“Clean your language. Be a role model. You should use better words than f***. You may have a good message but the words you use are no good!”
“Someone sent me your post on ‘Finding your passion.’ It was good, but it was presented in a rather disrespectful way. Please cut out the bathroom language, and maybe you’ll get more ‘likes.'”
“Do you have to use such horrible language? Expand your vocabulary! You could be a good writer if you cleaned up your act.”
When I started blogging in 2007, I simply tried to write the same way I spoke. Honest. Clear. And with a lot of profanity.
I was a potty mouth. I could be vulgar and crude at times. I probably wrote a lot of things that would embarrass me if I read them today. But I was young and my only readers were a few of my guy friends. So it didn’t matter.
Once I was read by more people, the complaints began to come in. First, it was in a trickle. But as my popularity grew, that trickle became a steady stream of “Don’t you have anything better to say?” and “Only stupid people use those words because they can’t think of anything else to use!”
Eventually, there came a point a few years ago where I really had to sit down and ask myself if it was worth it. Was there any purpose to my profanity, or was it just a bad juvenile habit that one should grow out of, like biting one’s nails or wearing the same underwear two days in a row?
I asked myself two serious questions: 1) Is this kind of language benefitting me, and if so, how? And 2) is it worth alienating a large number of people because of some of the words I choose to use?
As you can probably fucking tell by now, I answered the above with 1) yes, it is and 2) yes, fuck ‘em.
I’ll explain my reasons in a minute.
But first, I want to back up for a second and address the most bullshitty of bullshit complaints about profanity: that swear words have no purpose in language, and that people only use them when they are too lazy to think of anything better to say.
Why Profanity Matters
Let’s be real for a second: swear words are just words. And what makes them offensive or inoffensive is entirely arbitrary.
Swear words exist in every language and their severity is not always the same. Saying something is “fucked up” in English is generally much less appropriate than saying it in Brazilian Portuguese or Spanish. Whereas calling someone an asshole or a bitch is considered fairly mild in English but much more offensive in the romance languages.
This is true even within the same language. The word “cunt,” for example, is used often between friends joking around in the UK or Australia. But say it to most North Americans and you can be pretty sure their jaw will drop to varying degrees. In fact, “the c-word” is considered by many Americans as the most offensive thing you can say right now.
The meaning of words evolve and change and therefore, so does their level of offensiveness. In 17th century English, “occupy” was considered a horribly offensive word. Apparently, the only connotation it had at the time was the occupation of someone’s vagina. Now, we occupy many things… we occupy Wall Street, airplane bathrooms, parking spaces, bus seats, and of course, people’s vaginas.
Words such as “nigger” or “faggot” make us recoil today. But generations ago they were commonplace and accepted. These words have become offensive today because our culture and values have changed. Treating black people or gay people like crap used to be “OK” and accepted by mainstream culture. Now it is generally looked down upon. As it should.
Because this is the real role of profanity and offensive language: it ropes off and divides what is deemed ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ thinking by the culture at large.
That’s the point of swear words. They are a group of words or ideas that society has gotten together and designated as inappropriate or undesirable. They are words that have been designated as weapons meant to hurt somebody or shame somebody. They are words that are sharpened by society and ready to cut.
Therefore, profanity serves an important social purpose. It highlights what is socially accepted as “normal” and “right,” while at the same time providing words that can be occasionally deployed to shock or shame others back into conformity. Swear words are signifiers for non-conformist thoughts. And as such, they have a tendency to shock and grab attention. And when used consciously, they have the power to challenge or even overthrow the status quo.
The Idea that Swear Words Have No Literary Value is Bullshit
Take this headline for example. I could have just as easily written, “The Idea That Swear Words Have No Literary Value is Baloney.” Or “The Idea That Swear Words Have No Literary Value is False.” The first one would have been cheesy. The second would have been dull and academic.
But using the word “bullshit” here accomplishes a number of things no other word could accomplish. First of all, irony. Swear words open up all sorts of opportunities for irony.
It’s like the difference between saying, “I’m a sophisticated guy,” and saying, “I’m a sophisticated fucking guy.” One is a simple statement, likely uttered by some douchey guy with a mocha frappacino in his hand and a cardigan around his shoulders.
The second deploys irony — a sophisticated guy isn’t supposed to use the F-word — which then communicates a sense that the person has a self-awareness and self-deprecative nature. This adds an entirely new layer of meaning, and it all comes from the usage of one simple F-bomb.
