I have always taken issue with the long-established, socially accepted concept that there are certain words that must be considered “bad”. As a human being, I find the notion laughable. As a writer, I find that it borders on offensive.
Most will agree that writing is an art form, a craft, even if the finished work does not appear on a canvas or if its pages are filled with letters rather than musical notes. But we do not tell the painter that he must only use certain hues so as not to exclude the color-blind, nor would we ask a composer to omit crescendos out of respect for those who do not care for loud music. To do so would alter, obscure, perhaps even destroy the message and purpose of their work and would fail in its goal of evoking a specific emotion from the audience.
Contrastingly, a writer can be criticized for his use of “vulgar” language or graphic imagery and if their work is adapted for the screen, most often it has been changed in to something nearly unrecognizable in an effort to make it more marketable.
We do not shield our youth from Renaissance art, which often depicts the nude form. Yet we are banning classic literature from schools because there are parents who would rather their children not be exposed to some of the greatest stories in existence – simply because the occasional “dirty” word appears here and there. But are these not the same parents allowing them to watch TV and movies with gratuitous sexual conduct and to play video games which allow them to partake in committing acts of unspeakable violence? It’s okay to role play fucking a hooker, killing her, and then taking your money off of her fresh corpse…it’s just not okay to read about.
But I’ll move away from the imbalance between artistic mediums as far as standards of decency to which they are subjected. When it comes to art, all of it is vulnerable to judgment based on the critic’s own subjective interpretation, which in turn is influenced by the character and life experience of the critic himself. We don’t analyze art using a checklist or a formula even though we may recognize a specific method the artist has used to trigger a certain response or project a certain appearance. In the end it is about how it makes us feel. We are all different, and human beings can not be broken down in to a checklist.
Perhaps this is why words are such an easy target. If we are not painters, we do not paint; if we can not read music, we do not play the piano. The paintbrush and the musical instrument are tools we may choose to master or avoid. This is not true with words, because while we may not all be writers we all use words. We are exposed to them on a daily basis. It is easy to ignore a song you dislike playing in the background at the doctor’s office or to disregard a hideous painting hanging in a hotel lobby. Words, on the other hand, are inescapable and one does not need to be a master of language to use them. Could it be that the sheer abundance of words and the frequency of situations in which they play a role have established the probability that some will be deemed offensive?
Yes and no. Certainly probability would have an impact, but what it ultimately comes down to is etymology and the inherent vulnerability of definition, the ease with which we can transform a word’s accepted usage from proper to slang to derogatory. Words have the beautiful characteristic of being malleable and yet it is this very characteristic that so often banishes them to the realm of the risque.
Take the word ‘cunt’, which is widely acknowledged as being the most offensive thing one can utter, particularly when it is directed at a woman. In its earliest form, which dates back to ancient Egypt, it was a harmless word that translated to ‘woman.’ But even in its present form, the word ‘cunt’ did not always bear the burden of repugnance; Anglo-Saxons used it as a common word for female genitalia and it appeared frequently in the works of history’s most celebrated writers, including Chaucer. Although it is impossible to pinpoint a specific moment in time that ‘cunt’ was doomed to be taboo, most linguists agree that, because the word ‘cunt’ sounds so powerful, a patriarchal society driven by fear of female strength and sexual desire is responsible for its transition from “good” to “bad”.
Then there is the issue of context, which produces vast amounts of hypocrisy in censorship. In Katy Perry’s song “Last Friday Night”, the focus is essentially getting so trashed that she can’t remember what she did that night. There is also a line in which she sings ‘then had a menage a tois’. I have heard this song countless times but not once have I ever heard the phrase ‘menage a tois’ censored.
In contrast, I can think of numerous songs in which the artist sings about smoking weed or getting high – the words ‘weed’ and ‘high’ are nearly always edited out. This seems to imply that we are more comfortable allowing our youth to hear about sexual promiscuity and excessive drinking than smoking a bowl. Granted, possession and sale of marijuana is illegal – but so is underage drinking, and it’s probably safe to assume that most of Perry’s fans are under the legal drinking age.
Perception. It boils down to perception, doesn’t it? What is appalling to some is not necessarily appalling to others; there are people who do not make swear words part of their every day speech, but not all of them will claim that they are offended when they hear them. Many of us have changed the chanmel when we come across a movie like “The Godfather” that has been edited for TV – it’s just not the same, it’s not believable, for a violent mobster not to swear. And who hasn’t rolled their eyes when they hear insipid replacement phrases like ‘what the fudge’ or ‘gosh darn it’? With so many contradictions and exceptions to the rules, the stigma of bad words should not be prevalent as it is.
As a parent, I reject the unspoken requirement that I teach my children words like ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ are bad. And – prepare to grab your torches, folks – I don’t refrain from swearing around them either (I don’t swear at them of course). Instead I have explained to them that some of the words I use, they are not allowed to say, and this is mostly because I don’t care to deal with the backlash from school administrators and other parents. But I do not tell them it’s because they are bad words. I tell them that they are grown up words, they are words that only adults may use should they choose to do so. I have never, not once, had to discipline them for uttering a bad word.
Of course, there are some words that I teach them are bad and that they should not say. And they are: fat, stupid, ugly, hate, and can’t.
As far as I’m concerned, if my children find themselves in a situation where they must be verbally scathing to someone they dislike, I’d much rather they tell them to go fuck themselves than to tell them they’re fat.