Freedom of (not) speech

I’ve been acutely involved in a discussion this week on another blog. And it’s been on my mind for days. The blog was freshly pressed this week, and was excellent. It was related to parenting and teaching, and kids in general… and it was overflowing with expletives. I read the blog, enjoyed it, followed the blogger, and didn’t comment on the language. But a lot of other people did. The offended commenters encouraged the blogger into writing another blog this week, to inform the world that it is her blog, and she can write any which way she freaking likes. Except she didnt say freaking. This was met with nothing less than rapturous applause. And I have been shocked.

It is no secret that I am anti foul language. I think it is crass, uncreative, lazy, offensive, mostly unnecessary and frankly boring. And I think it makes the user seem ignorant. That’s just my opinion. You are entitled to yours.

However, as far as I have power over any kind of language, I do not put up with it. As an editor, if a manuscript comes my way with cursing in it, I barely give it a second glance before throwing it into the reject pile. If you are lazy enough to resort to bad language when you are blessed with a language so vast, I’m pretty certain that the rest of your descriptive capabilities arent going to be worth my time. It’s totally your choice as a writer, but if you need the literary crutch of expletives, then I doubt I can help you.

Of course, there will be times when a decision is not mine to make. A manuscript already approved has been placed on my desk. Unlucky you if you like your foul mouthed characters. Mark Twain has been famously quoted as saying “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be” and that is exactly what I would do in both cases. In my mind, the same lack of expression is in both kinds of writing. I wouldnt let an author get away with writing ‘very’, and I equally wouldnt let them get away with using swear words.

Why am I so militant about this issue? This is a question that has been tossed my way this week by people who think I am old fashioned and ‘fuddy duddy.’ As a writer and an editor, the answer is simple, which is that your work is better without it. Art is simply better without it. As a person, and now a mother, it is more complex.

People will argue that swear words are ‘just words.’ That the only reason we are offended by them is because of arbitary meanings that people have placed on curse words rather than other words. That it makes no sense that we can use certain words in one way, and yet by changing the meaning, the same letters become abusive. Other people will shout from the rooftops that freedom of speech is what seperates us from slaves, and that we have a right to say whatever we choose, and be free of judgement or censorship for that choice.

I will argue that on the contrary, you are limiting yourself by using those words. I have said before, that I believe that Language creates reality. A great friend reminded me at the time, that God is said to have created the world with ten utterances, literally creating our reality with language. Everything we say, as much as what we do, matters. No more can I say that cursing is ‘just words’ than argue that punching is ‘just action.’ Being proud of using your language in an offensive and hurtful way, whether expletives are used or not, is just promoting anarchy and thoughtlessness amongst people. Being able to say what we want in whatever words we choose is definitely a sign of our freedom, I agree. So why abuse that freedom by limiting ourselves to words that mean nothing really, and are at best, even when not offensive, just unnecessary.

My son is just getting a basic understanding of language, and the wonder on his face when he repeats a word we say, or makes a sound that we interpret correctly and act upon, is a true miracle. For him, language is a new tool, a magic key into an unfamilliar world. Every day he comes a step closer to being able to make himself understood and to understand others. I don’t really care if it makes me old fashioned, or prude-ish, I no more want him using foul language to others, than I would want him using dangerous actions towards them. Because to me that danger is the same. I want him to be able to use his words to create his reality, where he expresses himself with prethought and intention, and has the freedom not to curse. So why would I expect anything less from myself?

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13 Comments

  1. Nice post. We chatted a little abt the language issue on twitter this week and I just want to say again, that I’ve had the experience of needing to use “foul language” in stories when a character needed it. I don’t write many stories or characters with that issue, but they pop in occasionally. I do on revision always ask myself if it’s necessary and if it can be toned down, while still staying true to the character’s voice and reality.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment Pam. I think that’s a fair response. Fiction sometimes has its own rules, as I said, I just think often writers use this as a literary crutch, and it can certainly come across as lazy.

      Reply
  2. greg theodore

     /  February 18, 2012

    boo

    Reply
  3. I followed your reply from http://viewsfromthecouch.com/2012/02/16/your-language-is-offensive/#comment-2404

    First of all, good form! I’d say you have rather different reasons for disapproving of foul language than most (if not all) of the posters who disagreed with QotC’s use of swearing. To be more precise, your reasons can be respected. And you’ve shown respect by putting them on your own blog, rather than troll hers.

    Secondly, I wanted to share something with you. When my son was first learning to speak, he would occasionally mortify me by yelling things out in public. For example, “I fucked off Anne!” – what he meant to say in that particular instance was “Extractor fan!” We were on a bus full of elderly folk and other mothers with toddlers. I thought my face had actually caught fire. He, however, was very pleased with himself for remembering the right word to use for one of those things that he could see on top of a refrigerated van which had stopped level with the bus on the other side of the road. Ignorance is bliss, at such a young age.

    As he got older, I realised that I can’t “protect” him from all the “bad” things he might come across. So I made a point of highlighting “bad” things, and explaining how certain behaviours impact on a person’s life and relationships. And when I caught him repeating “shit, shit, shit” to himself (with great glee, and for no apparent reason) after his first week at school, I realised he would only gain from knowing how to use swear-words appropriately. A well-placed expletive can make an otherwise utterly dull statement pithy, even add meaning. It’s like using a very strong flavour, or a very intense colour. But if it is misplaced, or over-used, it ceases to serve its function and becomes mere profanity. I know people of very different faiths who feel that certain words (like “God”) are taboo for that precise reason – misplaced or over-used, it is profane.

