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On Swearing (lecture by Rebecca Roache)

Last Thursday’s Special Ethics Seminar at St Cross College was booked out very quickly, and the audience’s high expectations were fully justified. Rebecca Roache returned from Royal Holloway to Oxford to give a fascinating lecture on the nature and ethics of swearing. Roache has two initial questions: ‘Is there anything wrong with this fucking question?’, and ‘Is this one any f***ing better?’. (Her answers turn out to be, essentially, ‘No’ to both.)

Roache begins by distinguishing swear words from slurs, noting that merely mentioning swear words (as I did above) is seen as more acceptable than using them. She then moves to the questions of whether and why swearing might be thought offensive, and if so what we should do about it. First, she points out that we may think swearing should be permitted by law, even if it’s morally wrong (as the law allows us, say, to betray our friends). She then goes on to consider reasons why people might think swearing morally wrong in so far as it is offensive: harm; impoliteness; aggression; and linguistic impoverishment.

None of these reasons impresses Roache. There’s no evidence that swearing is actually harmful (e.g. by corrupting the young), and it can be beneficial in various ways (e.g. by being cathartic). And swearing isn’t always impolite, aggressive, or linguistically deficient.

But, granting that it is sometimes offensive, we might then ask whether using asterisks is any better. Here Roache discusses a broad range of ways in which we might claim that asterisks are different from actually mentioning or using the words themselves, and is again unimpressed by any attempt to use these claims in support of the conclusion that using asterisks is less offensive.

One suggestion is that ‘F***ing’ lets us acknowledge to our reader or listener that we recognize the offensiveness of ‘fucking’ and want to mitigate it. But, as Roache points out, this will work only if ‘f***ing’ is indeed less offensive than ‘fucking’.

The word ‘offensive’ can be understood in at least two ways, one normative and one descriptive. In the normative sense, an offensive item is one that it’s appropriate to be offended by; in the descriptive sense, an offensive item is one that people actually are or might well be offended by.

I’m inclined to agree with Roache that swearing is never offensive in the normative sense. This is because I believe there are no norms of appropriateness governing feelings – they are just things that happen to us. But because they do happen to us, they raise questions about what we should do in response to them. Feeling offended is unpleasant, and to that extent – I would suggest – harmful. Given that it is a fact that people are usually less offended by ‘f***ing’ than by ‘fucking’, that seems to me a good reason, in many contexts, for using ‘f***ing’ – even if it’s true that the felt offence rests on a false belief about what is and isn’t appropriate. Further, using ‘fucking’ when ‘f***ing’ would do might constitute a form of second-order offensiveness: my audience might not unreasonably think that my risking harm to them for no good reason is itself something offensive.

Roache concludes that we should swear more, and not use asterisks. Though I think swearing is often permissible, I’m inclined to the view that – given people’s current attitudes – we should swear less, and use asterisks more.

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17 Comment on this post

  1. This is because I believe there are no norms of appropriateness governing feelings – they are just things that happen to us

    Really? The feeling of being outraged by torture is neither appropriate nor appropriate? Neither is the feeling of being afraid of planes? So how do you explain the fact that such feeling can be more or less rational, or be more or less supported by reasons?

    Thus, the quoted claim seems to fly in the face of everything we know about the justification of certain feelings, i.e. emotions. Now if anger is the emotion that is justified just in case it responses to an offense, and if someone’s swearing can be a reason for being offended, it follows that swearing might be offensive in the normative sense.

    1. It seems to me that the difference between what you’re saying and the quote is that there could be a difference between thinking that a feeling is appropriate and being able to find a justification to it. I mean, you can justify your disgust toward your collegue spitting all over the desk saying that’s not hygenic, but saying it isn’t appropriate implies a realistic conception toward moral concepts like “good” or “bad”. Which means that you think that “spitting” is always bad, for example.

  2. I always assumed that replacing certain letters with *** was just a practical measure to prevent children learning new vocabulary. As such it seems quite sensible whatever your view of swearing (given that nearly everyone agrees that swearing is only socially acceptable in certain circumstances and the children who did not know the word also not know the acceptable circumstances)

  3. I’m inclined to think they’ve both got a bit of the wrong end of the stick there in terms of offensiveness – this thing about “no norms of appropriateness governing feelings”. Of course there are, they are called taboos. Sex is a taboo topic, so the “norm” is to be offended by mention of it, and using “fuck” as a swear word thus *should* offend, and really only works because the person using it is actively breaking a taboo and thus acting against cultural norms. Which is why “for fuck’s sake” has happily replaced “for God’s sake” – because using the Lord’s name in vain is just not taboo any more for most people. Whether anybody is *actually* offended by it is a rather different matter – any swearing by Christ which most people don’t think anything about can be highly offensive in a very religious community. Or when was the last time you heard someone swear using the word “whore” in English? French, Spanish and Italian are a completely different matter, of course – Catholics, eh?
    I am also completely against the use of asterisks – anyone who is less offended by ‘f***ing’ than by ‘fucking’ strikes me as somewhat stupid; it’s not like whoever writes it fools anybody. It’s just plain hypocrisy, pretending you are not really swearing or are trying to be less offensive when really you aren’t at all. If you want to swear in writing without being explicit, I’d suggest the classic comicbook “profanitype” of ?#@&%#!!!

