It is no small thing to be a self-proclaimed lover of the f-word. American culture has always thrived on the puritan and even though we hear often the cliche that, “we need civility more today now than ever,” the truth is that there has always been a pressure to perform a certain kind of civility that usually foregrounds speaking to one another in a polite tone. And that means no f-bombs, my tender-eared listeners.
But I’m going to pose the radical idea that people can be polite, maybe even civil, and still sprinkle in some profanity. Or, to put it differently, that maybe we can find other ways to measure how well we treat each other without resorting to the ambiguous and fraught “tones of our voices” and degree to which we’ve managed to sanitize our language.
Sanitization, good for fighting Coronavirus, bad for language needed to think about solutions to Coronavirus.Tweet
Being a decent human being doesn’t come down to a word formula; decency is an attitude that everybody deserves a generous read at first. Not forever, but at first.
You can deliver incivility in 100% Disney-approved, G-rated language and be incredibly civil while you toss around f-bombs like you just sat on the pointy corner of a seatbelt. It’s not the curse words or lack thereof that determine civility.
That said, while too much cursing may not necessarily be uncivil, it does, at a certain point, become overkill as the presumed edginess of profanity in public takes over actually saying anything interesting.
Everything overdone is bad because it becomes a cliche. Everything done too much is a net loss. That principle is true of rhetoric across the board and particularly of profanity.
Like this book, Thug Kitchen, that keeps showing up on my radar presumably because social media algorithms assume that being edgy also means being crass. The book is basically an in-your-face assault about how to be a badass thug vegan. And I have nothing against vegans but the way this book was written…it’s like I GET IT– YOU’RE SO HARD.
On the cover of the book is the motto of Thug Kitchen: eat like you give a fuck. I’m good with that. One fuck. Nicely placed. Strong sentiment of environmental and ethical responsibility and off-beat for a cookbook. So far so good. It resonates with what I’m always saying: speak like you give a fuck.
Moving further into the book we get to an intro page that reads as follows, which I will do read using the voice Eliza Schlessinger uses in the P-90 X joke:
“What the fuck is this? This is a fucking wake up call. This is for that section of the grocery store that you avoid. This is for drive-thru lines so long that they block traffic. This is for ketchup and pizza qualifying as fucking as vegetables. Welcome to Thug Kitchen, bitches, we’re here to help. Inspire some motherfuckers to eat goddamn vegetables. Our motto is simple: eat like you give a fuck.”Thug Kitchen (Cookbook)
Okay there cookbook–now just slow your roll. I’m only here to find a good recipe for portobello mushroom carpaccio. We do NOT know each other like that.
But let’s be good rhetorical critics and look at what’s working here before we tackle the promiscuous use of f-bombs.
I like that there’s a single theme that organizes the cook book; instead of just “oh, here are vegan recipes” there’s also a sense that the book is constructing you as the kind of person who makes an investment or gives a fuck about the impact of your food consumption. That actually takes some courage because a lot of people don’t give a fuck. To be the type of person who gives fucks about something, you have to be a thoughtful person and you have to, like, if you’re in a group of people eating five hundred pounds of cheeseburger from some shitty factory farm, say, “hey maybe we don’t do this cheeseburger schormagsberg again.” Giving a fuck requires you to stick out and disrupt the norm.
So I’m here for the spirit of Thug Kitchen. But the rhetorical performance of said spirit is problematic. Two reasons.
One, it’s obviously racial appropriation. I checked, both of these people are white. They have a podcast called “Mother Forkers” and that’s funny. But being white and calling anything “thug” anything is…well…let’s just say it’s definitely part of the problem and not the solution.
Two: the aggressive assault of the addressee is overkill. It might hit somebody’s vibe maybe–I don’t know those people and they probably aren’t you if I had to guess–but I get that it works for some people. So the authors could use it SOMEtimes. But instead they use it ALL the time and it is Tedious-A-F.
It’s not the f-bomb specifically that’s the problem; it’s that they throw it around indiscriminately. Then they make an abrupt 180 with the bizarrely-placed statement, “Welcome to Thug Kitchen, bitches, we’re here to help.” Like, you are? Really? Because you seem to STRONGLY disapprove of my life style based on your eggregious use of the word “fuck” to describe kitchen condiments.
Yes we’re all very impressed. We get it, you’re the first cookbook whose #1 ingredient is profanity. But there’s no purpose. You’re just not a good writer and want to get people to buy your book because they’re shocked. That’s not interesting or thoughtful or valuable. It’s still cliche just from an opposite direction. You can be cliche by having no opinion and just saying things are nice and cool or you can be cliche by saying horrible, offensive shit to people…
Because neither of those require any thought.
It’s the nuanced in-between place where thoughtfulness is. When Thug Kitchen screams at me,
“We don’t understand why eating real, healthy food has to be such a BIG FUCKING DEAL,”Thug Kitchen Cookbook
they undermine their own point. It’s NOT a big deal. But then you MADE it a big deal with all of your f-words and capital letters. They’ve given away their own gimmick on this one.
