As a kid, I learned swear words in whispers behind the teacher’s back. My peers repeated things they heard in movies and from their parents; these words were alluring because we weren’t supposed to say them. The fuss adults caused only made them more exciting.
How much does a swear word really affect the meaning of a sentence? Let’s examine the headline to this article: What the Fuck is the Big Deal About Swear Words. I could have said “what on earth is the big deal,” “what the heck is the big deal,” or just “what is the big deal.”
The meaning of those headlines would be basically the same and all are acceptable, but I feel the word “fuck” here shows the appropriate amount of confusion and emphasis. It may be vulgar, but it’s not really offensive. And if you do find it offensive, I find pairing socks with sandals offensive, BUT SOME PEOPLE STILL DO IT. That’s your right. It looks ridiculous, but it’s your right to dress and conduct yourself as you see fit.
So it’s time to de-criminalize swearing that’s not used in a derogatory way towards someone. Is saying “oh darn” really different from saying “oh damn”? It’s like pop vs soda: nobody’s wrong; it’s just a personal decision. The words themselves are slightly different, but the meaning is the same.
Athletes aren’t allowed to swear on television because they might offend viewers and because they are role models to children. Former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal was suspended one game in 2004 for swearing in a post-game interview. The Washington Post estimated the suspension cost Shaq $295,000.
The NFL’s operations website lists the minimum fine for a first offense of “excessive profanity” as $12,154. Get caught a second time and that amount goes up to $24,309. NFL coach Rex Ryan has faced multiple fines of up to $100,000 for profanity following games.
But we have to police our role models! We have to show the kids that bad behavior isn’t ok! Right?
In contrast, Giants’ kicker Josh Brown has been suspended for one game of the 2016 season after an arrest for domestic violence. While the charges against Brown were ultimately dropped, Brown’s history of assault dates back to his days in college. The punishment handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is also at odds with the current domestic violence policy which recommends a six game suspension for a first offense. If you divide Brown’s $1.15 million 2016 base salary by 16 games, the cost of his suspension is approximately $71,875.
I don’t know exactly what words Ryan used or how he used them so I can’t say that they were acceptable. And granted, a portion of profanity fines likely result from the responsibility that leagues like the NFL and NBA have to the Federal Communications Commission. But if a major concern of using profanity is what we teach children, what is the NFL saying by doling out lenient punishments to athletes accused of domestic abuse? If the message is that one should be respectful of others and represent an organization positively, how would we explain this double standard to a child?
How did we decide what constitutes a “bad word” anyway? Over time, cultures assign meaning to words that before meant nothing or something completely different. No one in 1980 could describe what “emoji” means today. Someone in your family probably still needs help determining what is a “bae.”
The word “shit” isn’t inherently bad; it was decided that it is bad. If “shit” is just a more vulgar way of saying “poop,” why do people freak out over it? It might seem goofy if an athlete literally said “we played like poop,” but if they said “we played like shit,” RUN, COVER YOUR YOUR EARS, the sound of those letters combined might trigger your whole body to be consumed by filth!
There’s a difference between using swear words as emphasis and using them as attacks. Even the best of us have a moment where you step on a Lego and the first words that come to mind aren’t “Sunshine and twinkletoes, that hurt!” There is a difference between “I just couldn’t catch the damn ball today” and “This bitch couldn’t pick up a first down to save his life” and that difference is respect.
One might argue that swearing is not acceptable because it’s not respectful language. But as a former middle school aged girl, I can tell you sometimes the words that hurt the most contain more than four letters. If I call someone an asshole, is it worse than if I go into great detail about every flawed aspect of that person’s personality? Worse than if I pick their every action apart using only words that are, by themselves, relatively harmless?
I feel like some people think swearing is a gateway drug to other bad behavior. But using swear words in an abusive manner frequently indicates a more seriously underlying problem like racism, sexism, or anger issues that will not be resolved by removing swear words.
Teaching respect goes beyond eliminating swear words from public consumption. If you believe saying “fuck you” is disrespectful, then so is calling someone stupid or ugly and both behaviors should be reprimanded with equal sincerity.
We police swear words because it’s the easy way out. If we can say “Don’t use these seven deadly words,” then we don’t have to watch out for an abusive tone. We don’t have to sit down and talk about why it’s not acceptable to call people fat or how telling someone they’re worthless may affect their self-esteem. “No swear words” is the quick and easy rule that allows us to go on with our lives and feel like we did something.
To argue that curse words are wholly unacceptable in public also undersells the role of personal responsibility. First, a parent has the responsibility to teach their child right from wrong. If I decide purple is a disastrous, offensive color that should never be worn, it is my prerogative to teach and enforce that to my child. But I can’t demand that everyone else in the world stop wearing purple because it might influence my child.
Then once children become adults, they have the responsibility to choose what to believe and what actions to take. They can swear or not swear, wear purple or not. They can even say “on fleek” if it suits them! But as long as they’re respectful of other people when they do so, who the fuck cares?