There is a part of me that is always surprised when adults take offence at rude words.
Violent speech, verbal abuse, language harnessed to the politics of hate: these are, yes, abhorrent. In their cruder forms, such statements are often expressed obscenely. This is especially clear in the sexualised vileness rained down on outspoken women. But it isn’t the words themselves that are offensive: it is, rather, their intention, their use as weapons.
Hate speech is loathsome in all its forms, but is most dangerous when it is couched in the language of respectability. The argument for deliberately inflicting pain on human bodies is written in dry legalese. The courteous racist insinuates that non-white people are – at the core of their natures – inferior human beings, shiftlessly criminal, innately dishonest and prone to motiveless destruction. The politician glibly erases the struggles of the poor, claiming their plight is due to their own inherent laziness and immorality. And so on.
It’s so easy to casually strip people of their humanity. We read the anodyne language of respectable bigotry in the news every day – and yet nobody complains of its obscenity. But let loose a stray reference to a human body part or sexual practice and suddenly the moral police are up in arms, defending the borders of ‘civil discourse’.
Americans call swearing ‘cursing’. In Australia, words like ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ are commonly referred to as the ‘magic word’. These colloquial usages echo ancient beliefs about the malign powers of language: the dark capacity of a word to transform reality, to enchant or mislead, to smear, to condemn.
Even in these godless times, words are magic. They have force and meaning; they write their consequences on real human bodies. Sometimes this black magic is where the real abomination occurs. For example: refugees fleeing unimaginable cruelties turn into ‘economic migrants’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’, and suddenly the rape of children in concentration camps becomes justice, the fair response of the state to a dangerous moral infection. You can see the truth of the bureaucratic euphemisms in feral internet commenters: they are adept translators, stripping official language of its bland dress to reveal its naked violence.
Obscene abuse can be the vilest of weapons, the bludgeon that lurks in the alley to rough up those protesting the podiums of respectable hate speech. But I want to speak up for profanity. After all, the vulgar tongue is one of the most enjoyable organs of language. Like our bodies, it’s not the sole property of violence and hatred.
Here is a list of synonyms for obscenity: indecency, immorality, impropriety, foulness, coarseness, crudeness, grossness, vileness, nastiness, scabrousness, lasciviousness, lechery, degeneracy, unwholesomeness, depravity, amorality, debauchery, dissoluteness and prurience. All of them suggest a judge looking over his glasses from a high bench.
And here is another list: salaciousness, smuttiness, smut, lewdness, rudeness, vulgarity, dirtiness, dirt, filthiness, filth, impurity, immodesty, indelicacy, indecorousness, ribaldry, bawdiness, suggestiveness, eroticism, carnality, licentiousness, libidinousness, scatology, profanity, salacity, lubricity.
Lubricity. The body fluid with its lust for life, laughing as it kicks off the shackles of propriety.
Obscenity reminds us that language is an embodied thing, a creation of breath and soft mucous membranes. There is much joy to be had in rudeness. And let’s face it: bodies are hilarious. From the moment we are old enough to giggle at a fart, we all know this.
A large part of the social condemnation of rudeness is about class, about the necessary distinction of proper citizens from the vulgar masses.
But there is a gendered edge, too: it’s still considered much more shocking for women to swear. Once, the ears of the delicately nurtured female were protected from crude language, lest they explode. As wife and mother, Woman was the guardian of family morality, a domestic Border Force taming masculine excesses.
Times have not changed as much as we might wish: women still get much worse shtick if they venture into the crude linguistic spaces reserved for men. If a woman swears, the world trembles in its cradle. Suspiciously lubricious, ominously labile and disturbingly ambiguous, the female must be kept in her place, a partially tongued servant of the moral order. The obscene woman can only be a whore, the object of sexual violence. Her embodied language must not be her own; it must only be used against her.
Obscenity is transgression, for both good and ill. It’s the outrageous liquidity of the desiring cunt, the burlesque artist who performs her own desire, the hilarious, autonomous woman who refuses the degradation of objecthood. It’s the vulgar trashing of unearned privilege, the defiance of purse-lipped hypocrisies that demean the marginalised. It’s the joyous bubble of laughter that shames shame itself. A cocked snook at death.
So fuck the polite fascists. Fuck the dickless MRA rapists. Fuck the respectability police. Fuck the pusillanimous racists, the homophobes quivering in their faecal beds of shame, the suited, smooth-skinned predators who shit on the poor. Fuck them all.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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