Gosh Darn It All To Heck!
If you have read much of my writing, here on WorkShark, on Twitter, Instagram, and even Facebook, or talked to me IRL, you have probably noticed a few things.
I am a prolific writer (when the brain fog allows).
I am an outspoken, opinionated woman.
I am well educated.
And, when in the confines of my own personal spaces (that is to say, when I’m not giving lectures or writing articles for publication in journals), I cuss… a good bit!
It has been brought to my attention, about 10,000 times by this point in my life, that there are people in the world who do not like profanity. That they see it as vulgar, ugly, un-ladylike, offensive, and harsh. I have had people comment on my articles for my personal blog (sometimes picked up by other sources such as The Mighty) and say how much they love my writing, but I should really stop swearing. It detracts. It is offputting. It makes me sound angry. It makes me sound uneducated.
Recently I was privately messaged and told that the things I share on here, on social media… that the messages are good, but my vulgar language “has a negative effect on a lot of people.” That I need to stop swearing immediately. And I won’t lie… while tone-policing is not something that is new to me, it always catches me a little off guard when it comes from people close to me. Specifically more open-minded, educated folks. It also is one of my least-favourite things, and one of my biggest pet peeves. I’m going to talk to you about why, and why I speak the way I do. And yes, as always, this will contain a hell of a lot of goddamn adult fucking language.
So, first of all, let’s shoot down a few myths about using profanity:
Claim: It’s harmful language
Fact: according to psychological scientists, upon review and extensive study of over 10,000 recorded episodes of the use of profanity by children and adults, swearing in public spaces has almost-never caused negative consequences, has never caused physical violence, and more often than not results in either a neutral or positive reaction. Studies have also totally disproved that profanity negatively effects children in any way.
(you know what does, though? Yelling, manipulation, verbal abuse, neglect, gaslighting, and so on)
Claim: It is offensive
Fact: Well… that’s a hard one to refute, as it is SO subjective. Statistically, swearing is found most offensive in a few specific situations. One is amongst religious or very morally conservative groups, which is no surprise. The other, which I find very fascinating and telling (especially when you consider the tone-policing) is between perceived classes. For instance, if someone working minimum wage swears, even in a casual conversation with someone who makes six figures, it’s considered far more offensive than if two wall street guys cuss while conversing with each other. Or someone younger and therefore perceived as “owing respect” to an older individual. It’s a very classist and elitist distinction, and it's antiquated and hella unacceptable.
Claim: It makes you sound uneducated
Fact: Studies have shown that individuals who swear more actually tend to be more intelligent and have a more diverse and complex vocabulary than those who do not. One study at Marist College actually showed that verbal fluency correlated very strongly with use of profanity. So someone who cusses a lot is likely able to talk you under the table with what my partner calls “smarty pants words.” Perhaps cussin’ is the apotheosis of communication amongst intellectuals? ;)
My own opinion on this is, look… I give lectures, write articles, and teach classes regularly on the intricacies of acid-base homeostasis, the formation of histamines and the connection with anaphylaxis, the causes and effects of trauma on the brain and the neurological effects thereof, the chemistry of the tea you drink. I chatter in my free time about the discovery of the Higgs Boson and high energy physics, organic chemistry, phytochemistry, biotechnology, neurology, ecology, botany, and miscellaneous tidbits of art history, religion, politics, and current events. I spend a lot of my time reading everything I can get my hands on. So if you can have a conversation with me about dark matter, attend my lecture on mast cell overstimulation, read my article on the different occurrences of fluoride and fluoridation, and then feel I sound unintelligent because I get fucking excited about something, I mean… Okay.
Claim: It makes you sound angry
Fact: So, I get this one a lot in response to my articles about my illnesses and disabilities. On articles about inaccessibility, oppression, trauma, and abuse. And, I mean… I don’t know what to tell you. I probably sound angry because I am? Sometimes I swear for emphasis, or humor, or dramatic effect, or because it feels right. But often times I cuss because I am, in fact, passionate or angry about something. If you look back at some of these articles that have been accused of “sounding angry because of swearing,” I can guarantee that if you took out the profanity they would still sound angry/frustrated. Because I was when I wrote it! That was the message I was conveying. However, when I say “I fucking love this waterfall so much!” do I sound angry? Of course not! Why? Because *drum roll* I’m not angry. I am excited, passionate, enraptured, in love, stunned, smitten, and giddy. It’s almost as if the emotion delivered by words has less to do with the words themselves and more to do with the context, presentation, and feelings behind them. Hm….
