I will begin with my general views. As redundant as the following statement may sound, my big concern with foul language is the fact that it is language – in other words, one of the primary ways we interpret and comprehend the world and ourselves. It is also one of the elemental ways we communicate these interpretations and comprehensions to others. At the most basic epistemological level this is serious business because the language we use to comprehend and define the world and ourselves also has tremendous power at the ontological level where we judge and infer the nature and relations of being.
Seen from this perspective, profanity has the potential to distort our thinking and deaden and desecrate the outside world. I surmise that delineating everything in both the outer world and inner world as an effin this or effin that cheapens being and renders it less vigorous and intense. Debasing the world and our existence through the habitual use of execration could prevent us from perceiving the world and ourselves as they truly are. We may become desensitized to some of the truth, beauty, and goodness the world contains.
A second concern with obscene language is its sources. Commenter Epimetheus noted that profanity tends to “encourage a basic attitude of contempt, pride, and wrath.” I believe this is correct and would be quick to other negative emotions such as scorn, mockery, and hatred. Even good natured or seemingly innocent cursing seems to spring from rather dark places. Regardless of where it emerges from, profanity has the tendency to denature and dehumanize. Though anger may be justified at times, verbally reducing people to the level of reproductive organs or animals or sexual objects or other unseemly things serves as a dangerous first step to permanently objectifying some individuals as such things in our minds.
Finally, foul language often desacralizes and falls into the realm of blasphemy. The sole purpose of certain words and phrases is to disrespect and divest the spiritual of sacred and religious significance. Applying the profane to that which is unprofane is the ultimate expression of irreverence.
How then could I possibly argue for the acceptability of profanity within certain contexts given what I have noted above? In my first post on the subject I argued the existence of foul language within certain works of art might be acceptable and used the example of the gangster film Goodfellas to back up my point.
On the one hand, allowing the characters in the film to curse lends them a quality of realism. On the other hand, depicting these characters as realistically as possible with their foul language intact allows us to see the close connection between their language, motivations, and actions. Goodfellas is populated by mostly vile, vulgar, and violent individuals whose vileness, violence, and vulgarity are perfectly projected through the language they use. These characters are essentially predators motivated by ruthless materialistic desires. Removing the foul language from Goodfellas may have rendered the film unbelievable; it also may have made the characters appear less evil and ruthless. Anyone who admires or even emulates the foul language the film contains misses the larger point the inclusion of the profanity might be trying to make.
When I write fiction, I allow certain characters to use foul language within the context of the narrative not because I wish to glorify profanity itself, but rather to provide insights into a character’s personality and motivations. As in real life, cursing does not immediately render a character evil and beyond redemption, but characters that use foul language consistently reveal much about themselves and their attitude toward the world.
Of course, an argument could be made that all of this can be accomplished without the inclusion of cursing and swear words. I would be quick to agree, but writers who choose to include profanity in fiction should not be callously dismissed as profane, which puritanical types often tend to do.