Philosophy and Profanity.
Profanity (aka cursing, cussing, swearing, etc.) is civil-disobedient, counter-cultural, defiant, disruptive, edgy speech.
(Profanity can also occur via other forms of expression, e.g., gestures, voiced music/singing, or pictures, although for simplicity’s sake in this little essay, I’ll focus mostly on speech.)
The terminology of profanity in contemporary secular societies usually derives from words standing for excretory or sexual bodily functions (generally human, although sometimes those of other animals, e.g., chickens or bulls), the body-parts associated with those, or sexual practices, especially including copulation, procreation, and the kinship relations deriving from procreation (e.g., “you bastard!,” “you motherfucker!,” etc., etc.).
Alongside this bodily or carnal kind of profanity, however, there is also what I’ll call blasphemous profanity, deriving from words used in religious practices, especially as regards death, God, other gods or sanctified beings, sacred images, sacred objects, or sacred places.
So profanity, in general, is either carnal profanity or blasphemous profanity.
The etymology of profane terminology, in turn, strongly suggests that profanity is an expression of civilized human anxiety about our animal embodiment; about our affects, desires, emotions, and passions; about our mortality; and about deities and religion.
As such, profanity has many uses, for example:
(i) abuse, antagonism, or hatred (“fuck you, asshole,” “fuck off!,” “you’re such a shithead!”),
(ii) intensification (“wow, it’s fucking hot outside”),
(iii) social bonding (“hey bro!, what the fuck’s happening?”),
(iv) humor (“there’s no shit like bullshit”), and
(v) cathartic exclamation (“fuck!, it’s cold,” “fuck!, that hurt,” “oh, fuuuuuck!,” etc., etc.).
Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought,[i] lists five uses of profanity, only some of which overlap with the ones I mentioned; so it seems self-evident that there are many more uses than just five.[ii]
In particular, profanity also has what I’ll call morally and sociopolitically significant uses, e.g.,
(i) taboo-breaking, repression-releasing, free speech, e.g., the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce, and
(ii) emancipatory free speech, e.g., “fuck capitalism!,” “fuck the police!,” “fuck the Second Amendment!,” “fuck the law!,” “fuck the government!,” “fuck the State!,” “fuck God!,” “fuck the gods!,” “je vous dis, merde!,” etc, etc.
Not only excessively mild, polite, or repressed people, and prudes more generally, but also and especially coercive moralists and coercive authoritarians, are particularly disgusted, angered, and offended by profanity.
In Australia, e.g., public carnal profanity is both illegal and also unfairly policed:
In Australia, swearing is ubiquitous. Yet each year, thousands of Australians incur fines or criminal convictions for swearing. The use of offensive, indecent or obscene language in public is punishable in all Australian states and territories. Police typically punish people for saying the words “fuck” and/or “cunt” in their presence.
Between July 2015 and June 2016, NSW police issued more than 1,836 on-the-spot fines (known as Criminal Infringement Notices) for using offensive language, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
In that year, a further 1,167 adults and 145 children appeared before a NSW court charged with using offensive language. Indigenous Australians represented 17% of these adults, and 26% of these children (despite comprising only 3% of the NSW population).[iii]
And of course the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting in 2015 horrifically shows us what coercive moralists and coercive authoritarians are capable of in the case of blasphemous profanity.
The basic tactic for coercive moralists and coercive authoritarians with respect to profanity of any kind is to assert that any public or interpersonal occurrence of profanity is abusive, antagonistic, or hate-expressing, and furthermore to claim as “proof” of this patently false assertion that because they are (or because “the community as a whole” is) deeply disgusted, angered, and offended by that profanity, therefore they’re harmed by it and victims of it–no matter what the user of profanity actually intended.
Even in cases when the user of profanity actually does intend abuse, antagonism, or the expression of hatred, coercive moralists and coercive authoritarians about profanity deliberately and highly self-servingly violate the classic, commonsense axiom of children’s-play wisdom, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”
The deeper point is that although profane words can sometimes harm others, by means of violations of sufficient respect for human dignity and the associated coercive oppression that goes along with such violations (e.g., physical violence, or threats of physical violence, “up against the wall, motherfucker!,” the sticks, stones, or bullets that break your bones) more generally, merely being deeply disgusted, angered, or offended by profane words simply isn’t harm in this robust moral and political sense.
In any case, since coercive moralists and coercive authoritarians love to criticize, reprimand, and punish profanity, as a direct consequence, social conformists, and obedient, orthodox, good little do-bees, especially including chickenshits and ass-kissers, and extra-especially professionals of all kinds, never use profanity whenever or wherever they might be criticized, reprimanded, or punished for doing so.
Hence a great many or even most professional academic philosophers, as careerists, social conformists, and obedient, orthodox, good little do-bees, not to mention chickenshits and ass-kissers, never use profanity in professional contexts, their teaching, or their writing.
Harry Frankfurt managed to loosen this invisible straitjacket just a little by publishing the essay, “On Bullshit” in the 1980s, and then later making lots of money from republishing a small-book version of it in the 00s;[iv] but he was already a well-known, high-status Ivy League full professor when he did that, and his use of the comparatively mild carnally profane term “bullshit” was highly constrained.
