When I was in my 20s, I used to criticize people who would get, what I deemed, unreasonably offended at hearing a swear word. I resented the fact that movies and TV were censored for dirty language, that a person could get fired for accidentally cussing in front of another full grown adult. This resentment came out of the ignorant belief that, as far as I could tell, there was no logical reason to be offended by swear words. It’s true that the very idea of swear words is an abstract concept that we, as a society, just kind of made up. We pretend there’s some inherent evil within these words even though they cause no apparent physical or mental harm, not even to children. And that’s how I justified my smug indignation: If there was no scientific or logical basis to take offense at swear words, then, clearly, taking offense at swear words was unscientific and illogical, and a society can’t function properly when we treat unscientific and illogical opinions with the same level of importance as opinions based in objective reality, and therefore we should not humor people who believe in stupid things.
Then one day I decided to write a joke about my swear-word beliefs for a stand-up comedy set, but the deeper I thought about it, the more I realized how blinkered my position had been. It occurred to me that the only reason swear words are satisfying to say at all is because people are offended by them. These ever-offended people are the ones who give swear words their power. If no one cared, then swear words might as well not even exist. And what a terrible world that would be. If swear words didn’t exist, what the hell would we say when we hit our thumb with a hammer?
How did people even maintain their sanity before the invention of swear words?
I imagine someone, a long time ago, called a meeting and said, “Listen, I just stubbed my toe on a stump, but there was nothing I could say that could match the intensity of the pain that I felt. We need to come up with a couple of words, words we treat as sacred, words we only use on special occasions so that when we do use them, they feel really good to exclaim, really cathartic and satisfying. But we’ll need people to believe that these words are evil. Because the only way these words can truly exist is if there are people who don’t want them to exist. So let’s spread the idea that they are bad words, words of sin and filth. Here’s a list of profanities I just arbitrarily came up with. Tell your children not to say them. Be really vehement about it so they grow up to tell their children the same thing, and in this way these sacred words will be passed down from generation to generation, and our descendants will have something meaningful to say when they stub their toe or smash their thumb, and this will be our contribution to society.”
All kidding aside, research shows that saying a swear word actually does relieve pain when you hit your thumb with a hammer. And, here’s the kicker, this analgesic effect is most powerful among people who swear the least. So, I was completely wrong. Being offended by and restricting the use of swear words is neither illogical nor unscientific. Swear words, when used gratuitously, really do cause harm. The less sacred we treat these words, the less able we are to call upon them when the hurt becomes too great to bear.
And yet here I was, confidently, arrogantly believing I was right to judge people for being offended by swear words. I actually thought I was doing the world a favor by calling out such ridiculousness. Turns out, I more closely resembled the monkey who declares “I’ll help you” as he places the fish safely up a tree.
In the fog of my self-righteousness, I failed to remember that I can be wrong about anything (and frequently am), no matter how right I might feel, that I can never be totally sure what the big-picture benefits or consequences of any opinion, belief or action might be, and that I should always leave the door open, if only a crack, to the possibility that I could be full of shit.
This is something I will try to remind myself of the next time I feel that all too familiar urge to point my finger and think, “Look at those people. What a bunch of f@%king idiots.”