Curses

By the Inauguration, Americans were swearing in at record levels, at least it seemed. The election had touched off a round of bad mouthing that saturated the country from its nooks and crannies to its elitist parlors.

That barrage had a rising foundation. Swearing pervaded civic and professional life -- from casual lunch counter conversations to blue nose magazines. Movies and pop music had long been loaded with it. In some films, four letter words took steady aim at an increasingly numb audience. I can't be sure this rapid fire cursing wasn't equaled or exceeded in centuries past, but nothing matches the loud speaker ubiquity that's unavoidable now.

The viral appeal of the vile has passed me by, which marks me as a prude. It's not virtue but fear. As a New England Methodist, we were led to believe that taking the Lord's name in vain, or spurting one or another of what George Carlin later bunched as his "seven dirty words," posed bone rattling risks of being struck by divine lightning or, failing that, the reprimand of an elder. Maybe they were doing it elsewhere with impunity, as later encounters would imply, but not my surroundings.

The lightning phobia remains, though diminished, while more significant reasons for keeping it clean have grown stronger in face of the foul-mouthed revolution. My major objection is that swearing is to a greater or lesser degree an act of violence against others who stand in the way. Whether or not it's provoked, it adds fuel to the fire and aims to intimidate hearers, either to exercise dominance or to induce fear. The weapon as I hear it is most often anger or defiance. It may pose as humor, but usually it is a missile aimed at a victim either internal or external to the speaker. Enraged swearing can assert control over those of weaker nature.

To swear effectively requires a certain rhetorical talent which I do not have, so it could be argued that I oppose it simply because I'd be a lousy practitioner. Which I would be. But an article in one of my holy of holy publications, the vaunted New York Review of Books, has tried to knock that excuse out from under me. It is a review of two related books exploring the benefits and joys of potty-mouting.  

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Joan Acoccella, a respected New Yorker writer, cheers the explosion of "liberation" from the shackles imposed presumably by the likes of me. Not only does she see the cursing boom as a First Amendment triumph but as progress in telling raw truth in place of weasly euphemisms ("fudge" and W.C. Fields "Judas Priest" come to mind). Morever, she cites evidence that swearing has a pacifying effect on the swearer. Without unloading the curse, she writes, the angry one might resort to guns or physical attack. In one test, she reports, subjects have their hands in freezing water. Some are allowed to yell profanities; others restricted to plain words like "wood."  "The swearing subjects were able to keep their hands in the water significantly longer than the pure-mouthed group," she reports. Downright cathartic

That does subscribe to the everyday assumption that getting bad stuff out of our systems is a good idea, and swearing certainly seems to do that at least on a temporary basis. I recall my first visit to Mediterranean countries where I'd been told that people were calmer and emotionally healthier because they more often let loose. That had a certain appeal to my repressed side. Alas, so far as I could see those habits didn't significantly reduce the emotional temperature or empty the anger tanks for very long.

Behind cursing inflation lies the real problem: escalating anger throughout the society. The newly recommended treatment, Emergency Medical Swearing, is a symptom of a much more dangerous rise of resentment and helplessness, it seems to me. Even if the uptick in verbal assault did produce some mellowing, the level of disruption is increasing, daily it seems. The wave of cursing might be a significant cause of this spreading toxicity   For the sake of safeguarding the dignity of others, however, I'll try to keep any profanity that may crop up to myself. Now if I can only learn to sit through what I call "movie mouth." 

  


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