The New Clarion

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On Profanity

December 22nd, 2008 by Myrhaf · 9 Comments · Culture

In the comments to a recent post, there was some discussion of profanity. Is it necessarily bad? Not important? What?

By profanity, I mean George Carlin’s seven words, more or less. Damn, hell, and goddamn are just salty language, although with the rise of religion, goddamn has become something you don’t say in polite company. In the mid-20th century saying goddamn was, like cigarette smoking, just normal adult behavior.

Ayn Rand, as usual, gets to the essence of profanity with her philosophic way of thinking. In the section on “Obscenities” in The Art of Fiction, she writes,

Obscenities are language which  implies a value judgment of condemnation or contempt, usually in regard to certain parts of the body and sex. Four-letter words all have non-obscene synonyms; they are obscene not by content, but by their intention — the intention being to convey that what is referred to is improper or evil.

Obscene language is based on the metaphysics and morality of the anti-body school of thought. Observe that the more religious a nation is, the more varied and violently obscene is its four-letter-word repertoire….

Obscene language is not an objective language which you can use to express your own value judgments. It is a language of prefabricated value judgments consisting of the denunciation of sex and this earth and conveying that these are low or damnable. You do not want to subscribe to this premise.

So, like the preacher who is attracted to prostitutes, the religious person will see dirty words as a metaphysical validation of the sordidness of sex and the body in this earthly realm.

It’s interesting that the modern, moral relativist type finds nothing wrong with obscenities. Have you ever had a conversation with a very modern woman who talks casually about “f**king”? It’s a little shocking to hear someone talk about it as if it were no more important than grocery shopping or parking the car.

Both the mystic and the subjectivist devalue sex with obscenities. The mystic condemns the body and sex as filthy and low; the subjectivist accepts that we’re all filthy and low without value judgment, as if to say, “Yes, that’s life — it’s no big deal.”

Sex and the body and life on earth are good. Unlike the religious view, it is perfectly moral to pursue sexual happiness on earth. But also, unlike the modern view, sex is a deep, important value that a person of self-esteem would not take casually. When you understand the full value and importance of sex and the body, you understand Ayn Rand’s point: obscenities reflect nonobjective value judgments that a rational person should not hold.

This is why we want to avoid profanity on this blog. I left Blagojevich’s f-bombs intact because it’s interesting how he talks like a gangster. This is something of a rare exception. I use obscenities occasionally in life because I don’t keep their full meaning in my mind. They provide easy emphasis, as in “Politicians are f**king idiots.” But I don’t want to take the easy road in writing. How much better it is to find an original thought that carries the same punch as profanity.

UPDATE: Slight revision of one sentence.

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Burgess Laughlin

    The exact taxonomy of profanities isn’t clear to me, but I assume that profanities are a contrast to the sacred (or at least, the respected).

    Profanities include obscenities and other attacks (“vulgarities”) on the sacred. As quoted in the article, Ayn Rand mentions obscene words as referring to sexual acts and body parts. I would add a third category, which is related to the second: excrement.

    I can think of four examples of the latter that often appear in some publications–which I no longer read. They all deal with excretion. (What does that say about the psychology of the individuals who use them in writings?)

    They are all four-letter words (appropriately short for the mentalities that use them). I would avoid all such profanities in public writing, except in special cases, as you did when quoting someone because it reveals the nature of his character.

    P. S. The etymologies of “sacred”and “profane” offer examples, I think, of Ayn Rand’s point that religion has monopolized certain proper value concepts–such as “sacred.” See “Religion,” Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 414.)

  • madmax

    “They provide easy emphasis, as in “Politicians are f**king idiots.” ”

    I curse politicians all the time. Is the argument being presented that profanity is wrong on *all* occasions. In certain contexts why wouldn’t it be proper to say that “Bush is a fu**ing idiot” or “Obama is God-Damn Commie” or “Pilosi is a power lusting b*tch”? I can see the point that this is non-intellectual and not proper for the intellectual realm. But not everything in life operates on that level.

    Also, another thing I’m getting from this post is that the words “sh*t, fu*k” and some others are always wrong and never appropriate. That strikes me as rationalism. Dropping the f-bomb in certain contexts can be appropriate as I see it. Could someone answer me why that is not the case?

  • Myrhaf

    Madmax, there is a difference between talking and writing for a public readership. As I noted, I sometimes speak profanities because it’s an easy emphasis. In writing I’m more conscious of word choice.

    In the sentence “Obama is a goddamn commie,” the word commie strikes me as the only objectionable one. I’ve spent many posts here and back on my other blog figuring out who Obama is. The jury is still out, as he has yet to be sworn in as President. He is a social metaphysician and a pragmatist. He grew up surrounded by communists, but so far he is acting like your average welfare state politician. If Obama is a commie, then so is Bush, who started the bailout mania, among his many miserable interventions in the economy.

    Bitch and son-of-a-bitch are a mean words, but are they profanity? Bastard is no longer politically correct because it is inegalitarian to abuse people just for being born out of wedlock. These words seem all right to me, but I don’t know what Bill Brown thinks.

  • Lauren

    “But also, unlike the modern view, sex is a deep, important value that a person of self-esteem would not take casually.”

    What is casual to you? would having sex with someone that you find extremely attractive but don’t know well be casual? It would be a worthy value exchange for me, if I found the person compelling. Casual sex for me would be sex with someone that I neither know nor find attractive. Sex without lust and respect for the person would be casual for me, and it would make me feel ashamed, i think.

    I’m just wondering, since I read a blog post of yours that congratulated Victor Hugo for his rumoured going off to have sex with a maid he just met.

  • Harold

    I agree with Lauren. It’s entirely possible for responsible adults to have such a sexual relationship that doesn’t leave anyone feeling diminished. Happens all the time–it just requires honesty.

  • Myrhaf

    I’m uncertain about casual sex myself. I had a huge discussion about it over at the Myrhaf blog.

    That Victor Hugo story is pretty amazing! Was that casual sex? Yes. Did Victor Hugo have titanic self-esteem? Yes. What can I say? The dude was Victor Hugo.

  • Betsy Speicher

    Myrhaf wrote:

    “the subjectivist accepts that we’re all filthy and low without value judgment, as if to say, ‘Yes, that’s life — it’s no big deal.'”

    I’ll never forget a debate psychologist Albert Ellis had with Branden around 1967 where Ellis criticized Objectivists for making too big a deal about sex.

    “Sex is fun,” declared Ellis, “like having watermelon at a picnic.” I remarked to Stephen who was sitting next to me, “Either poor Dr. Ellis is really missing something or I want to know where he gets his watermelon.”

  • Bill Brown

    I don’t use profanities as a matter of course. I think bastard, damn, crap, and ass have moved out of profanity, but are generally considered rude and inappropriate. I use them sparingly and when the context is appropriate.

    To me, that is the litmus test: context. At TNC, I just don’t see a reason. As long as my co-authors don’t turn this into a truck stop, I wouldn’t think less of them if they occasionally let one fly. Again, in context.

  • Inspector

    Myrhaf, I’m definitely on board with you here, as well as with your response to Madmax. Private discussion depends a bit on the nature of the subject, the audience, and the specific profanity, but for an intellectually serious medium such as TNC, it is just about blanket-inappropriate.

    Lauren, speaking for myself I would consider that example to be casual. Sex is too profoundly important and valuable to be left to the chance of someone you barely know, 99.9% of the time. This is just about the most controversial topic I’ve ever seen among Objectivists, however, so the answers you’ll get on that will vary.