(Trigger warning: Strong language. Colorful language. If you do not find swear words acceptable for public consumption, stop reading now. As implied by the title.)
In my house lives a 9-year-old budding author. She does it all—short stories, poetry, song lyrics, graphic novels. She may or may not be working on these things at school when she’s supposed to be doing math-y things. She may or may not have gotten that from her mother, so I can’t complain.
Anyway, the other day she looked up from whatever amazing thing she was working on and said: “Mommy? Just how many cuss words ARE there?”
I was so proud. You don’t even know.
Before you get all scandalized, you should know that we’ve had some thoughtful and intentional discussion about strong language in our house lately. When it is appropriate (when Mom trips and falls down the stairs and certain four-letter words tumble down behind her of their own free will) and when it’s not okay (probably Sunday school, recess, ballet class, baseball practice, etc). Such convos are of sudden necessity when your kids start obsessively listening to Hamilton (it’s OK when it’s ART, but that doesn’t mean we repeat it at school, right?) and also start reading your old Calvin and Hobbes books and, “What do all these little *%&$#@ signs even mean?”
Rather than panicking that my children’s innocence has been compromised, I try to make the most of these teaching moments. It’s part of the larger, ongoing work of parenting as we help kids understand complex things like relationships, community, and the power of speech–for better or worse. I figure plenty of kids grow up hearing these words with no outlets through which to process them. Those are the kids who grow up to have no filter. And/or, they become the politicians who legislate in 140 characters or less.
Those monosyllabic Tweets can launch nuclear war, and may well do so … and yet, so many folks still seem to define “bad” words in the most limited and literal terms imaginable.
Which is why the internet is losing its damn mind over Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last week. People have clearly caught FEELINGS about her use of the word “pussy,” which, not for nothing, was not enough to keep the self-proclaimed pussy grabber himself out of the White House.
I guess it’s different when a woman says it. Especially when a woman of color says it.
As ever, straight white dudes can say whatever the fuck they want, and basic rules of civilization need not apply. Women use the same words in the most satirical way, and the white world loses its damn mind because DECORUM and manners. Suddenly these are values again.
Gag me with a white plastic spoon. Words are words and sometimes strong ones are called for. Especially if you are a woman trying to cultivate a voice that cuts through patriarchal bullshit. Especially if you find yourself constantly edited by other people’s comfort zones.
Language is a gift, and some people know how employ that gift better than others. Throwing swears into a sentence because you don’t know bigger and better words? That’s a crime against discourse. It’s tacky and crass and makes you look stupid. But using the strongest words you know to convey the strongest feelings you have? Or using the slang to convey that you have an appropriate grasp on your cultural context? Legit forms of art and public discourse.Also legit, especially if you are a faith leader: using occasional slang to convey that Jesus-type people are real and actual people and don’t take ourselves too seriously and maybe we aren’t so scary and you can let down your hair and be yourself around us. The world is longing for that kind of authenticity right about now.
So let’s skip all the pearl clutching over the occasional *@%&*$.
Speaking of “pearl clutching,” (def: the scandalized reaction of very proper ladies to any hint of impropriety), Jamie Wright (aka, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary) has a new book out. And it has some language in it that does not always go down so well in the Christian circles that make up her audience. Her answer to the “pearl clutching” crowd is: buy the book, take a black marker, and censor it for yourself before handing off a copy to your grandma.
Since our reactions to certain words are deeply personal and sometimes arbitrary, and one person’s swear word might be another person’s gospel, this seems like solid wisdom.
When I was in the final editing phase of my latest book, I felt like the copy editor (contracted by the publisher and anonymous throughout) was always trying to dial back my tone and temper my stronger words. “Shit” became “stuff.” “Bitches” became bleeps. Etc. I came to take pleasure in hitting that “REJECT CHANGES” button. But the best part was, when I made my own reference to “pearl clutching,” the editorial note said, IS THIS A SEX THING?
Um … sure hon. But if you don’t know, I can’t help you.
Anyway. How many bad words are there? It depends on who you fucking ask, kid. Because for some of us, “bad” words are words that demean women and objectify their bodies; words that hurt and bully people with disabilities; words that shame kids whose gender or sexuality doesn’t quite fit in the square white box. Those are the kinds of words that should keep you from certain jobs and authority positions. Words that should get you edited by the decency of society at large, and that should put you on the bench for life when it comes to having any kind of public platform. But alas, we don’t always get to decide what is “acceptable” speech.
In any case, there seem to be a whole hell of a lot more swear words that are off-limits if you’re a girl, because people get all super stuffy about how ladylike and ‘nice’ you are. If you’re a bro, say whatever, and get major points for just showing up and keeping your damn pants on for an hour because that’s the world we live in.
We’re working on it. And in that work, in this particular world, sometimes strong words are called for. Some people will think those words are too much. Daughter of my heart, they will think YOU are too much. Those are not your people.
Words are a gift. They can build up or tear down, they can help or harm. They can cut a razor sharp truth in the air, or they can just sort of ramble around and land on nothing. Sometimes you need a six-syllable dramatic entrance, and sometimes you just need a four-letter nuance, because sometimes, the world is just some kinda bullshit and if you don’t say so, nobody else fucking will.