And the same goes, mutatis mutandis–no, that’s not Latin cussing, it’s fancy-ass Scholastic philosophical jargon, meaning “with appropriate changes made for (usually minor) differences in context”–for the younger professional academic philosopher Aaron James, who published a book in 2012 called Assholes: A Theory,[v] and also made a lot of money.
But now consider Diogenes, the counter-cultural philosophical vagrant who masturbated in public, and his equally carnally profane follow-up comment, “if only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly!”
Diogenes’s philosophically-driven, taboo-breaking, repression-releasing, carnal profanity, on the one hand, and Frankfurt’s mildly daring but still fully professionally-acceptable use of “bullshit,” or James’s similar use of “asshole,” on the other, are as far apart as the real, “human, all-too-human” world of adults and the infant’s playpen.
Now it’s important to note that the use of profanity in the arts has been avant garde, then acceptable, and then finally commonplace, for at least a century.
But the same is emphatically not true in the professional academy, and especially emphatically not true in professional academic philosophy, which—leaving aside the occasional Frankfurt or James, deploying professionally acceptable “playpen profanity”— has become on the contrary increasingly intolerant, humorless, coercive-&-moralistic, coercive-&-authoritarian, taboo-ridden, repressive, rigid, sanctimonious, and even downright puritanical since the 1990s, and especially during the last decade.
This is clearly demonstrated by l’affaire Sartwell in 2016.[vi]
The categorical difference between the attitudes and practices of contemporary artists, and the attitudes and practices of contemporary professional academic philosophers, can obviously be traced directly to the nature and dynamics of the social institution of the professional academy and of higher education more generally, since World War 2.
In any case, the borderless or anarcho- philosophical use of expressively powerful profanity in philosophical conversation, teaching, and writing is well outside professional academic and higher-educational norms, and also well outside the norms of mainstream “popular” or “public” philosophy, and therefore is apt to be regarded by coercive moralists and coercive authoritarians–and their ass-kissers–with disgust, anger, and/or offense-taking, and as a consequence, with censoriousness, outright censorship, and/or punishment.
And this is true, even though (or perhaps especially because) the intentions of borderless or anarcho- philosophers in using profanity are essentially, and almost exclusively–although often there’s humorous intent too, as per Lenny Bruce-style comedy–a matter of either taboo-breaking/repression-releasing or emancipatory free speech.
So my conclusion is that Diogenes and the borderless or anarcho- philosophers, like the artists, are right about profanity, and that the professional academic philosophers are not only wrong about profanity, but also seriously fucked-up about it.
More specifically, not only have they let their “human, all-too-human” anxiety about our animal embodiment, affects, desires, emotions, passions, mortality, deities, and religion, run away with them, but also, and much worse, they’ve become major-league coercive moralistic and authoritarian tight-asses.[vii]
[i] S. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window into Human Nature (New York: Penguin/Viking, 2007).
[ii] See, e.g., J. Harbeck, “Mind Your Language! Swearing,” BBC Culture (6 March 2015), available online at URL = <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150306-how-to-swear-around-the-world>.
[iii] See E. Methvyn, “How Pop Culture Can (and Should) Change Legal Views on Swearing,” The Conversation (11 April 2017), available online at URL = < <https://theconversation.com/how-pop-culture-can-and-should-change-legal-views-on-swearing-74539>.
[iv] H. Frankfurt, “On Bullshit,” in H. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 117-133; and H. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005).
[v] A. James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Penguin/Random House, 2012).
[vi] See, e.g., Z, “Abusive Speech vs. Edgy Speech: Professional Philosophy’s Fanny Squeers and Professional Philosophy’s Lenny Bruce,” APP (29 February 2016), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2016/02/29/abusive-speech-vs-edgy-speech-professional-philosophys-fanny-squeers-and-professional-philosophys-lenny-bruce/>; Z and C. Sartwell, “What It’s Like To Exit Professional Philosophy,” APP (3 March 2016), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2016/03/03/what-its-like-to-exit-professional-philosophy-crispin-sartwell/>; W and X, “On Playing the ‘Mental Health Issues’ Card in the Crispin Sartwell Debate,” APP (14 March 2016), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2016/03/14/on-playing-the-mental-health-issues-card-in-the-crispin-sartwell-debate/>; and FK, Z, and W, “The Leiter-Motif in the Sartwell Debate, and the Double-Edged Sword,” APP (17 March 2016), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2016/03/17/edgy-speech-double-feature-1-the-leiter-motif-in-the-sartwell-debate-and-the-double-edged-sword/>; and X, “How to Become an Official Enemy of the Professional Academic State: The Timeline of the Sartwell Case, and What It All Means,” APP (26 May 2016), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2016/05/26/how-to-become-an-official-enemy-of-the-professional-academic-state/>
[vii] Many thanks to Robert Whyte for help with some of the references, for his highly-skilled philosophico-artistic use of profanity, and especially for asking me whether there’s such a thing as the philosophy of profanity, or not: well, there is now.