To swear is to make a vow, like, swear on a Bible or whatever. Making profanity a kind of promise, a commitment. That’s how I like to think of “bad words” like fuck. When you say them, you make a promise about your claim and language that you can’t hide. You have made an explicit commitment to a certain identity in your speech. I appreciate that because most people do not think of their speech as a commitment or promise to our audience or our identity. You can certainly use explicit language just to pretend that you mean what you say, but either way, the use of the words itself marks your language as more significant. Cursing, which also means profanity, works kind of similarly in the sense you mark your words as having a direct, often negative, effect on the world.
But that doesn’t work if every other word out of your mouth is fuck.
I don’t think using profanity “proves” that I’m authentic but I think it’s a step in that direction. And it also creates a sense of responsibility for me that I am going to use my words–all my words, including profanity–responsibly, meaning I’m going to take responsibility for them.
That begs the question: what does thoughtful profanity look like? Well, I found an example, of all places, in podcast culture. The name of the podcast is “Losing 100 Pounds with Phit-n-Phat” and it is hosted by two women, Corinne Crabtree and Kathy Hartman. Their catchphrase is “Real diet talk from someone who defeated a lifetime of obesity and now teaches you.” I’m going to play you an excerpt from a Facebook live titled, “How to keep going on your diet after the new year’s excitement wears off,” in which this Corinne woman does the best job of defending the f word that I’ve ever heard:
First of all, notice how strategic the use of the word fuck actually is. It’s not all over the place; it’s judicious. It has to be or it fails to make it’s point. Second, it points out the way that profanity often gets thrown up as an excuse not to listen. Now, in some cases, that’s true. I’m probably not going to get my recipes from Thug Kitchen because I hate the way they talk to me. But that’s an egregious use of the f-word. If someone throws up an occasion curse word and you’re like, “I’m out,” that would be the same as me quitting Al-Anon because sometimes people in the room reference God. It’s really just an excuse not to listen and that extends across the board whether it’s God or the f-word or occasionally slipping into some Spanglish. Is it really making it THAT hard for you to process what is being said?
The stuff about authenticity gets into trouble a little bit, however. It’s unlikely that anyone, ever, has in fact done “jack shit” to change for someone. We all change for people all of the time in all different ways. You couldn’t survive if you didn’t. I was a fucking moron when I was 17. If I hadn’t changed in response to other people, I would most certainly be helping my heroin addict boyfriend fill out disability paperwork right now. But I think the point being made isn’t literal; Corinne is talking to people pleasers and trying to show them how they hide behind other people’s behavior to avoid living their life. That’s different than how you might talk to, say, a juvenile delinquent that you’re desperately trying to keep from going off the deep end.
Also, I am wary of the whole “you can just go listen to someone else” argument. In the case of a public Facebook live offering free advice about weight loss, absolutely, swear yourself up a storm and let people just turn your shit off if they don’t like it. Under many conditions however, the whole, “well if you don’t like it, you can just leave,” doesn’t take into account the realities of the situation.
Whether I like it or not, it is, in fact, very hard to be a wielder of the profane word and also not have people around you constantly think that you’re mad at them. When I’m speaking to large groups of people, I generally provide some kind of disclaimer such as, “my energy right now is directed toward our topic of discussion, I am just a person who gets really ramped up about shit, it’s not directed at you, it’s not about you.”
But is it even possible for me to ask others to make that distinction? If others think that the way that I’m talking is making them feel like I’m coming at them or attacking them, do I get to tell them otherwise?
Trying to provide a disclaimer about language effects always raises the fundamental issue of whether the creator of the message has any control over how the message is received. The answer is, no, not really. If you want to say fuck in your discourse then you are responsible for all of its effects, whether or not you think they are fair.
Profanity is like all things rhetorical; it’s just a choice and you have to be willing to accept the consequences, negative and positive, of your choices. There’s no world in which I get the perfect amount of profanity or not-profanity and everyone loves me and no one is ever put off by my mouth. It’s not going to happen. But I also don’t want people ever saying that what I do or say makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe or makes it hard for them to learn. I don’t just brush the reactions of others aside because, “I didn’t mean it that way.” I’m not going to hide behind that shitty outlook.
Our sense of responsibility has to be different in different contexts. As a podcaster or a blogger, I feel a lot more entitled to do what I want because my listeners have a choice; they can turn it off and that is a fair consequence for making a language choice that doesn’t work for them. We are in a very mutually accountable position.
But in other contexts, people don’t have that freedom to turn off things that they believe are upsetting them, something that they are TOTALLY entitled to want to do. If I’m in a team at work where people kind of have to be around me or they can’t pay rent or I’m in a classroom where students have to be with me or they can’t graduate, then my responsibility for my language has to increase considerably.
In those contexts, I essentially have these other people captive and they don’t have any legitimate mode of escape. So if I’m dropping F-bombs left and right and they have a lot of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about it; they’re stuck with no way out.
