Friday, August 28, 2015

Everyday Phenomenology: Profanity

For my next post, I want to talk about the phenomenology of swearing or profanity.

Though I mostly missed the experience of vulgar language in my private middle school and charter high school, I encountered it full force when I went on to study at Westminster College, where many students and even some professors used "swear words" up to and including "f***" (I'm not writing the actual word so that any filters on young readers' internet connections don't block out my blog). It was there that I really started to see profanity in its true colors. And here's a secret: those colors aren't all "bad." We'll get to why that is as we proceed.

Swearing as shock

Let's start with an obvious observation: people swear to get an effect. This is true in all uses of curse words, even if it isn't immediately obvious how so. For instance, when I stub my toe on a rock and say "dammit!," I use that word to "announce" my pain, or rather, to best communicate that pain to those around me. But why do I feel like I need to get across my pain, and why does swearing do the job better than anything else? It's because swear words carry the "shock" of shock value, and therefore because the power in those words corresponds to the pain I'm feeling.

There is a hidden implication here: that--since I need to use the shock value of a swear word to communicate my pain's energy--I feel a need to communicate that energy. To put it another way, I have an innate desire to feel connected to the emotions and thoughts around me. If that weren't the case, I wouldn't feel compelled to announce it. This has a few consequences, first and foremost that I think of it as normal and natural to exist in a continuous, "at-one" state with the people around me. This turns up in the toe-stubbing example because the pain I feel negates that basic sense of oneness with the people in the room. I personally feel less of a desire to swear when I stub my toe in private (that is, less than I would around others), but it is actually still there a bit. Why? I think it's because basic human nature includes a feeling of "pre-sensory togetherness" with others (or rather, a togetherness that I sense as more fundamental or "internal" than sensation), which includes even the potential of someone hearing. In other words, I feel that I naturally should be "together with" those around me, and when I feel a pain that threatens that togetherness, I announce my pain with swear words to correct it.

Swearing as aggression

I could say the same about language in general as I did about swearing just now--that it physically manifests my feeling of basic oneness with others (which is something that Heidegger said in his Being and Time, more or less). But what's unique about curse words is how they establish that unity. Specifically, swearing establishes that unity through force, or rather, through a kind of "aggressive re-alignment" of others' perspectives. Whether in the pain example or in a case where I use a curse word in anger, fear, or even intense pleasure, I feel my emotion as so powerful that I use the expletive to force the other person into the emotion (or at least an intensity intended to correspond with it), whether she likes it or not. There is then a kind of violation of the other's perspective implicit in my use of vulgar language, since it compels the other person to abandon her previous and/or default sense of things and adopt mine. Swearing essentially says: "look at me!," forcing the other person to "turn her head in my direction" and stop noticing what she was paying attention to before.

This is true even in those times I swear from deliberate choice and not just out of an intense emotion. For example, when I use a swear word as an insult (like b***h or a*****e), I swear to aggressively replace the listeners' perception of the person I'm insulting with my own. When I call someone a b***h, I use the word's energetic "shock" to call attention to my insult; if the word has retained its power in my previous use of language (something that doesn't always happen), the listeners can momentarily only give their attention to my insult. The shock of the curse word "draws in" everyone's attention to it. In the case of insults, a swear word belittles the "insultee," or rather, it makes her "be little" in the hearers' eyes. The energy of the "shock" calls attention to her, only in a negative way. Though you may not agree with me when I use this insulting expletive, the way I use it makes you consider its object at least in the context of my insult. In other words, the insult makes everything you think about her arise with the insult in mind, either in agreement or disagreement. If I hadn't said the swear word, your thoughts about her would simply exist in their own context and not one I forcefully provided for them.

