One of the implicit rules I set for myself with this space is that I avoid cursing as part of my discursive style. Though I don’t shy away from making use of my full vocabulary where I think it’s appropriate (I wonder sometimes if I should be more careful using flashy words like “discursive”), I’ve made a conscious choice to avoid using language to which some readers might be sensitive. I also try to avoid using language that’s outside the norm of conversation in a setting where young children are present. That’s my educator’s training coming through; I instinctively curb my own language when I realize that children may be around. Part of this instinct is built on the understanding that some kinds of language aren’t appropriate for a formal education setting, and part of it is deference to social stigmas. All of it is a recognition that different rhetorical modes are appropriate for different circumstances.
Contrasting with the voice I use here, I’m much more informal on my other social media. Facebook (when I bother to use it anymore) is a place where I choose to be more conversational. I’m more inclined to leave off self-referential subjects in my writing, and when I offer an opinion I try to minimize the use of loaded language to communicate personal emotions. This creates a space where moments of heightened emotion come through extra clear to my audience (the go-to example at this point is my stint of very angry posts in the weeks following the presidential election; my emotions were running high, and I wanted people to know that so I was less measured in what I wrote). On Twitter, my voice is even less formal than Facebook. Part of this is because of the length restriction on Twitter, and part is because the audience I have on Twitter is built around communicating with adults with similar interests whom I don’t necessarily know from family, school, or work. This is the online space most similar to my real life social group, and that makes it the space where I feel most comfortable writing in a way that reflects my mode of expression when I’m among like-minded peers.
In these other spaces I make use of my full vocabulary; that includes all the curse words that I know. I typically use curses for emphasis, to convey especially strong negative emotions, or for humorous effect. They never come out of nowhere, and they’re always employed with an eye towards producing a specific rhetorical effect. I’m not a perfect communicator, so I’m sure that I fail to produce the effect I’m aiming for some percentage of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that I pick my language for different situations with deliberation. When I curse in conversation, it has a purpose; it’s never a failure to find better words.
In my last job at the special education school, I worked with a lot of students who made frequent use of profanity. This was to be expected because the population was comprised of children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders; they often couldn’t process their feelings or manage their behaviors in ways that are socially appropriate. These kinds of disabilities are frustrating and often feel restrictive (the mark of a student with any kind of EBD is usually a sense of genuine remorse for their actions following an episode because they know their behavior isn’t appropriate, but they haven’t learned how to better manage the impulses), and when people feel frustrated they look for ways to express that frustration. While being constantly exposed to students cursing was dismaying at first, I grew accustomed to it and gradually developed a less judgmental view of their language choices.
The thing that I realized with my students was that for most of them, the major struggle was expressing negative emotions appropriately. They generally would feel all emotions more intensely, but negative emotions were the most difficult to manage because we don’t have a lot of socially acceptable ways to express negative emotions. Much of our everyday interactions with people are built around hiding when we feel sad or angry because these are difficult emotions to process and part of the social contract involves not burdening other people with your own problems. Most of us are socialized to be averse to the idea of asking others to perform emotional labor through shared experience of personal hardships. For my students, their disabilities made the fact of this social dynamic especially difficult, since it carries with it the added implication that experiencing negative emotions is bad. For a child with a disability that prevents them from properly socializing, this extra stigma is tough, and it can create feelings of resentment. I can’t express my feelings in a way that you like, so I’m going to just try to express them however I can. Cursing, for someone who feels powerless, becomes a way to exert control because it forces other people who’ve been socialized to avoid that behavior to confront it and give the person speaking attention. It’s unpleasant for most of us, it’s jarring when we aren’t exposed to it regularly, and it makes us uncomfortable.
That’s not a bad thing though.
The philosophy I’ve adopted with regard to cursing in my students now is a much less restrictive one. School policy demands that students follow established guidelines for appropriate behavior; if a student curses in my earshot I have to correct them. My correction, however, doesn’t have to be a moment of shaming the student for breaching the social contract. I can take the opportunity to remind them that in the specific setting where they are (in a classroom, in the presence of adults), they should avoid cursing, but I don’t put a blanket ban on the practice. It’s a part of the full range of human expression, and as long as it’s not being used in ways that directly denigrate or dehumanize another person, it’s a fair part of the language toolbox.
While we’re on that subject, let’s talk briefly about what I mean when I say “denigrate or dehumanize another person.” I’m cool with people using whatever colorful curses they like, but I take issue with any kind of slur that’s built around an inherent part of a person’s identity. Racial slurs, words preserved exclusively for insulting women, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist language are right out (avoiding ableist language is the hardest one for me personally, mostly because it’s a part of language that is largely invisible to most able-bodied people). I’m not saying these kinds of words are off limits to people who belong to targeted groups (there’s a rich conversation to be had surrounding the reclamation of hurtful words), but as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender man I don’t have any legitimate claim to those words.
The irony of these words that I don’t allow myself to use is that they run the gamut from words that are treated as curses to denotatively benign words. Some of the words that I don’t say also happen to be words everyone acknowledges are socially unacceptable. These words tend to get lumped in with other curses that are socially taboo, but which carry non-derogatory meanings. Folks who object to cursing altogether don’t see any difference between one kind of language and another, which leads to shaming the use of certain words for the wrong reasons. It’s this logic that leads some white people to be offended at the utterance of the n-word without being equally alarmed by a white person calling a Black man, “boy.” You shouldn’t do either because of the social history of the words themselves and their context, but the former example is also taboo because the n-word is acknowledged by white people to be impolite; people who put a blanket ban on cursing are often guilty of shaming one while overlooking the other irrespective of shared connotations of disrespect for a person based on the color of their skin.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here in my roundabout way is that the use of curse words is not a marker of intellectual or moral deficiency. It’s, at worst, a marker of a person disregarding social norms. Given that basic understanding, the thing to ask the next time you hear someone curse in your presence is why they are choosing to break social norms. Interrogate that communication decision instead of making a classist assumption that they are acting in a way that is uneducated or that they lack a moral center.
That’s just rude.