Claim: It makes you sound unladylike
Fact: I DON’T FUCKING CARE! Also, we need to dismantle that sort of bullshit, antiquated, oppressive, gendering, confining stereotyping. That sort of sexist ideology is what is actually damaging here.
I could go on for days addressing misconceptions. But I won’t, because I don’t have the time. I want to tell you one other neat thing about profanity, then I’m going to address a much bigger issue. One that won’t get your mouth washed out with soap, but probably should.
Neat fact: A study done in 2009 showed that the use of profanity aids in pain management. For real! It’s why when you stub your toe, you probably yell “GOD DAMNIT!” The theory about why this works is that the hypoalgesic (pain lessening) effect of cussin’ is caused by the fact that swearing initiates the “fight or flight” response, quelling the link between fear of pain and pain perception. As someone with unbelievable chronic pain, you can imagine why this study stood out to me…
Ok. I want to address a really sneaky, pervasive, and utterly (actually) damaging thing now. Tone Policing.
Tone Policing is a silencing tactic used to keep marginalized groups from being able to share their experiences. It is a tool used most often by those in places of privilege to distract from the content of a statement and instead attack the emotion or tone that goes along with it. It is asking people who are suffering to do so in silence, which is incredibly psychologically damaging. This relates closely to the whole “civility” conversation. It is something I see often when talking about my pain, my disabilities, my experiences, my rage at the oppression by our government, and so on.
At this point you might rightly note that, in the example waaaay up above, with the person messaging me to tell me not to cuss about how excited I am about waterfalls, that that’s not really trying to silence a minority group talking about their oppression. And you’d be right. But I propose that this is still tone policing. It is still overlooking the message of the post (I am so happy, this place brings me joy, it brought me joy when I was very alone, I hope it brings you joy too) in order to focus on tailoring the verbiage to make others happy at the expense of my own honest expression. And I’m not doing it. Sorry. Not now, not ever. But even more so, I think it is a symptoms of how pervasive tone policing (as well as gaslighting and other “subtle” abuses) is becoming. It’s no longer being reserved to “tactfully” and sneakily tell people of color to get back in their place, or for queer folks to return to their closets, or for disabled folks to sit down and be respectful, or for women to get back to the kitchen. It’s become such a common and accepted thing that people have become comfortable trying to adjust other peoples personal conversations to suit their own preferences. To suit their own comfort, again, at the expense of the other persons experience. And y’all, that’s messed up!
So, as I said on Twitter the other day, if you follow someone who uses profanity and that is a problem for you, just unfollow them. Unfriend them. Block them. Whatever you need to do. But the answer is definitely not to hit them up and ask them to change a scientifically-proven harmless behavior because you personally don’t like it. The fact that you mask your swearing with f*ck’s, and gosh darnit’s doesn’t change anything. Trust me, people can be extremely, actually damaging, hurtful, and abusive without saying “fuck” or “shit” once. People can say “DAMN!” or “holy hell” all day long without it harming a soul. Let’s get off our high horses of verbal superiority and get real with what messages we are actually sending.
I swear. Kind of a lot sometimes. There are a lot of reasons behind it that aren’t worth getting into right now. But I’m down with harmless language. But at the same time, I am aware that language is powerful. I don’t use racial slurs. I don’t use sexist terminology. I am continuing to remove ableist terminology from my vocabulary. I even avoid using words like “crazy” or “insane” to describe things, as it perpetuates the idea that mental health is either a joke, or dangerous. And on the other hand, I try to never misgender my friends or use their dead names. I endeavor to always tell people when they’ve done things well, and that I appreciate them. I write letters to people to tell them their work has inspired me. I put kindness above niceness. And that, I think, is more than many people can say.
This is not an “oh damn, look how amazing I am!” post. Ugh, no. But I do want to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that people get really upset about profanity, but will use the n-word, or talk about how “mentally ill the president is,” or refer to our native people as “Indians,” or call her “him,” or slut-shame, or share conspiracy theories about other’s disabilities, or call for civility in the face of fascism and not bat an eyelash. And that’s absolute shit. Your words have power. Use the ones that bring you to life, but also don’t harm others. Profanity does not harm anyone (it may offend people, but that’s a different story entirely), but ableist, sexist, racist, tone policing, gaslighting, manipulative, hateful speech absolutely does. Use your words for good, my loves! Call out actually harmful language and actions, but stop telling other people how to talk because of your personal preference, for fucks sake.