Verbal violence

December 20, 2005 at 11:07 pm 2 comments

I had to write a 2-page essay on Anne Lamott’s book, Bird By Bird, for my rhetoric class this last semester. (Nope, the book is not actually about birds—it’s a book of instructions on writing, believe it or not). I decided to write on why the foul language in Lamott’s book is inappropriate, using the basic reasoning that bad language is disrespectful, denigrating, and degrading.

Well…when I got my paper back, the last page had a fat red B scribbled on it. My professor said my argument was clear, logical, and well-written, but she graded me down anyway. She said that even though most people agree such language is derogatory, they don’t find that implication inappropriate; they just think it’s funny.


I was quite baffled by this at first. I couldn’t understand why it isn’t obvious that disrespectful and derogatory language is wrong. In retrospect, though, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Lots of people genuinely don’t see a problem with being derogatory in their speech. It’s just a way of expressing emotion, they say. It would be stiff and prudish to say it’s wrong.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about this, trying to figure out if language really is that big of a deal. I mean, of course we shouldn’t go around and be completely rude all the time, but is a bit of profanity or obscenity really that much of a problem? For many people, coarser language relieves tension in conversation—it’s a signal that the speaker can be real and down to earth, that he or she isn’t stuffy. It makes people laugh.

Well, I’ve thought about it. But I think I’m still of the opinion that profanities and obscenities are inappropriate, even in informal settings.

No matter how you cut it, the meanings of curse words are inherently aggressive. Hence, they’re a way of lashing out, either at other people or at the world around us. In other words, cursing represents a certain level of verbal violence.

I can’t think of any valid justification for this. Maybe we laugh at such barbs, and maybe coarse language is a way of demonstrating our “realness.” Nevertheless, it represents serious devaluation of each other. Profanities and obscenities are a way of unleashing frustration, bitterness, or aggression without the tempering influence of respect and care for those involved. It’s an opportunity to use and abuse people verbally, without getting into trouble the way we would for committing physical violence.

You might say that since it’s only verbal, cursing does no actual harm. But I’m skeptical of this. Words stick, and they have their effect on the psyche of both speaker and listener. Societally speaking, are violence and aggression values that we want to drill into one another’s heads?

Hmm…somehow I doubt it.


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Investment of expectation I’m converted

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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