Foul language in casual conversation
“One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric”.
-Justice John Harlan
Language is an interesting phenomenon. It is the way that people have communicated for centuries. The most basic of these types of communication is spoken conversation. Conversation can occur between friends, coworkers and strangers. However, not all conversation is peaceful. In fact, differing opinions regarding what constitutes foul, or crude language, creates conflict in many situations. Yet, the first Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. While few will argue to expunge the First Amendment, exposure to profanity can create a society which becomes numb to it and its negative effects.
According to Milwaukee Sentinel author Elizabeth Harris notes that “Civil discourse may be waning, but it is not extinct” (2000). The differences between civil and crude conversation can mean a variety of things. To some, swearing could mean saying “damn” or “hell” while others find those words acceptable. Others don’t like hearing the name of God in vain. Still others find very little that they do think is too foul for conversation.
In 1978, the FCC defined profane language as “Language that describes, in terms
patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs” (Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 1978). At this time they defined the famous seven dirty words unfit for television -shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits (Jay 1992) Now, though, some of these words are used on TV, and all of them can be heard in movies, even in PG-13 films.
What society feels is foul or crude language has been studied. Most of these studies are based on self-reports from people who are asked when and where and how often they use certain words. One study notes that in conversation, foul language was found in 12.7 percent of the conversations between adults. Eight percent of college age adults used foul language in casual conversation while only 3.5 percent of adults use bad language on the job (Jay 1992).
Jay also notes that crude language is more often found in conversations at sports events and in bars. However, regardless of the place, the effect can be more harmful than one might think. Many people can become desensitized to crude language over time because the continual repetition of these words makes the person hearing them, even saying them, to become used to them. This can create an indifferent attitude among many society members such that even cruder words can eventually become quasi-accepted. Thus, the original word becomes more used while worse language can follow in the same footsteps (Jay 1992).
Because of the harms mentioned above, individuals should make every effort to curb their use and tolerance of this language. First, contributing to the desensitization of swearing will increase its use, even among children and other impressionable individuals. Second, it reduces actual productive conversation because the swear words become the focus instead of the actual content of the conversation.
Many people blame the media’s use of foul language as its gateway into society. Certain watchdog organizations and other concerned citizens worry that profanity on television and radio contributes to its increasing presence in casual conversation. Several organization such as Action for Children’s Television have attempted to eliminate profanity from the airwaves, but the Supreme Court ruled that an all-out ban was unconstitutional and chose instead to simply apply time restrictions to when programs could air programs featuring offensive language (Action for Children’s Television v. FCC, 1991).
“The use of profanity and obscenities has been around since man first used his higher brain function to express his feelings in communication. Although man has also developed the mental agility necessary to more accurately describe his surroundings, the use of generic, multi-purpose words to communicate feelings of anger, fear, and uncertainty has never waned” (Treece 2007) The words of Jason Treece ring true. No matter what the profession, socioeconomic level, gender, race or educational level, individual have not stopped swearing and probably will never be convinced to do so.
The question remains, when does swearing in casual conversation affect society negatively? When does it become vulgar?
The answers to these questions differ for casual conversation than for broadcast media. The FCC cannot regulate profanity in conversation. Therefore, it is up to society, to the people in the conversations, or within earshot of them, to interject when they become offended. Only when these people speak up will the speakers know what is accepted and not accepted by the peers. Idly sitting by and allowing these conversations to continue uncensored is tacitly consenting to the content.
People will always swear, but equally so, people can control who swears around them. Casual conversation is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate, so the responsibility must fall on those that participate. Speaking up about what is considered vulgar, crude or discriminatory is the first step in preventing some the desensitization and the spread of what constitutes a poor and uncreative vocabulary.
Action for Children’s Television v. FCC. 932 F.2d 1504, 1508 (D.C. Cir. 1991).
Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation. 438 U.S. 726 (1978).
Harris, E. (2000). “We don’t have to accept crude language.” Milwaukee Sentinel. September 14.
Jay, T. (1992). Cursing in America. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Treece, J. (2007). What did you say? Prometheus Institute.