    Anyway, now he knows when and how various swear-words might be used. More importantly, he can choose whether he wants to use them or not. That’s the meaning of freedom, in my opinion. There is never an absolute freedom from everything (that would be equivalent with non-existence). But the freedom to choose is very important – and makes the choice more binding for the chooser, if you will.

    Reply
    • Oh I love this! And your story made me lol in a non-internet way! I would have died right there and then. I love your reply, and thank you for taking the time to express it so well, I agree that we cant shelter our kids from everything, despite how we may want to. Well done for deciding to explain to your son the way the world works and how we live in it, without simply giving in to society and saying there’s nothing to be done. Freedom of choice, I agree with that, and as parents its our responsibility (as much as we can) to highlight the right choices and the correct path for our kids. Thanks again for commenting and for the follow, will be heading your way soon!

      Elisheva.

      Reply
  4. I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond, honestly. That you think it is uncouth or unprofessional to swear is fine, to each their own. Just as you resent being considered a “fuddy duddy” for your opposition to swearing, I find it short sighted to deem me unintelligent or “lazy” because I am not opposed to cursing. You are, absolutely, entitled to your opinion on the matter and I respect your stance, despite the fact that I disagree. I, however, did not resort to name calling or blanket statements, I just stated that I wouldn’t kowtow to those that wanted to wag their proverbial fingers at me for how I choose to express myself on my blog.

    Reply
    • Hiya, thanks for the comment. Just to clarify, I didnt label the person, just the action of cursing. As in, a lazy form of language as opposed to more creative one. Sorry if that wasnt clear. As I think I mentioned as well, I agree that you are fully entitled to express yourself any way that you want to, especially on your own blog! I was more talking about in my own professional life working in publishing, and personal life as a wife and mother. Your blog and the ruckus it provoked really got me thinking a lot about this issue, which is why I chose to write about it myself. Many of the comments you recieved made me second guess my own reasons for being anti-bad language, and it helped me to think it all through and be sure I understood my own stance! Keep up the great work, I love your blog, and it sounds like we actually have a lot in common! In particular, I love the convo you had with your husband re:school pick ups with kids, we have so many situations like that! “I have no clothes to wear.” “Well then do a wash…” “Huh?” “Yknow, pick up the clothes, and load the machine, and wash them..” “Will you be home soon?”

      Best, 🙂

      Elisheva.

      Reply
    • Oh, come on!

      You definitely resorted to blanket statements! You said that anyone who had the audacity to not find cursing could
      f-off.

      The majority of words in your writing were the f-word. That is lazy regardless of how much you deny it.

      You need to understand that if you dish it out, you have to be able to take it. I hope one day you learn this.

      Reply
  5. Helen

     /  February 22, 2012

    I disagree completely. Swearing can be fun or cathartic or artistic and forms part of our healthy, living, vibrant language, just as slang and ‘proper speech’ does. Generalizing by saying it’s lazy and uncreative is nonsense. Of course, someone jeering “fuck off” on the bus instead of thinking about what they are saying is uncouth, but many of our finest literary figures swore copiously and to great effect. Was Shakespeare lazy and uncreative? Hemingway? Chaucer? Please. Even Dickens, that great Victorian prude, used slang and oaths to portray street life to great effect. Shaw’s famous “not bloody likely!” (extremely shocking for the time) is a key dramatic moment that simply wouldn’t have been the same with a blander word in place.

    I respect your choice not to swear, not to enjoy swearing and not to want to expose your son to it but it’s pretty short-sighted to damn (or blast) swearing in any context. 😉

    Hope you’re well, H xx

    Reply
    • Hi! And thanks for the comment. One of the main reasons I wrote the blog was to hear from people I actually know and respect as opposed to most of the cretins replying on the original thread who mainly had ‘F off, I love swearing’ as their response. 😉

      I don’t think it being fun or cathartic are particularly persuasive remarks, but I am interested in what you say from a literary perspective. I think I would (cautiously) venture that yes, in my opinion it is always a lazy and too easy form of speech, for Shakespeare or whomever else, (As I said above, I’m not labelling the people who swear, just the effect it gives off.) but yes, it can certainly have artistic result. I suppose I would say that for me at least, the artistic effect is just not worth it. Yes, you’re probably right that there are exceptions, and I admit to taking a blinkered view, but in general, it’s just not needed. If that means that the world lives without certain forms of great art, I can deal with that, in the same way as I can live without the results of experiments that need lack of consent or cruelty in any form to work correctly.

      Is that extreme? Maybe, but thats just me. 🙂

      I am indeed well, and hope you are too.

      Elisheva.

      Reply
  6. THANK YOU!!!!! You are completely right!

    I read the post you speak of as well and I was saddened to see the lack of intelligence among the people in the comment section.

    Although you are right, you said that others could have a different opinion. That’s a far cry from telling people they can f-ing go to f-ing hell if they don’t f-ing agree with every f-ing thing you say…I’m already bored from typing that! Why do people lack the creativity to come up with other words?

    I will be following your blog. You seem to share my perspective on this and even if you end up not sharing my perspective on everything, you seem like someone who agrees to disagree rather than saying whoever does disagree can f-ing go to hell.

    Thank you for this post!

    Reply
    • Ah, thank you for the comment and the follow, you have made my day. Right that cursing is so boring!! I will be going over to check out your blog shortly, and already looking forward!

      Reply

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