The FCC is cracking down on cursing. In the wake of Janet and Justin’s wardrobe malfunction the FCC has been handing out fines and tightening their previous rulings on curse words. One recent example is the FCC’s ruling regarding Bono’s call of “Fucking brilliant!” at a recent awards show. The FCC’s position is that cursing is not only offensive in that it “invariably conjures up a graphic sexual image” but that exposing children to cursing is morally detrimental. The radio program “This American Life” recently did a story on cursing in which they interviewed a psychologist who has been studying the effects of cursing on children, and a lawyer for the FCC. The psychologist concluded that cursing on TV or radio does not have a detrimental effect on children, and that most children know and repeat curse words at a very early age (as young as two) even if they do not grasp the full meaning. During my own research into idioms and the use of figurative and idiomatic language I came across studies that showed that when people encounter figurative language they usually produce the connotative meaning first and may not ever think of the denotative meaning at all. That is, when people hear the words “kick the bucket” they rarely think of a foot striking a pail. Applied to cursing, this theory is borne out during the “This American Life” story when the interviewer asks several children of various ages what they think of when they hear the phrase “Fucking brilliant” in context. Invariably the children failed to mention sex of any kind, let alone graphic sexual imagery as the FCC suggests.
All this got me thinking about the role of cursing in my own life. The curse word and I have had a long and bountiful relationship that has evolved over time. By the time I was six years old I could curse like a long shore man. I’m fairly certain that I picked up my four-letter vocabulary from peers and family rather than the media. I think I picked up on swearing because it had such a great effect, it truly expressed how I felt as a child who was by no means as smart as I thought I was, but far smarter than I felt anyone gave me credit for. I quickly learned that I could get a stronger reaction by swearing at adults than by being “good.” Telling your second grade teacher “That makes me unhappy, I don’t think that’s fair” gets a kid fairly well ignored, after all, life isn’t fair and kids don’t get what they want etc. However, telling the same teacher that, “This is some fucking bullshit and if you don’t change it I’ll sue yer sorry ass you bitch” gets a much different reaction. And, though I still didn’t always get what I wanted, at least it opened up a dialogue.
As time went on my sense of when to swear evolved, though I still gave a good fuck about where I was when I decided to let one fly. To me it was always about emphasis, if I felt that a four-letter blast best expressed my point I let fly. It was proud day for me when my friend Ben, himself an accomplished master of the four-letter tirade, said that I uttered the best “Fuck you” he had ever heard, “Dude, when you say it, people know you really mean it.” But a funny thing happened when I got to college. I started to care. I tried not to curse in front of my grandmother, or my brother’s friends, or girls I liked. It was weird, the first time I realized I was holding back, searching for a different word.
There were a few things that went into the transformation. First, my major was populated by religious types, and despite my caring fuck all about they’re perception of God, I didn’t want to offend or alienate them. This became particularly important when I ran for a small student government post representing my major. Second, as time went on I realized the benefits of appearing educated, which often meant cutting back on the casual swearing. Conjoined with this is the fact that actually being educated often results in having people be less inclined to dismiss you out of hand. As I progressed through school I no longer had to shock people in order to open up a dialogue, all I had to do was talk.
And thus I have developed a new theory, a radical new para-dig-em: children need cursing far more than adults do. By the time we reach adulthood most of us have a myriad of ways to express ourselves. Not that we need to, or should abandon “adult” vocabulary, but the fact is that if we need to curse in order to be recognized or stand out then we have far deeper problems and should probably just be ignored. (Case in point, when the reins of TV, radio, or a script are strapped on, Jay Mohr is a funny man. Left to his own devices he loses his wit to a deluge of anal sex jokes.) But kids, kids need to curse just to avoid being ignored. This is not unlike Dogbert’s strategy of corporate yelling, if you are loud and belligerent enough people will be shocked and give you whatever you want. Don’t just be the squeaky wheel; be the wheel that says, “You better grease me or I won’t just squeak, I’ll wait ‘til yer doing 90 on the interstate, then I’ll jump off, roll away, and cause you to crash into that bus full of nuns and invalids.” I say we should teach our kids how to curse strategically in order to move ahead in the world. I know I will.