Hell With It: “Swearing”, Some Thoughts

I got involved in a brief discussion about the concept of “swearing” recently. The whole thing started with one person’s desire for the popular Facebook page “I F-ing Love Science” to change its name (to remove the “F-ing”). This got me thinking about a lot of things that had been percolating in my brain for a while. Here’s the result.

I put the term “swearing” in quotes because I don’t really believe in the concept as such.

First, there have been a number of psychological studies that indicate significant benefits from “swearing”. Psychology Today lists seven positive effects from pain relief to non-violent retribution, elevated endorphins to humor. Positive Psychology News builds on physical pain reduction.

There are cultural elements too. For instance, traveling in Ireland and England, I noticed a tendency among natives to use “swear” words regularly and naturally. I’ve noted their use occasionally when CSPAN airs sessions of Parliament. No one seems to bat an eye, it’s natural not scandalous, in my experience. In Russia, the Kremlin recently put in place a ban on “obscene language”. These particular words, mat, “helped the country survive the brutalities of Stalin-era slave labour camps, win over Nazi Germany in World War II and ride out the turbulence of the Soviet collapse, supporters say.” They were extremely useful for centuries in expressing views about the government and other issues.

In English, at least, virtually all “swear” words focus on bodily functions and sex. Demonizing the words may reinforce the message preached for centuries by Roman (and later Protestant) Christian hierarchy that the body and sex are dirty and bad.

And some claim that the words are used for “shock” value. Honestly, I think that effect died long ago, though it may move in cycles. Few contemporaries, if any, were shocked when Chaucer used “swyve” (the 14th century equivalent of “fuck”) or when Shakespeare throws out his word play on “ass”. In the 1950s, I suppose some folks would be shocked to hear the words. Personally, by third grade (in a Catholic school) I could out-swear the proverbial sailor. Ironically, proscribing their use actually adds to shock value. Making them non-proscribed, commonly used words, weakens the words and lessens their “shock” value. This is one reason I think the “shock” value is gone today.

But, that leaves the question: why proscribe certain words as “obscene” or “swears” and not others?

For the English speaking world, specifically the U.S., I think the answer lies in a mix of religion and classism. I’ll hit the latter first.

How often have we heard that those who “swear” are demonstrating a small vocabulary (e.g. lack of education)? That’s an inherently classist take, based on the old, pre-1940s days when only the upper class regularly attended post-secondary education and the middle class aspired to live like (their rose-tinted view of) the upper class. Shakespeare knew that “swears” were part of the language of the common people, the groundlings. That’s one reason he used them, to connect with the people who made up the majority of his audience. The same is, arguably, true of Chaucer and others.

Religion, specifically Catholicism and its children (Protestants), has had its effect too. Often the claim for a religious proscription of “swearing” is the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This is a major stretch, I think, unless the Biblical deity is named after bodily functions or sex (which, as noted, make up the vast majority of “swear” words in most languages). What the commandment means is not to trivialize the deity’s name or commit blasphemy, it has nothing to do with alternate (commoner, peasant?) words for urine, sex, or feces.  This proscription is, I think, one of thought control, since words shape how we think and how we interact with the world and people around us.

Bill O’Buffoon, or Equality and Straw Men

A few years ago, an older (and rather politically & socially conservative) student referenced an absent student with a learning disability. The first student asked, “You don’t really think she’s equal to you, do you?”

Fairly recently, a notable TV personality, referenced in the title, claimed equality is impossible because he’ll never be a famous basketball player.

My answer to the first inquiry was, “Yes, I do.” My answer to the second is, “Nice straw man fallacy.”

When we talk about equality in society, we don’t mean that everyone can do everything equally well. What we mean is socio-political equality. That is, what we mean by equality is that everyone gets treated the same, legally, socially, and politically.

For example: everyone gets paid the same for doing the same job at the same level of experience, regardless of race, religion, gender, or orientation. Likewise everyone has the same opportunity to nurture their talent, whatever those may be, instead of being held back by the accident of birth into a given socio-economic level or prejudices about race, gender, religion, or orientation (or whatnot).