  4. Louis CK would (based on one of his bits about the “n-word”) have something to say about substituting asterisks. He criticizes those who say “the N-word” rather than saying the N-world, on the grounds that they are merely forcing OTHER people to fill in the blanks, to say the forbidden word in their heads. In other words, if you’re going to use the word, use it and take responsibility for it, rather than tricking other people into using it.

    1. I find this ingenious and quite convincing, thank you for sharing it!

      To come back to my preceding comment, I think it is very hard to deny that emotions can be assessed for appropriateness, just like other attitudes. But whereas the appropriateness of beliefs is their being true, the appropriateness of emotions is their responding to certain evaluative aspects of situations (i.e. values).

      However, the idea that in general people should refrain from swearing does not require this presupposition. All it requires is that swearing is a type of speech act that expresses aggressivity toward the hearers. That swearing expresses aggressivity does not depend on a particular hearer’s actually responding to it with anger, resent or any particular “negative” feeling; it merely depends on its being a type of aggression. People should not be aggressive in general, and thus, should regrain swearing unless they make it obvious to the hearers that they are not thereby committing themselves to an aggressive behaviour.

  5. Thanks, Andrews (and others). Of course, I’m not denying that we have norms of appropriateness which we can apply to the emotions. But these norms are like those of etiquette: they are not truly normative. Imagine a world in which people had evolved differently, so that they experienced the feeling of anger when in danger, and the feeling of fear when insulted, everything else remaining the same (including their beliefs). If we’re talking about *feelings* — or, if you prefer, the non-cognitive element in the emotions — there seems to me no reason to think that any particular feeling is especially appropriate or inappropriate to certain circumstances. Nor is there any reason to feel them. Imagine beings who could recognize danger just like us, and avoid it just like us, but who lacked the capacity for fear. Would they be rationally defective in some way? I can’t myself see why.

    1. The key element that might be missing in your reasoning, Roger, is that emotions seem to be intentional states, i.e. they respond to specific aspects of circumstances, as I named named above, evaluative or affective aspects, in virtue of being directed at them. Those aspects are properties of circumstances, not just of subjects experiencing those circumstances, and thus constitute objective grounds for the normativity emotions: they make it appropriate to feel a *specific* emotion directed at them rather than *any* emotion and instead of *none*.

      For instance, the fact that a subject is close to a tiger with long, sharp teeth is a ground for him to feel afraid, or, for that matter, the fact that a subject is exposed to an aggresssive speech-act is a ground for him to feel offended/to be angry. In either case, some evaluative aspects of the circumstances (i.e. proximity with sharp, long teeth or with a token of an aggressive act) make it appropriate for the subject to feel in a particular way toward those aspects (afraid, angry).

      The crucial point is that this normative relation of *making appropriate* goes beyond *constituting a sufficient reason for*. Someone who is unfraid despite her standing in the vicinity of a free-roaming tiger with long and sharp teeth *fails* at responding appropriately to the circumstances. Same goes for the second example (assuming that there is indeed of token of an aggressive act targetting the subject).

      If you are interested about all this there is a very readable book from Deonna J & F. Terroni (2012): The Emotions: A Philosophical Introduction, Routledge.

      1. Thanks, Andrews. Of course you’re right that the emotions are often understood intentionally, and I have no problem with that. I was talking about the use of the term to apply only to the relevant feeling. It may well be appropriate, when confronted by a tiger, to think: ‘That thing is pretty dangerous — I should get out of here’. But only on a strongly cognitivist account does that count as the emotion of fear. In other words, beliefs might be appropriate, but feelings aren’t — and I’m assuming that one can’t experience the emotion of fear without the feeling of fear.

        1. Thank you Roger Crisp for your reply

          You are right that only on a strong cognitivisit view of emotions does an evaluative belief count as an emotion. To be sure, this is not the kind of view I am presupposing here. However, even if strong cognitivism was false, it would be invalid to infer that feelings are not appropriate. For even if there is an essential component of emotions that cannot be analysed in terms of being directed at such-and-such evaluative features of circumstances (i.e. a “bare feeling”), the occurrence of such a bare feeling depends on the subject’s being directed at such-and-such evaluatives features of circumstances. So even though the bare feeling itself might not be assessable for appropriateness, the emotion of which it an essential component might be.

