuse, including verbal abuse. It’s important for us to understand how these potential dangers affect children, their health, their development, and their relationships, and to the extent that we know they cause harm, it’s worth advocating for safer environments that allow children to thrive. But to the best of our knowledge, profanity (aside from slurs, which I’ll return to in a moment) leaves no such fingerprint on the child’s psyche or future. Take the word fuck. How exactly can hearing fuck hurt a child? Proponents of censorship often claim that the language is “strong” or “offensive” or “immoral,” but as we’ve seen, this means nothing other than that they themselves are offended by it or believe others might be. And there’s no evidence that profanity of the Holy, Fucking, or Shit varieties harms children.

But not all profanity is equal, and all signs point to a strengthening in the United States of one specific class of profane language, namely, slurs. As Richard Dooling wrote in the New York Times, “We are caught between taboos. Vulgar sexual terms have become acceptable in the last two decades while all manner of sexual or ethnic epithets have become unspeakable.”25 That change is visible in the offensiveness ratings we saw earlier—where slurs are perched atop the offensiveness leaderboard. So what should we make of this drift in usage from Holy-, Fucking-, and Shit-type words to Nigger-type words?

We should care. Slurs may be the exception to the harmlessness of swearing. As we saw in the last chapter, overhearing faggot or nigger describing homosexuals or African Americans leads people to treat them as less human and to retreat from them physically. This is a type of harm. It’s possible that a carefully placed nigger or bitch has the potential to lower a person’s performance on tasks that his or her group is stereotyped as not good at. We saw that being called fag or homo, as an indirect, general term of offense, correlates with middle schoolers’ reports of feeling less connected to their school lives and experiencing more symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Consequently, the shift away from fuck and toward nigger is a bit troubling. Holy, fucking, and shit were good dirty fun. But we’re now giving the most power to slurs, the words that, although the evidence is still a little murky, threaten the greatest harm, at least when used in particular ways in certain contexts. So what’s a socially conscious person to do? Certainly we don’t want to inflict harm on anyone, especially children or people who belong to socially marginalized groups.

To add insult to injury, the rise in the prominence of slurs is a wound we’re inflicting on ourselves. Our resistance to words gives them their muscle, and slurs are no exception. This means that we can’t ban or censor our way out of this situation.

And other sorts of linguistic engineering seem just as quixotic as censorship. The reappropriation strategy—flooding the linguistic market with positive uses of the same word—has historically worked in certain cases; adoption and co-optation by the relevant communities may have blunted the damage that queer and gay cause. But it hasn’t taken the sting out of nigger or slut. Those trying to take control over their own labels would be well served to remember that reappropriation isn’t a silver bullet.

Instead—call this professor predictable—if you want to make slurs a little less powerful, you would meet with more success if everyone knew a little more about how they work and what they do. You know, better living through education.

Let’s start with the supply side. Is it possible that a little knowledge would lead people to use slurs less, at least in ways known to cause harm? Here are some avenues. The first involves the low-hanging fruit. Some well-meaning people inadvertently use slurs. For example, many people use words like gypped, Jewed, or tard because they simply haven’t ever noticed the relationship between gypped and gypsy, for example, or because they don’t know the history of tard and retarded. So they have no reason to think Romani people, Jews, or people with cognitive impairments could take offense at the words. Such people don’t have to be told twice why Jewing someone might be offensive or that Redskins has a history as a slur before they turn on their linguistic heels.

The second is the slightly more complicated case in which a slur gets used indirectly—still as a pejorative but not in direct reference to the original group. For example, when a twelve-year-old boy calls an opponent in an online video game gay or fag, he probably means to insult him and call him weak, but he may have no specific thoughts about his target’s sexuality.26 This is a more complicated scenario because the slur user can adopt a line of defensive reasoning that rejects any connection between a word like fag intended as a slur and its use in other ways. Suppose you use fag or gay or bitch, for example, not as slurs for homosexual people or women but rather as general terms of offense. You can easily convince yourself that you’re not using sexist or homophobic language. After all, you might think to yourself, I merely called my dog a fag, and I know very well that he’s straight from how he tries to mount the bitches at the dog park. You tell yourself, I’m not using the word to describe him as homosexual, and that’s proof that I’m not using it as a gay slur. Nothing wrong with that, you might conclude.

But here’s the counterpoint. We know that no matter how you use fag, it will bring up negative connotations. That’s why slurs are often conscripted as more generic insults—using a slur for one group to insult others works only if you implicitly think the slur is derogatory in the first place. But slurs generalized beyond their original scope often still retain certain stereotypical features of their original target. Calling a man a bitch isn’t a generic insult; it could imply that he’s weak or emotional or has other attributes perceived as more stereotypically feminine. And critically embedded in this is the assumption that having these attributes is bad. So using these terms indirectly perpetuates the idea that people in the defamed group are themselves somehow bad and that having stereotypical characteristics of that group is bad. There’s a lot here that could give offense.

