The Words We Use

I went to a comedy club with a good friend. It was open mic and people were giving their attempt at entertaining the audience members with their wit. What stood out to me was the relationship between the quality of the comedy and the profanity. The lower the quality of comedy, the more profanity. The better the comedy, the lower the profanity. I’m a writer. I love wit. I love witty people. I appreciate clever stories, puns, interesting observations and everything else that contributes to humor. There was very little to appreciate that night. Only two comedians were actually funny and neither one of them used profanity.

A little about me before I go forward. As I said above, I’m a writer. When people ask what I write about I usually say “human potential.” I want to see humanity flourish. Most of my fiction is inspirational or spiritual in nature yet, I classify myself as agnostic. That classification is extremely intentional. I firmly believe that once we ‘know’ something, we quit searching for answers. I say this to let you know my views on profanity are not religious or moral. My views have everything to do with human potential.

On social media, I’ve seen numerous posts claiming intelligent people use profanity. That may be true. As stated above, I don’t have a moral issue with profanity. Like many fathers, I walk around the house cursing under my breath, “Why can’t they turn off the $%&$#* lights?” I have an intellectual problem with profanity.

From a Newsweek article:
Regular speech is generated in the left hemisphere, in an area of the brain close to the surface. The cerebral cortex, or “gray matter,” is often associated with higher thought processes such as thought and action. “It’s sophisticated,” says Bergen, “and comports with the idea of what it means to be human. Swearing, on the other hand, is generated much deeper in the brain, in regions that are older and more primitive in evolutionary terms, says Bergen. These regions are often found in the right hemisphere in the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system.

Above is a quote from one article and, sure, we can also find quotes stating profanity is good for the brain. But think of the brain as a muscle. Muscles that are used grow in strength, size, and power. Muscles which aren’t used, atrophy. The cerebral cortex, the modern brain, is the reason humans have advanced as we have. A large cerebral cortex gave humans the ability to reason and perform higher brain functions. The limbic system is one of the oldest areas of the brain. It is our fight or flight part of the brain.

Think of the evolution of humanity. We have moved from primitive tribal systems where warring with other tribes was an acceptable norm, to a highly industrialized species, on the verge of colonizing other planets, and the normalization of war is found unacceptable by most people. Humanity is moving from the limbic system being our dominate processing center to the cerebral cortex being our dominate processing center. When choosing to exercise and grow the brain, which part do we want to strengthen?

People have told me repeatedly, ‘It’s just a word.” In some facets, that’s absolutely true. If a German-speaking person invites me to join them for lunch or they tell me I can go copulate with myself, my brain responds the same way. With both sentences, my ears turn the sound waves into nerve impulses and my brain tells me to look confused and shrug my shoulders. But their brain acts differently with the two sentences. These ‘just words’ light up different parts of their brain. Which part of the brain do we want to strengthen?

One of my sons, he was around fourteen at the time, and I volunteered for a local nonprofit to help refurbish a building. Listening to one of the other worker’s talk was almost comical and he wasn’t attempting a stand-up comic routine. He used the f-word about every third word. As a parent, it is my responsibility to guide the growth of my children and monitor what they are exposed to. As parents, neither my wife or I approve of profanity around our children. I understand others have no issues with profanity and if they feel like using it around me, a mature, grown adult, I really don’t care. I don’t see the value in doing so most of the time but, if they feel it enhances their communication, I guess that’s up to them. But as a parent, it does bother me when people swear around my kids. Just like second-hand smoke, there is second-hand language. That language enters the ears of brains which are forming a model of the world. Parents control and monitor what their kids eat to help their bodies be healthy. Parents monitor TV and internet content to help the formation of the world model growing in that mind in hopes of a helping mold a healthy mind. We can argue about what a healthy mind is but it’s the parent’s duty to decide what that is for their child and second-hand language has no more place in that than second-hand smoke.

As a writer, I put lots of words on lots of pages. As a writer, I want those words to be as compelling as possible. As a writer, I look at the words of other writers. With my views of profanity, when a writer uses profanity I try to understand what it adds to the writing. With one writer I know, I read his book and loved his ideas. His book used the f-word with some regularity. I asked him what it added and also said his book had very valuable ideas but, the people who really needed to read it wouldn’t read it because of the profanity. He thought about it for a while, then went through and removed the profanity, rewriting when necessary. It actually improved the quality of the work. The profanity added nothing of substance, detracted from the message and limited his audience.

In writing and comedy, profanity can be a crutch for lack of skill and talent, and that humor does appeal to some. Knowing your audience is important. If the profanity adds to the humor, I’m all in favor of it. If you meet me sometime, and there are no kids around, ask me what Coors Lite and having sex in a canoe have in common. I’ll gladly tell you because the profanity adds to the humor but I’ll let you decide if you want to tell your kids the joke.

One argument I hear repeatedly is that writers need to sound realistic. If they’re writing about a group of people who would use excessive profanity, they need to write excessive profanity. To me, this is a chicken and egg question. At one time, movies, books, TV, music were not laced with profanity and we had some great works of art. People in ‘real’ life used profanity, it was common but I don’t think it was excessive. I don’t recall as a kid, people really swearing around me but maybe my memory is skewed. Nowadays, movies, books, TV, music, are laced with profanity and, in public, second-hand language doesn’t seem to come into awareness with many people. Kids hear this and think this is how people talk in ‘real life’ and then the kids start talking like that. Our media dictates what is fashionable and excessive profanity has become fashionable. I’ve never been a fashionable person.

Humanity is in a quagmire right now. Anger, division, blame, violence, hate, judgment, all fill our social media, news, and entertainment. Our fight or flight portions of our brains are being assaulted. It is my personal choice to exercise my cerebral cortex and let my limbic system atrophy. One way I do this is trying to move my language exclusively to the cerebral cortex.