Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language by Emma Byrne
Some months ago I borrowed a copy of a contemporary novel from the local library. The story had been made into a movie, but by the time I decided it might be worth seeing it had already ended its run in the theaters. I decided to read the book. I couldn’t get past the first page. I didn’t really make it past the first sentence. It contained a word that is still censored in broadcast media and print news sources but that is common in social media. So I closed the book and returned it to the library.
I could have gotten past the profanity, and in hindsight it might have been a good book to read in spite of that feature. I have recently read many other things that are laced with profanity, including The Hate U Give. The next book up in my to-read list is The Catcher in the Rye.
About the same time as I decided not to read the novel mentioned in the first paragraph, I became aware of Emma Byrne’s Swearing Is Good for You. It is quite readable and enjoyable. I have no grounds on which to question the validity of the research cited therein and I won’t attempt to do so, but I have concerns and Byrne gets to them early on.
On page 5 she writes, “Is this book simply an attempt to justify rudeness and aggression? Not at all. I certainly wouldn’t want profanity to become commonplace; swearing needs to maintain its emotional impact in order to be effective.” Profanity is already commonplace in social media, in subscription-based entertainment, and in everyday conversation in some circles. That ship has sailed, and in some respects this book shovels coal into the boiler.
Dr. Byrne makes the point that swearing can act as a pressure-release valve, helping the user avoid violence in circumstances where anger and frustration have created the urge to act out. That is a worthy goal for any ethically sound behavior, but I wonder if swearing is still up to the task given how freely it is used. Efforts to restore civility to public speech and private conversation might be just as effective in this age of extreme polarization and aggression.
Dr. Byrne also argues that swearing can help new employees fit in, especially where in situations where they might struggle for acceptance by their coworkers because of gender bias. I can’t argue with this. In my industry gender equality is well established; no new employee should ever struggle for acceptance because of gender bias. My industry may be exceptional in that regard.
Neither can I argue against Dr. Byrne’s point that swearing can help alleviate physical or emotional pain. More on this in a bit.
With regard to gender and swearing, Dr. Byrne confronts efforts by one James V. O’Connor, a writer and motivational speaker who went on a crusade to rid the workplace of foul language. Mr. O’Connor observed this about women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1950s and 1960s: “[T]hey had to be one of the guys; they had to act like men, dress like men, wear suits and everything else, and try to talk tough, and they thought this had to include swearing.” (p. 100) Dr. Byrne responds with this question: “Is this what the fight against swearing comes down to? A nostalgia for a simpler, happier time? There are so many questions that I want to ask him about the points he’s just made, but his courteous certainty makes me lose my nerve. I thank him, wish him all the best, and scurry back to the twenty-first century, where language might be casual but at least I get to wear trousers if I want to.” That’s an interesting notion, and it’s not difficult to find people who yearn for simpler, happier times. But it’s not necessarily what an objection to swearing is about.
I question the need for swearing on the merits. Why do we need to swear? Why can’t we control the urge to swear as we would control the urge to hit other people when we are angry, or the urge to get in a car when we’re drunk and our reasoning faculties are compromised? We control the urge to steal from others, to cheat on our taxes, and to cheat on our spouses. Can’t we exercise some restraint in our speech as well, even when swearing might relieve momentary pain or anger?
Consider, also, what great resources we have to use in the place of foul language. The English language is so rich in vocabulary, borrowed from many other languages. Metaphors for expressing anger, frustration, sorrow, and pain have filled our literature for centuries. Surely we can find and make use of them with a little effort.
I challenge readers to think, too, of the countless hours of thoughtful broadcast-medium programming that are filled with content that cannot, because of government regulations, include certain words. We’ve created mechanisms for keeping swearing out of that environment. Even sports broadcasting must be free from foul language. Why must it be a large and growing part of everyday speech in other environments, especially social media, where it seems to be a means of establishing or maintaining credibility with certain audiences? I would submit that it does not need to be.
This is not an argument for greater censorship of speech, except perhaps for self-censorship. Free speech is a pillar of a free society. Nor is this an attempt to denigrate Dr. Byrne or run down her thoughtful, well-researched book. It is an attempt to say that we for whom English is a first language have adopted swearing as a normal and even normative part of our communication. To our harm. We can do better than simply accepting that.
Thanks for stopping by.