I’m not against “dirty words”. I’m against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them

Often my posts against using insult words or slurs as part of public debate about ideas are dismissed on the grounds that I am supposedly overly focused on mere words. There are several different complaints.

One is that words do not matter but how we use them. There is of course an obvious truth in that statement taken by itself. There is nothing inherently wrong even with a harsh word like “fuck”. It’s good that we keep a lot of emotional charge in the word by not overusing it and abusing it and it’s good that we have recourse to it in any number of circumstances where it can be used to shock or provoke or intensify or otherwise stimulate people. There is also no mysterious intrinsic wrongness to a lot of other such “curse” (or “cuss”) words, e.g. “shit”, “ass”, or “dick”.

In fact, these and other similarly “vulgar” words have a sort of wonderful dialectical tension that gives them their power. They are somewhat arbitrarily forbidden and ruled as impolite and potentially offensive and their forbiddenness in certain contexts is precisely what makes them effective words. Bringing them into contexts they are typically not allowed makes them strong words. The more we relax the general rules of politeness against them and make them entirely ordinary, the more we rob them of their power when we want to use them.

The true defender of harsh and vulgar words wants to keep them as harsh and vulgar words. That means keeping the general politeness norms in place so that the words keep their expressive power on those occasions when we employ them. People who say the word fuck every other word eventually inure those around them to it, after the initial shock. A word becomes too routinized, too ordinary while giving no offense and it loses all of its emotive power.

So, I am for keeping many curse words around. I like that our language has words with emotive thrust. I also think that not using them all the time or, at least, having social rules that specify where they are appropriate and where inappropriate is terrific. This is one of the ways we signal intimacy and formality. Being able to relax the restraints on language or needing to tighten them up is part of adjusting ourselves to the differences of relationships with the people we are talking to and the contexts in which we are talking.

The latitude to curse more loosely with friends is an expression and manifestation of one’s broader comfortability with friends. The restraints in cursing in formal contexts is part of one’s expression and manifestation of respect for social norms generally. And in general, the air of forbiddenness around certain words gives them their force when the time is right to use them. If you love those words, or love having available the functions that they serve for when you want recourse to them, you should usually uphold the general restrictions on their usage that give them their power in the first place.

The words have no magical “intrinsic” wrongness. The rules about them are on one level arbitrary of course. But once there are meanings and implications associated with words then they have effectiveness. It’s knowing that a word is considered and will be taken by others as generally coarse or informal that makes it your choice to sound coarse or informal when you use it. You know that the social understanding is that you are going to present yourself in this way should you use the word.

And it’s good that we have words set up and at our disposal for when we want to sound coarse or informal. If I want to drop the f bomb for emphasis, it’s good everyone’s properly sensitized so my emphasis is received. If I want to signal to you that I am unusually comfortable with you by talking with relaxed language restraints, it’s great we uphold the understanding about formal language restraints normally.

So, no, I am not pearl clutching prude who cannot handle the coarseness of foul language.

And of course I also understand that you can hurt or insult people in other ways besides using insult words. I get how language works.

So why the stance against insult words from “stupid” to “douchebag”?

First of all, the ethical wrongness of these words is not found in politeness rules that arbitrarily (but usefully) rule them coarse. The word “fuck” is not ethically wrong. It may be ethically wrong to violate politeness norms or treat someone overly coarsely and the word “fuck” could contribute to that in any number of circumstances. But basically it is just a politeness norm that is against “fuck” at all.

But there are ethical norms that set me against the words “stupid”, “moron”, “idiot”, “imbecile”, “fucktard”, “retard”, “asshole”, “shithead”, douchebag”, “nigger”, “faggot”, “cunt”, “tranny”, “bitch”, “kike”, etc.

These words are not merely ruled out by politeness. They are not merely coarse. They are not merely informal. They are not merely emotive. All of that would make them fine in some cases and not in others. Like with the word “fuck”.

The problem with these words is that, given our linguistic customs, they express hatred and are functionally harmful. They are words intended to hurt and so they are expressions that have malice loaded into them, given our speech norms. Of course, there are exceptions. Some of the slurs listed above can be (or even have been already) reappropriated by their targets. Some people friendly with each other may have understandings that they are using derogatory names as ironic terms of endearment and as long as that’s genuinely how they’re taken, they may be functionally fine.