And it’s even worse if I am in a position of power or leadership where they REALLY can’t stand up for themselves. In those contexts, I still swear sometimes but I work harder to be conscientious that I am no more entitled to swear indiscriminately as others are entitled to not have to hear profanity once in a while. We are all equally entitled and not entitled to an environment in which we are comfortable. I might choose to stick to the safe swear words, like ass or shit. I almost never use bitch, as in “quit your bitching” or tits, as in “this is tits” in general company because of the gender connotations, even though I feel perfectly comfortable using them. I stay away from British slang like twat and cunt for those reasons as well. And I don’t use douche, as in don’t be a douchebag, or dick, as in, don’t be a dickhead because I just don’t vibe with them–those are the profane words of an unthoughtful person.
I’ve also had people tell me to stop using the word Fuck because it has rapey origins .”The acronymic explanation of the origin of ‘fuck’ takes one of two paths,” explains Snopes, “Fornication Under Consent of the King or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.”
“At its surface, the phrase ‘fuck you’ (a pervasive slang even in woke circles) is an outright threat of rape [….] That the word ‘fuck’, laced with overtones of violence, became synonymous with ‘sexual intercourse’ in the evolutionary history of our language is telling of our eagerness to perceive sexual relations as inclusive of a certain degree of violence.”Noor Khan, Youth Kiawaaz
Now, Snopes says that the relationship between the word fuck and non-consensual violence holds no water. But I’m not interested in whether or not the origin story is true. It may have become true at some point, if for no other reason than people believe it to be true.
You can’t make your decisions about language on what you have determined to be “the truth.” If other people think the f-word is rapey and it makes them uncomfortable, then you have to decide if you want to take that into consideration and maybe tone it down in places and spaces where people are forced to interact with you. But don’t mistake that for civility. And don’t underestimate the power of a good f-bomb to make a salient point.
Take that famous profanity scene from the film The King’s Speech, for example, which starred Colin Firth as the stammering Prince Albert of Britain, soon to become King George VI’s and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist retained by the Prince to help him overcome his stutter.
Screenwriter David Seidler won the Oscar for The King’s Speech…at seventy-three, Seidler was the oldest person ever to win the award. Seidler was interviewed by his alma mater, Cornell University, about the film and the cursing scene in particular:
CAM: Why was that scene so important to include?
DS: It’s one of the very few scenes that I could not prove actually happened—but I know it must have, or something very similar to it, because it’s a cathartic moment that every stutterer goes through. In my case I was sixteen. I knew that if I didn’t get a good handle on my stutter by late adolescence, my chances went down precipitously, because the older you get, the harder it is to deal with. I was sixteen, hormones were raging, I couldn’t ask girls out on a date—and even if I could and they said yes, what was the point? I couldn’t talk to them.
So then King’s speech gets picked up, people love it, critical acclaim, wins a million awards. Buuuuttttt…the profanity scene. The scene that a 73 year old man who probably can’t work an iPhone dubbed not only real and necessary but also transformatively cathartic.
As a result of the profanity scene, King’s Speech picked up an R rating from censors in the States, largely due to scenes in which the king utters a succession of curses in an effort to curb his stammer.
To help boost sales, the studio releases a family-friendly PG-13 version of The King’s Speech without the original’s profanity.
And Colin Firth was having none of it.
According to an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Firth hated the PG-13 version. He told reporters,
“It serves a purpose. I’m not someone who’s casual about that kind of language. I take my children to football games. I hate hearing that kind of language in their ears, but I won’t deny them the experience of a live game[…]But in the context of the film it couldn’t be more edifying, more appropriate. It’s not vicious or insulting. It’s not in [a] context that might offend.”
I mean, I had a lady boner for Colin Firth before I came across this interview, but now? Phewie. Like, it’s getting hot, you know what I’m saying?
I get it, you may not consider me a reasonable source for telling you that intentional, thoughtful profanity may have a rhetorical purpose worth revering. I’m some aging hipster hiding behind a microphone with questionable taste in cookbooks. And you may not believe some southern weight loss guru on an instagram Live.
But we’re talking about COLIN FIRTH. Mark Darcy. The guy from Bridget Jones whose name I can’t remember. The Queen of England awarded him the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire for, and I quote, “distinguished, innovative contribution to any area.”
Colin Firth would most certainly not approve of the crass heavy-handedness of Thug Kitchen, or me carelessly dropping F-bombs to unnecessarily aggrandize monroe’s motivated pattern, or you getting annoyed with your administrative assistant and mumbling “fuck this and fuck” that under your breath as you passive aggressively create a toxic work environment.
But if lady-boner-mark-darcy-commander-of-the-order-of-the-british-empire-Colin-Goddamned-Firth thinks that families can and ought to rally together over a cathartic f-bomb dropped strategically amidst a historically sound Oscar-winning period film, then, well, who the fuck are you to say otherwise, really?