And what’s more, this may not be the most damaging use of slurs. We know that many such words crop up more often in conversations that don’t include members of the targeted groups at all27—the majority of Caucasians use nigger a lot more when African Americans aren’t within earshot. But this is precisely where the consequences of outsider slur use will be felt. We’ve seen that exposure of members of majority groups to slurs affects the way they treat and think about members of the maligned minority group: fag biases heterosexuals against homosexual people, for instance. So the issue with slurs isn’t just what you say around the people the slur defames. It’s also what you say when potentially maligned people aren’t around.

I’ve talked through the consequences of slur use with many, many college-age people in a class I teach on profanity. Some remain undeterred and report that fag is unlikely to disappear from their vocabulary. But others are swayed by the evidence. And remember, a conversation with me, someone who’s not popular in the slightest, accomplished this. One tweet from Kobe Bryant on the use of gay could change literally thousands of interactions. All things being equal, most people would prefer not to do harm, and I find that people who use slurs indirectly usually simply haven’t understood the possible consequences. So that’s the second way that a little knowledge might change how slurs are used.

Here’s the third—reserved for the most intransigent people, those who simply like to offend. You might know these people. You might be these people. If so, you might use slurs for ideological reasons—you might see their use as a free-speech issue. And you’re legally in the right. Profanity, including slurs, is protected speech. If you wanted to, you could walk down the street talking about niggers and cunts as much as you wanted without legal ramifications. Or maybe you enjoy the rise you get out of others when you slip cunt or nigger into conversation. I get it. And I get that even you, staunchest slur supporter, may possibly never be swayed by evidence. But it’s also possible that the following argument for linguistic self-determination will convince you.

Here’s how it goes: As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with writing but probably didn’t,28 “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” I think this adage aptly characterizes how we think about individual rights in a lawful society. Translated to language, you have the legal right to say whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to the next person. A society clearly has a right—and a duty—to outline norms for behavior so that individuals don’t hurt one another. Language is powerful, and it makes sense that some of its uses should be regulated. That’s why the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld limitations on free speech for harmful language, like libel, slander, fighting words, threats, perjury, and so on. And so, if it can be demonstrated that slurs cause harm, and there’s some evidence that they do, then the fist-nose principle applies. Even if the courts haven’t caught up, calling someone nigger or bitch is the linguistic analog of closing your eyes and swinging in full knowledge that there’s a nose within arm’s reach. The fact that you can swing doesn’t mean you should.

With a little more evidence, this could become a legal argument, but I think it’s still compelling as a moral one. If using language is likely to cause others harm, then maybe don’t do it?

Instead, it seems respectful to refer to people and address them using the words they want to be called by. Let’s call this the principle of linguistic self-determination. It’s fertile for abuse, of course, and it could become time-consuming (I want to be called a Featherless-Bipedal-Lacto-Vege-Merican!), but most people aren’t absurdists. And what’s more, we know the strategy of allowing people linguistic self-determination works because it has succeeded in the replacement of Negro and colored with black and African American, of retarded with developmentally challenged, and so on. These efforts take time, but they do demonstrably create lasting change. It’s possible that self-determination is a compelling enough principle to sway even some of the most hard-core slur users.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for a ban on slurs (because, as we saw in the last chapter, that’s ill conceived and counterproductive), and I’m not arguing for violent knee-jerk reactions (in person or online) to people who do use slurs, even when they do so in ways that we believe may cause harm. I’m saying something quite different. In a free society, people are and should be allowed to make their own linguistic choices. But where you have a legitimate difference of opinion (about language or anything), you’re also free to use the power of reason to try to persuade. That’s what I’m doing right now.

And that’s also where we get to the other side of the coin. It’s not just that people who utter slurs might be convinced to use them a little less, at least in ways that denigrate. People who hear them might also be persuaded to temper their reaction. It’s natural for people to have hair-trigger responses to words. (Anytime someone says nigger, it’s a hate crime! Anyone who says bitch should be fired!) And yet, it seems like many of us would be less likely to draw immediate offense, and might enjoy better relationships with more people and more diverse ones at that, if we could overcome our immediate associations with strong words. Slurs might be offensive, but they are only words after all. Because they are neither sticks nor stones, they have to pass through the filter of our brains to cause us harm. And it’s possible that knowing a little about how ephemeral and precarious their power is would allow people to worry somewhat less about superficial things like the words others are choosing. That might create more time for mindful magnanimity—assigning more import to people’s actions and intentions than their word choices.

I guess this goes under the rubric of “tolerance,” but not in the traditional sense. We all tolerate linguistic choices that we disagree with—even the ones we find most vile. Perhaps people who find slurs infuriating can see them for what they are: mere words. Just like any other word, each slur has a history and a future, and neither of these is the same as their present. The knee-jerk reaction to suppress these words is as unlikely a strategy as any to bear fruit. And that’s probably not the worst thing in the world. After all, as George Carlin said,

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves. They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent.29