This does not mean that everyone gets to play professional basketball. But, it does mean that anyone who has a talent for basketball should have an equal chance to potentially play professionally. Likewise, my own talents are in the teaching and writing realms, therefore equality means a fair chance for me to develop and make a living from those talents (despite my total lack of basketball ability), regardless of unchangable factors (e.g. race, gender, orientation, or even religion). The referenced personality’s talents, from what I can see, are conning, bullying people, and fearmongering . . . but are clearly not in formulating logical argumentation.

In the example I started this post with, the absent student was/is a proficient (maybe even talented) computer programmer, something I’ve tried and found that I have no talent for. On the other hand, said student’s writing needed a fair bit of work and did not come easily to her. We’re equal, nonetheless, even though our talents are different and we’ll never be identical.

In short, equality means equal opportunity, not everyone being identical.

P.S. The first student mentioned above was also the inspiration for my morality post as (s)he stridently claimed that religion is an absolute necessity for morality.

Governments Ask Too Many Questions

Societies hidden from normal mankind, organizations even entire cultures existing beneath the common experience of normal society. These are staples in many genres of fiction from fantasy (most sub-genres) to mystery, action to sci-fi. And whenever they appear, some worldbuilding is involved.

The very fact of the existence of hidden societies in a text is worldbuilding. Yes, we have hidden societies in the real world, some more hidden than others – the collegiate greek organizations to the sort of gentlemens’ clubs that have smoking parlors (and no dancers). But the ones in works of fiction are almost exclusively fictitious societies, the creation of the author. Because of the nature of most such societies, the author has to create a world in which hidden societies of a given type can exist and are indeed assumed to exist.

Four major types of hidden society come to mind immediately:

Government Agencies — Whether Jason Bourne’s Treadstone or The Brotherhood of the Rose, the British Secret Service or IM Teams, whether James Patterson or David Morrell, Ian Fleming or someone else, action novels, shows, and movies are filled with top secret government agencies, many of which not even the heads of state are aware of. These agencies are often tasked with assassination, intelligence gathering, or other high stakes missions during which they must maintain a (relatively) low profile for political or other reasons. And we know from a wide range of sources that this sort of organization is not how real world intelligence agencies work, for a variety of reasons (including technology – Bond, Ethan Hunt).

Criminal Organizations — Secret criminal organizations are common fodder as well. From SMERSH to Moriarty to HYDRA, secret criminals and criminal societies are everywhere. Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle created theirs precisely to have a core villain for their respective heroes, and Fleming’s has the added bonus of existing after the Soviet specter died with the Cold War. Marvel comics created their’s, I think, to balance the teams of heroes. It also makes sense that if superheroes band together, supervillains would do so in response.

Secret Societies — The staple of conspiracy thrillers, secret societies add an element of clandestine fear to a story. Whether David Morrell’s society of Merovingian descendants or assassins hunting the Church’s enemies or David Brown’s sinister Catholic sub-organizations, they give readers the sense of accessing some hidden threat. They also give the protagonists a way to kill with impunity, because they’re saving normal society from the hidden threat.

Hidden Magic — Everyone in the world who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last two decades knows about J.K. Rowling’s hidden societies of wizards and witches. Other examples include Tanya Huff’s hidden witch family (The Enchantment Emporium) and Rick Riordan’s hidden societies of Greek demigods, Roman demigods, and Egyptian magicians. In each case, the concealment comes in part from fear – of being hunted, exploited, or bothered, or something else – in large part. But, being hidden also keeps them apart from modern life (except Huff’s) via technology among other things.

What do hidden societies need for their existence?

First, a world in which their existence is assumed (by the writer and the reader). After that, they need a way to remain concealed. This can be the fog that hides Riordan’s demigods from normal mortals to control of some supertechnology to global influence over governments and corporations. How they remain hidden is especially important in contemporary and sci-fi settings as it becomes more difficult to conceal things due to the prevalence of information technology (e.g. camera and video phones, cctv, the interwebs).

Bonus things a hidden society could use include some means of funding (MiB’s patents on velcro, etc.; Treadstone’s federal CIA funding; HYDRA’s crime sprees), facilities, equipment, and transportation (after all, in a post-2001 world, it has become rather difficult to transport weaponry across national borders in many cases, not impossible though).