          Of course, this does not mean that those evaluative features are mind-independent propertie, as a realist about values would hold. It suffices that those features are grounded in non-evaluatives features of circumstances (cf. my examples above: the dangerosity of the fear-situation is grounded in the relation the subject bears to a certain tiger; the offensiveness of the anger-situation is grounded in the relation the subject bears to a certain act). Those non-evaluative features can be described as the evaluative-making features of the situation.

          Now coming back to the main point of this discussion: if a token of a swearing counts as a token of aggressive behaviour (i.e typically an insult), then it has evaluative-making features in virtue of which it would be appropriate for anybody exposed to that token to feel offended — i.e. to experience a feeling of unease tainted with a hint of anger. And if the aggression is significant enought, it might even be unappropriate not to feel a hint of anger.

          Taking stock, however, I think that there might be something true in the claim that

          that swearing is never offensive in the normative sense

          . But as I understand it, it has nothing to do with the normativity of feelings. It rather has to do with the fact that, for any token of a swearing that counts as a token of aggressive behaviour, it does count as such not in virtue of being a swearing of such-and-such type, but in virtue of being used in a speech-act which does have offensive-making features. In short, thus, the offensive-making features of swearing are entirely inherited from offensive-making features of speech-acts with offensive-making features.

          So the truth in the quote is just that, if a token of swearing has normative features, that can only be virtue of being used to perform a particular speech-act with those features. What is wearing the ontological trousers of normative features are thus never tokens of swearing, but tokens of speech-acts.

          1. Thx Andrews. What kind of dependence do you have in mind? If it’s causal, it’s not clear to me why it must be normative. Why should we think that a particular feeling in one’s stomach, for example, is an appropriate response to perceived danger? Good point about swearing and aggression.

            1. Thank you. The kind of dependence I have in mind is existential: no bare feeling could occur unless an emotion occurred. One way of explaining this dependence is mereological: bare feelings are essential parts of the emotional process, so even though it makes no sense to evaluate the bare feeling per se for appropriateness, it makes sense to evaluate the whole emotional process for appropriateness, for reasons already mentioned in my previous posts.

              1. OK, Andrews. I think we are meaning different things by ‘feelings’. I want to count e.g. indigestion as a feeling. And I think that the feeling one gets in the pit of one’s stomach when afraid is quite similar to that.

                1. Ok, but then it’s just not the concept of a feeling that applies in cases where someone feel offended. Feeling offended is not separable from a certain emotional response that is in principle assessable for appropriateness.

  6. Hello Roger,
    I’m trying, as you suggest, to imagine meeting an inhabitant of a world in which people had evolved differently, so that they experienced the feeling of anger when in danger, and the feeling of fear when insulted, everything else remaining the same (including their beliefs).
    “So you’re feeling angry?” I ask. “Why?”. “Because I’m in danger of falling from this cliff”, he replies.
    “So someone put you there, and you’re angry with them for having done so?” “Not at all, no-one is at all responsible for placing me in danger.”
    “So you’re upset with yourself for putting yourself in this situation?” “Not at all, I’m just angry.”
    “You mean that you’re anxious, that you might fall and hurt yourself?” “No, I mean I’m angry!”
    “Sorry about these questions. It must be me that’s provoking your anger.”
    “No, it’s nothing to do with your questions.”
    “So something else, or someone else, upset you before you arrived in your predicament ? Or you imagine that someone has it in for you?” “No, what makes you think that? I’m just angry. Period.”
    “Well, there must be a misunderstanding : it must be that “angry” in your language means what we call “afraid”.

  7. Sorry, the end of my story got cut off :
    So I help him get out of danger by giving him my hand to get to safety.
    “Thanks”, he replies. “I’m now feeling very jealous towards you.”
    “That’s a quite appropriate reaction, I state, wondering why I’m saying this.
    Then I wake up from this curious topsy-turvy dream where emotions can exist quite independently of circumstances…..

    1. Thanks, Anthony. Good story! My response to Andrews above may be relevant here. My account relies on the idea that there an element of pure feeling in emotions (e.g. anxiety in fear) which can be undirected. But this idea seems to me introspectively plausible, and borne out by neuroscientific attempts to elicit emotions. I guess with some more complicated emotions such as jealousy it wld be more plausible to describe the relevant feeling in more basic terms — e.g. anger, fear, anxiety.

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