December 1, 2008

Is the f-word indecent or just coarse and unmannerly?

It makes a difference, according to Jeffrey Rosen, talking about the Supreme Court's pending "fleeting expletives" case. (The question is what can the FCC do to broadcasters if Cher suddenly says "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year, right? So fuck 'em" and so forth.)
At the Supreme Court argument, Justice Antonin Scalia lamented the "coarsening of manners," adding, "I am not persuaded by the argument that people are more accustomed to hearing these words than they were in the past." I share Scalia's concerns about the coarsening of public manners on television, but he is willfully denying the evidence that most Americans no longer view fleeting expletives as indecent. The Supreme Court has said that the FCC can only ban epithets that are considered genuinely offensive by contemporary community standards. For that reason, the justices should strike down the Bush FCC's fleeting expletive policy, and, if they don't, the Obama FCC should repeal it. But this suggests a real problem--the vulgarization of culture--without a clear legal, political, or even technological solution.
I originally wrote out "fuck" in the post title, but then I changed it.... if that means anything. I doubt if my sensibilities here are much more probative of what "people" are accustomed to hearing these days than Scalia's.


Kirby Olson said...

Many of the Beat poets were on the same bandwagon as Carlin and Lenny Bruce arguing for greater latitude of expression. Gregory Corso gave a radio interview in Boulder, CO in the 80s in which half of what he said had to be deleted. I remember in the film Mean Streets thinking how awful it was that many of the characters used the F word two or three times in a sentence as a kind of superlative.

"That's really f-ing, f-ing great."

One reason not to use words like that is that it requires discipline to find better more expressive words. The linguistic palette that has to rely on the f word as a superlative isn't very sophisticated.

Saying "F you" to someone isn't just impolite, it's the equivalent of using blunt force trauma to settle a controversy, when you should use more sophisticated and creative means of expression to arrive at common ground with another individual.

The coarsening that Scalia speaks of is a very real concern. In the same way that we should protect children from believing that violence is the way to settle disputes, we should also protect them from thinking that verbal violence is the correct way to discuss a topic.'

Many of our rock stars are the worst. Even Bono, who is a relatively decent rock star, resorts to such terrible language. It's too simple.

People should use discipline. Ann, you are probably old enough to remember the hippy use of "man," and "like," as in, "like, man, like," which became such a weed of speech in the early 70s.

I regret such cave-man utterances. I try never to use the f-word, simply because it's so common, in every sense.

Original George said...

We're about as coarse as Brillo.

There's the new book "Is It Just Me, or Is Everything Shit?"

If you want to write a best-seller, title it "Fuck This Shit"


"The Fuck It Diet"

or maybe

"The Fuck It All Guide to Life" (This could be a series like the "Idiot's Guide." You'd have "The Fuck It All Guide to Mac OSX" and "The Chicken Fucking Shit for the Pussy Ass Soul" series.)

or possibly

"Kirby Fucking Olson's Fucking Great Sports Fucking Stories"


"Fuck Fuck Fuck: Surviving In the New Economy"

or maybe even

"Hey, Asshole, Can You Spare a Fucking Buck, You Jerk-Off Motherfucker! How You Can Panhandle Your Way to Success"

or, well, you get the fucking idea.

ricpic said...

...most Americans no longer view fleeting expletives as indecent.

So what? When were standards ever maintained by adjusting them to the level of the herd? And yes, I admit to being a member of the herd.

The loss of confidence by our WASP aristocracy, which once set the tone for what was proper conduct, but which now has yielded to the impulse to go slumming and join the peeps, is responsible for the degradation of our standards of language, dress and just about everything else.

Paddy O. said...

Of course the f-word is indecent.

And it is important because it is indecent.

It is meant to express indecency and be an extreme word.

It should absolutely be taboo on television and other broadcasts. It should cause men to rage and women to faint. It should provoke in us feelings of revulsion and disgust, kept away from the ears of children and not fitting for the gatherings of civilized people.

If it does not, then why even have it as a word.

If it is not utterly indecent it has no purpose.

As the ultimate indecent word, however, it remains vital and important.

What is at stake is not freedom of speech or increased acceptance of a relaxed rhetoric. What is at stake is the English language itself, which is under almost constant attack from countless directions. These attacks do not seek to replace English with another language, but rather to gut language itself of its communicative ability.

Continual hyperbole robs expression of its precision. If the f-word becomes acceptable and common what will replace it as an expression of extreme response? Nothing. If we keep words but hollow them of their communicative power our emotions become incommunicable, lessened, cheapened. The smallest irritation becomes equivalent to the greatest fury in our rhetoric.

In order to maintain the distinction we must engage in elaborate explanation, adding disorder to what could have, should have, been a precise, succinct ejaculation.

We need words that have the weight of emotion and rejection and indecency, for those moments in which only such a word encapsulates our perspective. And, for the sake of our language, for the sake of not only freedom of speech but also fullness of speech, there should be words so beyond the pale that society itself restricts their common usage.

