Recently, on the sitcom Modern Family, a subplot concerned little Lily letting loose the mother of swear words to the consternation of one of her dads, and the giggles of the other. The child actress playing the kid said "fudge," which was bleeped, but this didn't stop something called the No Cussing Club (not known for its rockin' parties) from requesting that ABC kill the episode. The Parents Television Council joined in lock step, and a spokesperson complained: "The more we see and hear this kind of language on television, the more acceptable and common it will become in the real world."
Who blames television for anything any more? There's a sweet retro quality to the huffing, like wringing one's hands over the declining quality of radio serials. It's also unclear who's chicken and who's egg in this scenario – the "real world" is what television often purports to reflect. And yes, PTC, out in the real world, swearing is common, if not always acceptable. At the recent Golden Globes, even beloved Meryl Streep got bleeped when she realized she'd left her reading glasses at her table and uttered a feces-related exclamation. Last year, Cee-Lo and Pink both climbed the charts with F-themed hits. Lest swearing be dismissed as a quirk of the creative class, in Parliament last December, MP Justin Trudeau called the Minister of the Environment a piece of something (not pie).
Trudeau apologized, which is sort of like a belated human-made "bleep." But was anyone really scandalized? There's a fatuous, culturally prescribed dissonance between the moralizing bleep and the truth of daily life, with its casual, inescapable profanity, muttered or shouted. The social commandment isn't really "don't swear," it's "pretend you don't swear" – a public/ private divide.
But we are swearing. Research published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows people swear from 0.3 per cent to 0.7 per cent of the time on average, a significant percentage of our overall speech. On Facebook (where public and private collide), 47 per cent of users have profanity on their walls.
Good or bad, it's only the delivery that's new. According to the book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, the first written texts 5,000 years ago included jokes about bodily functions, and surely there was something to swear about prior to that, in oral times ("She said oral!"). Shakespeare, friend of parent councils, made his point with a few well-placed blasphemes, like "zounds" (God's wounds) and "sblood" (God's blood).
Taboo words are those that violate social constraints, and their effect isn't just poetic, but physical. Swearing can cause the heart to race and the hairs on the back of one's arms to stand up. It's a Type A trait: People who swear are more likely to be characterized by extroversion and dominance. Maybe this is why a woman who curses has a certain allure; she's staking a claim in power.
I understand the double meaning of the word "swear" as an expression of sincerity and truth – a heartfelt oath – which a good curse session usually is. Swearing is also a function of comfort, best undertaken selectively in safe, secure situations, among (certain) friends, and rarely at work. It's the impulse that must be liberated appropriately, and reined in usually, since it's nestled so close to violence in the psyche.
On Modern Family, Lily's father Mitchell is mortified by his daughter's swearing because she seems to be out of control, which makes him seem like a bad dad. Of course, her cursing means nothing because she's too young to recognize the constraint she's breaking, which is why Cameron, her other father, laughs whenever she does it. (It seems worth noting, as a testament to something, that this clenched anti-swearing committee was all twisted over the bleeped "fudge" rather than the fact that the Lily character is the daughter of two men. Can we call that progress?)
I'm a terrible swearer, swearing too often, and uncreatively. I try to keep it down, but I still swear so explosively and cheerfully that I suspect the children have noticed. Ahem. My desire to stop – and this is an argument I've presented to the kids – is based on the fact that swearing has become, as the PTC feared, all too common. Public space is crowded with private selves spewing swears into their cellphones, and online posting is drained of civility but filled with ****s. Swearing has become the dull background noise of the commons, a roar of lazy self-expression. It may be impossible to agree on which social constraints deserve to be respected, but it's universally true that swearing isn't language at its most beautiful, neither elevated nor instructive.
Of course, swearing can be useful, both emphatic and cathartic: Scientists at Keele University in Britain discovered that cursing can actually reduce pain. But they also found that those who swear more regularly benefit less. And as Meryl Streep knows, this is as good a reason to hold back as any.