Like any other category of word, swear words come with their own flavor. It’s a strong and zesty flavor that often overpowers the other words unnecessarily. But when used sparingly and with proper knowledge, a well-timed “offensive” word can add another dimension of meaning that didn’t exist before.
But secondly, and more importantly, swear words call attention. They signify extremity or urgency. They shock us or force our focus onto something in a more severe way.
This is why teenagers are so fond of walking around spouting off the F-word liberally. They want attention. But just because a word is often used poorly doesn’t mean it can’t be used well at all.
When it comes to self-improvement, when it comes to life-or-death topics of self-worth, identity, motivation, purpose and passion, any change, by definition, requires some degree of shock and discomfort. In fact, one could say the entire point of the practice of self-improvement is to subject oneself to uncertainty and discomfort. And harsh language is one of the many means I intentionally use to generate that.
For example. A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article on “finding your passion.” In that article, I included the following line:
It’s right there in front of you, you’re just avoiding it. For whatever reason, you’re avoiding it. You’re telling yourself, “Oh well, yeah, I love comic books but that doesn’t count. You can’t make money with comic books.”
Fuck you, have you even tried?
I got more emails telling me that the “Fuck you, have you even tried?” line changed their minds about themselves, their passions, their lives, than any other single line I’ve written in months.
And you know why? Because it’s fucking brutal. It hurts to read. If you’re that person, if you’re that guy who has put off what he cares about for years or decades, reading that simple line, the way it’s set up, the way you’re led into it like a pig to a shit heap, it’s like a stiff slap in the face.
And sometimes in life, a well-timed slap in the face is what we need more than anything else.
But that slap can’t happen without the “Fuck you…” You can’t say, “Hey buddy, have you even tried?” Or “Hey dummy, have you even tried?” It doesn’t work.
You need the shock. You need the urgency. You need that small step outside the boundary of what’s appropriate and what’s acceptable. Or else it just doesn’t work.
In this sense, the most offensive or most shocking can become the most powerful and galvanizing. There’s a reason why people in the military drop F-bombs like they’re flying over Berlin in 1945 — because the language needs to match the intensity of dropping the real bombs.
There’s a reason why the greatest stand-up comedians — Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, et al. — all used filthy, horrible language. It shocked you into paying attention and generated the uncertainty and discomfort required to make the best humor work.
There’s no reason the same can’t be true for self-improvement. In fact, the same needs to be true with self-improvement.
Recently, I saw an article that got passed around this past year. It was written by a marine and an Iraq veteran and he talked about a guy he knew in his unit whose body had been burned in a fire. This guy’s face was completely disfigured, covered with hideous burn marks and singed flesh. Even looking at him made one wince. Yet he was jovial and vivacious and seemed to live with an inner freedom that could hardly be imagined by most.
The author talked about his experience with this guy because he wanted to make a point about all of the politically correct, “safe space,” trigger warning crap that’s been going on the past few years, especially on college campuses. He made the point that the only way to heal pain is to feel it. The only way to overcome hurt is to be able to talk and even laugh about it. The only way to get past loss is to live with it and move on despite it.
And in the article he shared the most profound realization from his time with this bacon crisp Marine and from his own struggles with his combat experience: fuck your trauma.
Yes. Fuck your trauma.
It blew my hair back when I read it, too. It seems so inappropriate at first glance. Yet, it is actually the most appropriate sentence you could ever construct around the subject. There’s really not much else to say past it.
It’s not “forget your trauma,” or “overcome your trauma,” or “be a better person in the face of your trauma,” or “stay on the sunny side and manifest all of your dreams and buy that sweet new house you always wanted and ignore your trauma.” Just fuck it. Fuck your trauma.
That “fuck” was necessary. It denotes anger. It denotes urgency. It demonstrates a greater power and implies dominion over a pain that has forever halted you.
It shocks you into a new mentality and challenges you to consider pain in a way that you had probably never considered before.
That is the power of well-used profanity. That is why it has existed for tens of thousands of years in every language and why it will continue to do so. And that also is why it will continue to be used effectively as a tool for dealing with the pain and unpleasantness of life. Because as humans, we all need uncomfortable words to deal with uncomfortable subjects. Because those words ease us into those subjects and help us feel comfortable with them. Because fuck that pain. Fuck that unpleasantness. And if you’re offended, fuck you too, while we’re at it.
I mean that in the most loving way possible, of course. Fuck you. Because if you can’t get past a simple four-letter word and see the world of meaning and intention it comes wrapped in, then you’re probably not who I’m writing for anyway.
[Cover image by 2ilorg]