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Last week, Fynn Bailey published a column arguing that we as a culture need to be less stringent in our censoring of profanity and instead focus more on censoring slurs.
While I agree with Bailey that we shouldn’t be using coercion to keep people from swearing — fining them, firing them, etc. — it’s important that we continue to condemn them as we traditionally have, at least when used in contexts not befitting the kinds of emotions swear words are meant to signify.
Bailey seems to think that it’s the denotative meaning of swear words themselves that we find offensive, saying “Swear words just aren’t that bad. The vast majority of them are either bodily functions or related to God, neither of which have an inherent negativity.”
But no words are inherently negative. Words are just sounds and squiggles that, when used repeatedly in certain contexts, obtain certain meanings. We can freely use words like “sex,” “coitus” and “fornicate” without being censored even though they mean the same thing as “f*ck.”
This is because it isn’t the action the words describe that we find offensive, but rather the emotional weight that a word like “f*ck” carries with it — an emotional weight that is only maintained by restricting our use of the word to the most select, emotionally-charged situations.
Thus, censoring slurs only gives greater weight and power to words and ideas that are false, unnecessary and unproductive.
It’s the fact that the word “f*ck” is collectively recognized as taboo and actively censored that makes it so impactful. When someone is willing to use a word that our culture has intentionally worked to suppress, it’s a much stronger indicator of their emotional state and their feelings toward what they’re saying.
Now, one might say, “But if the only thing that gives these words power is our culture’s collective decision to imbue them with power and maintain their power by keeping them taboo, then couldn’t we just as easily stop treating them as taboo and rob them of their power?”
The answer is yes, we could. But given the crucial role language — and specifically verbal language — plays in our culture, it’s inevitable that we will develop words that convey the kinds of emotions indicated by swear words.
This, in turn, is what propagates our culture’s use of slur words — the slur words that Bailey suggests we should make a more conscious effort to discourage. Because our culture has more or less normalized the use of traditional swear words, we have become desperate to find words that can convey the same sense of shock those words once instilled. Slurs do this.
Bailey is right in his assertion that, in the modern age, calling someone a “f*g” is much more harmful than calling them a “motherf*cker” or a “sh*t.” That’s precisely why people are more inclined to use the word “f*g” when insulting someone rather than the word “motherf*cker.” Their intention is to insult them.
And because we make a more deliberate attempt to censor the word “f*g,” our cultural aversion to it is much stronger. This in turn gives it more power and makes our use of it more impactful. And that’s what we want our words to do; we want them to have an impact and to be felt by others, not simply heard.
Like swear words (and all words), slurs and pejoratives get their power exclusively from the contexts in which they are used.
However, while swear words are used as a means of simply denoting real emotions, albeit emotions that don’t manifest themselves in a tangible way, slurs implicitly link the cause of these emotions — these negative emotions — to specific groups and sets of people.
But this implied connection is false, which in turn makes these words objectively meaningless and therefore not worthy of the kind of power we bestow on them. Thus, censoring slurs only gives greater weight and power to words and ideas that are false, unnecessary and unproductive.
This doesn’t mean we should start using slurs in our everyday language in an effort to drain them of their meaning. Obviously slur words carry a lot of weight in our current time period.
However, our approach to dealing with these should not be to actively ban them from our vernacular, but rather to expose their falsity, idiocy and meaninglessness. When we do that, the slurs will slip away of their own accord because they will cease to have the same impact that they do today.
Meanwhile, we need to do a better job of actively maintaining our understanding of the weight that curse words carry since they more accurately and effectively (if still incompletely) link the feelings we are attempting to convey through our use of slurs to the actual, universal human experiences that compel them.
Scott Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @scottysseus.