In Praise Of Profanity

Cursing … is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech. … The earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. …

“Studies show that if you’re with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear,” Burridge said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here, I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.’ ” Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence. …

Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center. … Chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash. (more)

My parents were very religious. They never drank alcohol, gambled, or used profanity. Since leaving them I’ve become comfortable with alcohol, and with gambling on important topics, but I’ve never been comfortable with profanity. Yet on refection, that is mostly a problem with me, not with profanity. Let me explain.

Traditionally, lower classes did hard physical labor, and as a result wore tough work clothes, and had skin that was callused, tanned, and wrinkled. Upper classes showed that they were too rich or skilled for such work by wearing fragile clothes and having soft smooth light skin. Similarly, upper classes have often nurtured polite language, avoidance of direct insult, and a heightened sensitivity and squeamishness on topics like sex or excrement. Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments. Just as it can be important to judge physical strength and toughness when allocating workers to hard physical labor, it can also be important to judge emotional toughness for tasks that may be emotionally stressful.

So lower class cultures tend to not only have more demonstrations of physical strength and toughness, including dangerous dares, fist fights, and excess drinking, such cultures also tend to have more direct and aggressive verbal challenges as well as profanity, insults, teasing, and taunting. People are even given nicknames that highlight their embarrassing weaknesses.

Such habits not only let lower class workers distinguish themselves from upper class managers and customers, they also help such workers to better express and gauge their physical and emotional weaknesses and strengths. This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress. This includes surgeons, warriors, finance traders, movie makers, and restaurant servers.

Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity, in an apparent attempt to impose high class cultural standards on other classes. We should expect this to raise our status in the eyes of the world, even as it reduces the functionality of workgroups who strain against the limits of their capacities.

I also expect us to allow exceptions for work we consider to be especially important, like war and movies. I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.

If the world continues to get richer and more pampered, expect more rules against profanity in places that want to show themselves as high status. If, however, the world ever returns to really needing to get things done, expect any such rules to be mostly ignored, as people focus on productivity.

The em world scenario that I’ve been working on should have low wages, more competition, and work groups pushed to the limits of their emotional abilities, even as differences in physical abilities disappear. Em kids would also be rare, and rarely mix with adults. This all suggests that em work groups would more often adopt traditional working class habits, except emphasizing emotional over physical toughness. Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.

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