The f-word should be absolutely regulated by the FCC, because no other can match its weighty meaning. It should be utterly offensive because we need a word to be just that.

halojones-fan said...

Again, I cite online gaming. You can't get a rise out of people by swearing at them anymore; the new way to trash-talk is to call someone a nigger, or a jew, or a faggot. We've all spent seventeen to twenty years of school learning that these are Bad Words and You Shouldn't Say Them. "nigger" is the new "fuck".

David said...

We are more accustomed to hearing the F-word, mainly because there's so little choice. It's everywhere.

Indecent? Well, the indecency lies in imposing the word on listeners who do not want to hear it (say, on a plane, or in a bus or restaurant). Should it be regulated by FCC fine? I'd say no, as a matter of policy. But it's still indecent to subject people to words and phrases everyone knows they will find offensive.

Is the N word offensive? Yes, for the same reasons.

Lawgiver said...

the evidence that most Americans no longer view fleeting expletives as indecent.

what evidence? Polls, surveys, questionnaires, What?

I grew up in a strict southern baptist home where Dad never even said "damn" and Mom's worst was "hell's bells." I learned to curse like a sailor in the military and I had some very creative teachers. When I had children of my own at 28 I stopped cursing. I see no need for it now except when I want to get in the gutter with commenters like Michael. Other than that, I generally take it as the language of jerks.

I wonder how many of Ann's student's lead off with, "Yo, fuckin Althouse are we gonna get a fuckin early release to-fucking- day or are you gonna skull fuck us all morning?"

It's not either indecent or just coarse and unmannerly, it's indecent, coarse, and unmannerly and suitable only for the anonymity of the blogosphere.

Chris said...

Fuck long ago lost it's magic status as the go to word. I think Paddy O. has the right idea about how to restore its status. The question is: should we? Didn't Steven Pinker write a whole book about this. I remember back in Canada (the english speaking part) we (as kids) used to say Tabernac just because we liked how it sounded and we thought it was such a silly swear word. Today, I prefer fuck to shit. Holy fuck sounds a lot better than holy shit. Still, fuck continues to carry some danger. In a professional context it could be a bad idea, especially if you are in a situation where you have relatively low status. A junior player saying fuck in a business meeting could be like a medieval peasant making eye contact with the king. Risky.

Jake said...

The law says it is indecent.

If you are a boss and you use the F-word around women employees, there will be a line of lawyers wanting to sue you.

Because of the legal liability, the company I worked for fired anyone who used the F-word habitually.

rhhardin said...

Formula One race driver takes his wife for a ride, with wifely Italian indecencies.

via Tim Blair.

Kirby Olson said...

I agree with Paddy O. There should be more taboos against indecent language, rather than less.

Also, clothes should have to clothe more of the body than they do at present.

I think ankles should be covered.

I'm with Ann: no more shorts on men, and also, we must issue gowns for women.

The culture is going to heck without even a handbasket.

Windbag said...

I used the f-word for about six months, but wearied of it. Saying it just didn't have the pizzazz it used to. Sometimes, when I meet somebody new, I'll use it for awhile, but eventually, I stop using anymore. I'm mean, how can you have conversations month after month, year after year, using the same old profanities? It just gets old. Call me a prude, call me erratic, say I'm over the hill, but the f-word just has lost significance in my social life.

rhhardin said...

Erving Goffman

Many taboo words are considerably productive, especially in the trandition maintained in certain subcultures, where some of these words occur (if not function) in almost every syntactical position.* Furthermore, curse words are drawn from familiar scales of such words, and choice will sharply reflect (in the sense of display, negotiate, etc.) the terms of the relationship between speaker and hearer...
* Admittedly, even in these productive cases, taboo words are not entirely vulnerable to syntactical analysis. Saying the
the fuck in a sentence like What the fuck are you doing? is adjectival in function, or that bloody in What are you bloody well doing? is an adverb, missing something of the point. In such cases specific syntactic location seem to be made a convenience of, for somehow the intensifyng word is meant to color uniformly the whole of the utterance some place or other in which it occurs. Here see Quang Phuc Dong (1971).

The point about negotiating relationships is right on, in this thicket of amusing asides.

Hey it's online here, search for bloody.

Andrew said...

fuck is an excellent word, and we should not do without it

in particular, expressing the core sentiment in this word is cathartic, it helps us be human

but at the same time, i too lament the coarsening of culture and manners

as with the word fuck, so too the coarsening of culture is needed, but only to shake off undue restrictiveness

once that's done we should all re-adopt basic courtesies, as free human beings acknowledging our common humanity

not because we must, but because we want to live in a civil world

halojones-fan said...

Also, I can't help but think of "Idiocracy". "Fuck you, I'm eating." "Fuck you, I'm shopping." "Fuck you, I'm watching TV."