As a child, I was always furious at the stupidity of prohibiting words themselves, regardless of context. “Swear words”, they were called. I grew more enraged when I or other children would ask our parents or caregivers exactly what was bad about these words, as we would invariably receive some absurd rationale. “Swearing is evidence of a lacking vocabulary” we’d be told, as though removing certain words from our vocabulary would somehow enlarge it. “My ears are not garbage cans”, some moralistic old hen once told me. Being ten, I wasn’t able to explain to the woman that simply repeating her belief that these words were garbage did not qualify why she thought they were garbage. All I could do was fume at the rampant and socially endorsed idiocy.
Of course, at this point, I’m in the majority. As broadcasters and publishers gradually become more lax on what constitutes a “swear word”, the very notion becomes more and more widely recognized as the goofy anachronism that it is.
Or so one might think.
This kind of moronic moral posturing has actually survived the raunchy onslaught of radio shock jocks and adult-oriented cartoons by slightly altering itself. Rather than a compulsion to display some shocked and appalled knee-jerk reaction to words like shit and fuck, many are compelled to react in exactly the same fashion to words like nigger and faggot.
Being raised in a liberal, Canadian household, I was firmly instructed never to refer to first nations people as Indians. That, you see, was a hateful and bigoted term. As I grew, I saw that this doctrine had gradually worked it’s way through conservative and centrist populations to the point where it was and is generally understood that one isn’t to use that word. I noticed something else, though; in situations where one might make an Indian joke or unabashedly talk about their hatred for drunken Indians, people now told native jokes and talked just as freely about their hatred for drunken natives. The term “native” becoming just as negatively stigmatized as the term “Indian”, however, prompted yet another change in terminology. Natives were now to be called first nations.
Similarly, the mentally handicapped were once known clinically as idiots or morons. Such terms eventually became pejoratives, used to insinuate a lack of intelligence. Those advocating that these unfortunates be spoken of with dignity came up with a new word with which to disassociate them from these slurs. That word? Retard. But when that word went the same way as idiot and moron, yet another euphemism was concocted: handicapped. The same, predictably enough, happened to that word, too. By the time I was being trained to deal with them, they were called “clients”.
Both instances prove one thing, though. A change in nomenclature doesn’t do the slightest thing to improve the way people think or talk. This isn’t new wisdom, either. It’s been known for some time that changing the name of a rose won’t change it’s essence or the way people feel about it.
To this day, the best argument I’ve ever heard defending the prohibition of these nasty words is that since they offend people, that’s a good enough reason to prohibit them. Well, fuck me! I guess rap artists, the makers of south park and people who are openly gay should quit their sinful ways because they’re offending people! Honestly, it’s not nearly a good enough reason to prohibit something just because it’s offensive.
So the next time you or one of your friends explodes with righteous indignation at hearing some kind of slur uttered, know this; your anger regarding inappropriate nomenclature improves nobody’s standard of living in the slightest way, nor is it meant to. Regardless of what you tell yourself or others, you’re not fighting any kind of good fight; you’re not a rebel or a moral entrepreneur. You’re a prude and a petty functionary, trivializing the causes you fraudulently champion by reducing the scope of your scorn to the most superficial element of real social struggle: name-calling.