But it is wrong to express maliciousness itself and insult words do that. They also are degrading, dehumanizing, and falsely essentializing. They dismiss people’s worth too broadly. This makes them false and opposable on truth grounds. Even people with a number of character flaws are not just bad people. Even people who do not comprehend a lot of important truths or who are willfully ignorant are not just stupid.

Let me stress–it is vital that we be able to properly ascribe vices to people. For those who bizarrely accuse me of being an Orwellian language tyrant trying to obscure the truth by taking away the words for expressing it, nothing could be further from reality. I want us to use lots more words. Rather than lumping everyone who says or does something erroneous together in the supposedly irredeemable pile of the “stupid” people, I want us to be more honest and more precise and more constructive.

Call someone willfully ignorant if that’s what they are. Or figure out if they are just injudicious, shortsighted, biased, undereducated, miseducated, underinformed, misinformed, autistic, suffering from dyslexia or another learning or reading disorder, guilty of a logical contradiction, employing fallacious reasoning, falling prey in a particular instance (or often) to any of several dozen cognitive errors common to all of us, etc.

I am categorically not saying that you should obscure the truth of intellectual errors for the sake of others’ feelings. I am saying that you should not treat people maliciously and with either callous disregard for their feelings or the cruel desire to hurt them. Abusive insult terms for pointing out intellectual mistakes are not just factually descriptive.

In our general linguistic context, they are usually loaded up with hostile emotive content that regularly is intended to hurt and discourage people and regularly functions to do just that quite effectively. Using that language signals you want to hurt. It’s the malice that is unethical, not the truth. (And since these words over essentialize someone’s proneness to error, they are also often untrue also).

It is similar with insults aimed at attacking people’s characters–words like “asshole”, “douchebag”, “fuckface”, and on and on. The English language, for one, has an incredibly rich and varied range of words for precisely describing any number of very particular character flaws someone could have or the wrongness of any particular action.

You can, without the unethical malice of a degrading insult word more targetedly criticize someone or (usually more accurately only a specific action or set of them) as stubborn, callous, cruel, insensitive, lazy, mean, irresponsible, dangerous, reckless, tyrannical, abusive, dishonest, hypocritical, underhanded, cowardly, two-faced, vindictive, nasty, sociopathic, bigoted, misogynistic, racist, flippant, glib, rude, obnoxious, self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish, narcissistic, greedy, egomaniacal, insecure, hostile, ungrateful, unjust, authoritarian, unfair, etc.

This is just the tip of a huge iceberg of precisely targeted, potentially truthful and accurately descriptive words. They can be used in ways that justifiably both convey strong emotions and evoke them in their targets or in others–but without degrading their targets with malicious words.

As long as you are just accurately describing someone in ways that are evidentially supportable then should they get offended and accuse you of undue hostility that’s their problem.

“No, no, no. I’m not insulting you. I’m describing you.”

Of course, even in describing someone negatively, we should show some tact and concern for their feelings in many cases if we want them to grow or if we want to have constructive relationships with them. But where a lot is at stake socially and politically it is fine and good in public discourse to call spades spades. And in interpersonal relationships we need to be able, however tactfully, to broach the subject of others’ vices as a matter of our own self-defense if nothing else. We are entitled to request of others that they not treat us poorly. We just should not do so in abusive and degrading ways with insults. But we should do so in targeted ways, with limited accurate describers about the precise natures of how their actions or, in really serious cases their characters themselves, are problematic in one way or another.

So in short it is not “dirty words” that are the problem. It is not criticism of bad ideas or bad actions that at all needs to be reined in. The problem is the malice loaded inherently into insults and slurs, given the norms of our language. The problem is also that the words are falsely over-essentializing and they are degrading. And good people should refrain from treating others in degrading and malicious fashions as matters of principle. Good people should be very leery of the temptation to become self-righteous people who feel so morally certain of their ideas and/or their moral character that they feel they have license to lash out nastily at others, vent their cruelty, and, in the process become abusive, bad, self-indulgent people themselves.

We see this with those religious people who call others they deem bad “sinners” and delight in imagining them in hell. It’s an ugly temptation. I am repelled by all cruelty that blinds itself to its own maliciousness by self-deceptively flattering itself by calling itself either “moral rightness” or “honesty”.

It is neither.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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