Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Utility of Cursing

In the ancient days of my adolescence, cursing was a joyful kind of rule breaking. We knew it was wrong, our mothers told us so. I actually had my mouth washed out with a particularly nasty tasting brown soap once.

It became a badge of our assumed manhood to sprinkle our language with profanities. But such words were not for mixed company. Women were then treated as a more decent, clean branch of the human race. Of course, regular beatings in Catholic school helped enforce the badness and dirtiness of these words in our minds.

Today's NY Times has an interesting piece on several studies about cursing that have recently been published. Much of the gist of these studies is that cursing serves the purpose of venting anger and thereby avoiding violence. There are also suggestions that the free exchange of forbidden words among the members of a group serves as a kind of binding mechanism. If people are free to use any words with one another, they are expressing their togetherness and openness with one another.

In my first post-college job as a welfare caseworker, most of my coworkers were women. I clearly remember my shock at the open, casual and almost universal use of four letter words. My experience would seem to verify that in the face of the high pressure burdens of large caseloads of very needy people, a group of workers from all religious and ethnic backgrounds will seek comfort and release in the shared violation of a social norm.

Shock soon melted into a joyful acceptance in this shared badness. It felt good. It did reduce internal conflict and it allowed us to blow off the stress of our jobs and keep coming back for more.

The Times also provides the political context for this issue, which is the bill currently in the Senate that would fine broadcast stations and broadcasters up to $500,000 for the use of so called obscenities on the air. This is one of the disturbing trends of our growing nanny state. In this case Republicans, seeking to pander to their religious supporters appear willing to further supress free expression. Will the person who recently told V.P. Chenney to, "go fuck himself", be subject to a fine for offensive speech in a newly purified America? I hope not.

One group trying to mount an opposition to this kind of nonsense is TV Watch. Check out their website and sign up if you agree.