But what about those people who use profanity in a cavalier way, whose every other word is "f*** this" or "f*** that?" This is also a show of aggression, yet one that tries to use the recontextualizing involved with profanity on a more comprehensive scale. For instance, you'll often find that these people are in a liberal or counter-cultural crowd. That is, they want to protest the established order of things on a deep level, and one way that they find helpful for doing that is to use constant vulgarity. Why is this? The culture that they fight against is one that doesn't swear, and so they aggressively try to recontextualize that culture through their curse words. Counter-culturals like these use so many expletives because that language shocks the traditional elements of the society and so calls attention to themselves in the way described above. But more than that, it forces the conservative listener to pay attention to their perspective and at least consider it. Does this mean that all cavalier swearing is politically induced? No, because many times people do it to try joining the "in crowd", and it is this "in crowd" that has political motivations. It might not even start consciously; all it takes is someone who feels daring enough to go against the his hometown thinks. In that respect it's a way to aggressively assert my independence, a task that is admittedly very needed in life. But swearing is perhaps one of the more inconsiderate ways to do this, since it necessarily involves a violation of others' perspectives

There is another kind of cavalier swearing, though, one somewhat familiar to professional comedy. Take Lily Allen's pop song "F*** You," for example: it uses the word "f***" as just another word, here in place of the "thank" in "thank you, thank you very much." This has a very peculiar effect: it uses the word's "shock" power in a context inappropriate for it, and as a result it "shows" us the nature of the word itself. By saying "f*** you" in place of "thank you," Lily Allen's song gives me a contrasting "background" by which to see "f***"'s power, and then something fascinating happens: I realize that the "the F word" is really just another word. To think, I say, all this time I've been fearing a word that has four letters and rhymes with "duck!" Because this is an eruption of meaning, this has the effect of the punchline to a joke, meaning that it strikes me as funny. In reality, all humor is characterized by this eruption of meaning, something I'll hopefully get to in another post.

But what about a comedian that--though he swears a lot and is funny--at least seems to be serious? He's still funny by how much he swears, and yet there apparently isn't the context mentioned above to provide the needed contrast for humor. And yet there is: the needed "mundane" context shows up in how we expect the comedian to act, and when he goes against that implied context, we find it hilarious.

Swearing as dominance

And yet not everyone finds them funny; some, even many, would be offended. Why? It's because these people respect the contexts where they find themselves, and they would prefer them not to be violated. This presents a stark contrast to those who love to be "cursed at" in a friendly way, and so the question arises as to what this difference consists in. I'd suggest that those who like others to amicably swear at them are comfortable experiencing themselves and their own perspectives in a submissive way, whereas the swearer experiences herself or himself as dominant. Swearing is thus an image of or correspondence to the act of physical intimacy, one that I don't need to stress. But nevertheless, there is a kind of intimacy presumed by two or more persons' comfort with swearing to each other--one that consists in my willingness to have my perspective forcefully removed, to be recontextualized.

Moreover, we can conceive of the way religions can protest the use of profanity as similar to the way they protest against premature intimacy. Both involve a perceived disrespect of proper boundaries, the one in terms of physical bodies and the other in terms of mental points of view. This could also imply that the way certain thinkers conceive of chastity (like Adam S. Miller and mystical Taoists, for example) as a conservation of spiritual energy has a parallel with swearing. In other words, if I use my swear words inappropriately, I discharge a weight of meaning that is better used elsewhere.

Does this mean that we should never swear? Though others might say so, I disagree. Words as bad as f*** should be carefully guarded, like a secret, and disclosed only in those cases where the meaning is appropriate enough. What are those cases? I've only ever said f*** when I learned it for the first time as a child, so you could say that I'm saving it for something special. Maybe I'll use it once in my life; then the meaning inherent in it would be very manifest--as powerful as words can come.

What about taking the Lord's name in vain, though? This is different from other swear words, and the prohibition against it comes from their confusion. If I use a religious expletive, I am using the energy inherent in God's name (at the very least one just ensured by a cultural taboo) as the form of aggression and dominance mentioned above. God's name should be used powerfully, but never in this way; to confuse the two uses of power is to muddle my thinking, to confuse sacredness with willpower. And that is pride.

Well, that's that for this post. Till next time!

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