Home > Ethics > Some thoughts on (my) swearing…

Some thoughts on (my) swearing…

Recently I had an awkward slip of the tongue at work that has prompted me to post some of my thoughts regarding swearing and the connotations thereof.

Allow me to relay the initial exchange:

I was at work and another PT was training his (homosexual) client behind me. As I walked past, the PT mentioned to me, in a manner that included me in the conversation, that his client wanted to move to Melbourne, knowing my dislike for some of the pretentious troglodytes I witnessed in Melbourne (a complete generalisation of course, full of the short comings of such dispersion), I, in an off the cuff manner, said Melbourne was full of “cocksmokers“.

Now, the issue, for me at least, is: what is the problem here? To my mind I’d used the word “cock” when it is generally considered in polite discussion, not to do so. I don’t particularly agree with this (though I’m open to having my mind changed), as I don’t think words have any more power than we give them, that we can choose to be offended, or not. I do, however, observe traditions that make social interaction amenable, and concede I may be in the minority on this position, and generally do not intentionally go around offending people.

What hadn’t occurred to me of course (and was mentioned to me later by the PT), and maybe this is clear to you the reader; is that a homosexual might be offended by the term “cocksmoker“, and not the masculine noun or offensive language, which is what I had assumed would be the case (as I was unaware that people associate the term with homosexuals).

This prompted me to ask the question: “is the term cocksmoker offensive to gay men (people)?” I reasoned it wasn’t, that if we wanted to pragmatically look at it, that term would apply largely and more appropriately to women (which doesn’t make it better per se, but it removes the automatic assumption that it’s a strict homosexual slur). I (am now)  aware, the term can have sexual orientation preference, as well as being a term of derision and a term used to describe the application of fellatio (here we see many definitions with less than half being of homosexual reference).

This PT’s reasoning is also based on the fairly large assumption that I, used this word in its homophobic sense, which I don’t think can be simply given. Did I mean to say that the people who live in Melbourne literally engage in homosexual fellatio regardless of sex, age, ethnicity and preference? Of course not, I meant it as a term of derision at Melbourne, using harsh (and admittedly inappropriate) text to convey the strength of my feelings for the place.

Of course to that someone might ask “what is wrong with fellatio and the people who give it?” Even though I don’t mean it literally (and based on the above definitions, I was using it in the 3(2) sense), the term does or did have a literal meaning and that is what I’m (at least passively) referring to when I use it,  I then,  perpetuate a meme that has a basis in gender, or sexual specific ridicule.

It seems there are 2 issues here:

(a) Do we use the strict definition of language all the time (does it matter in this instance? Is the very ambiguity of the word reason enough not to use it?)?

There has been some debate here lately about the use of feminine nouns and I’m torn on this issue, I personally like to swear, I like to accentuate my language, I understand it’s a sign of being uneducated, that it offends, but sometimes that’s the point (someone once said “you don’t have the right not to be offended“).  But it largely depends on context and intentionality.

(b) Does intentionality matter?

If I intend to use a disparaging remark that has many meanings (as many do in our language) is it implicitly offensive (think not just of swear words here)? Or does my intention, whether it be homophobic, sexist, racist or merely expressive even matter? Where is the line in free speech, are we merely making social commentary here (and Benson above)? Or do we police people’s language?

In my mind, I wasn’t using language to define a person, I think there’s a difference there.  Above Benson differentiates between racial terms like “nigger” and sexist terms like “bitch“, but are those terms strictly off-limits in all cases? And if they aren’t, what does that mean for their usage?  How about when using them ironically? When certain cultural classes use them (think African-Americans and homosexuals using the afore terms, if some use them, why can’t others? Is there an arbitrary distinction here)? Again does it depend on context? If it doesn’t, are we living in a world gone PC mad?

I am aware that to use words, with masculine description (or feminine) or derogatory slurs (which could have and were interpreted as bigoted) have meanings that different people automatically assume as offensive. Despite my rules on language I understand the need to respect that not everyone has these views (and that my views aren’t well-formed). That using a term like “cocksmoker“, seems to have an intrinsic application to the denigration of women, homosexuals as well as being offensive to the ear, it matters little what I meant when I said it.

The end result is, when are rude words allowed, when are they offensive? Are they offensive at all times across all boundaries? Perhaps the delineation could be in regards to insult? But that leaves aside issues of people simply being offended by racist, sexist or bigoted terms. We also have to ask, do you have a right not to be offended? These are issues of free speech, and they can possibly be regulated by the law, but that feels relativistic to me, what is wrong should be wrong, regardless whether it is lawful or not (otherwise how would any laws change?).

I leave it for you to decide.

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