Swearing: A Political Argument

A while back I wrote a defence of swearing on aesthetic grounds. Some Christian band used a naughty word in their song and got bashed for it. As it turns out, the substitute lyric for the ‘clean’ version was just better than the sweary one, which is a little disappointing – if you’re going to mount an aesthetic defence of something, you want the thing you’re defending to be worth your time. Anyway, I was thinking about it some more, and I’ve decided I’ve got some more to say about swearing. This time it’s political! (Fuckers.)

To be clear, by ‘political’ I’m more referring to the polity than to systems of government. I think there’s a difference between swearing in a private conversation between two people, and swearing in what we might term the public sphere. By and large I tend not to swear with people who don’t like swearing, because I’m having a conversation with them and I don’t like winding people up. I don’t feel that swearing is so integral a part of my character that I’m being oppressed if I can’t pop a shit every couple paragraphs. It’s just common courtesy that you don’t deliberately antagonise people.

That’s in private conversation, anyway. In public conversation (like this) I think there’s a very specific set of reasons to curse like a sailor. Basically it comes down to the fact that Christian culture is insular and unwelcoming. They like to present themselves as warm and caring, but drop into conversation that you’re gay, and watch the faces fall. It’s like bowling, but with more prejudice. So there’s this particular thing that Christians do where if you don’t adhere to their values, they’ll start treating you different. To some degree there’s common sense to it – if one of your friends decides to go out and get shitfaced every night, you’re slowly going to distance yourself from that behaviour. It’s not something you want in your life, right – that’s reasonable.

The distinction is that Christians are supposed to be welcoming and loving to everybody – not just the people they agree with. I’d draw a very clear distinction between the people who’re important to you personally and the people who’re important to you because you’ve got a moral obligation to be a decent human being. I think Christians have a tendancy to conflate the two. Ultimately I think we end up with Christians don’t know how to deal with heavy drinkers or people who swear or people who smoke – because they’ve just never had any exposure to these types of people. It’s not a culture they’re connected with. So that’s my first reason for swearing in the public sphere – it’s less damaging to my organs than binging or smoking, but it still pushes Christians out of their bubbles. That’s important.

The second reason is that I don’t think Christians are good enough at respecting other Christians who act or think differently to them. It’s just not a culture of tolerance. I remember one girl who was a heavy drinker, but she never talked about it at church. As far as I could tell she personally was happy with the decisions she was making for herself, but she knew that if she talked about them publicly (ie at church) she’d be judged. Often the judgy-ness extends from a certain confidence in one’s own beliefs – there was another asshole who was quite certain that Christians had no reason at all to think about the environment, because they all had much more important business to be going about. Saving souls came before saving the environment, or something. I mean, as an opinion it’s short-sighted and wrong (where are you going to proselytize when the world gets flooded?), but what was particularly obnoxious was the way this person would savage Christians who were also vegan. Difference leading to intolerance. In that sense, swearing has a political function within Christian community. It’s a clear and unabashed assertion of difference that demands to be heard on its own terms. Fuck exclusion.

The third reason is that Christian culture ought to be needled. Historically, we understand that Christianity changes depending on the culture it inhabits. When it moved over to Japan or Uganda it changed and adapted to the culture. Part of the challenge, in that situation, is making sure that the faith’s not changed so much as to lose its essential nature. To my way of thinking, the same challenge applies to white Western middle-class post-Christendom Christianity. We are obliged to test our Christian culture to ensure that it hasn’t lost its essential nature. Last week I talked about a very neat authoritarian argument often employed by the church: Christianity believes it possesses the divine revelation of God, and so if you disagree with Christianity you’re really just disagreeing with God. The point of contention is that even if Christianity does have the divine revelation of God, there’s no guarantee they’re using it properly. Revelation is not unmediated. However, because Christianity has this kinda idea that it’s focused on God and moving towards God, opposition to certain parts of the culture can be read simply as hostility to God – and is therefore, from the perspective of Christians, irrelevant. You can see how this might lead to insularity and bullishness. In that instance, then, swearing functions to needle Christian culture. It’s a relatively straightforward aggravation, disrupting the ‘rules’ and the cultural normativity and pushing towards something more flexible, more open to difference.

That idea of being open towards difference is really the key to all this. There’s a very basic counter-argument to what I’ve said so far – you can imagine some Christian saying ‘Well, hold on, but is swearing good or bad? If it’s bad, do these reasons you’re giving really matter? Shouldn’t we just find another way to achieve those goals?’ I’m not so much talking directly about the morality of swearing – I’m actually discussing the culture that makes us want to raise the moral question in the first place. To put it another way, I don’t give a shit what you think about swearing. I’m talking about what you do with the people who disagree with you.


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