Let me begin by saying “I don’t swear.” That is to say, I am not accustomed to using the common vulgarities that serve to punctuate modern social discourse. This might seem to be a morally pretentious statement, but I would argue that it is grounded on a fundamental philosophical insight given by Aristotle in a passage from his Politics. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:
Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who has the gift of speech. And where as voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state (Aristotle, Politics, Book I, 1253a.1-19 – Emphasis mine.)
Aristotle made a distinction between voice and language. A voice is merely sound indicating pleasure or pain, but language has political and ethical dimensions. Language is a means by which human beings make distinctions between good and evil, just and unjust. “Language”, as my professor Dr. Robert E. Wood likes to say, “is reason laying down its tracks in a system of signs.” Reason cannot fully articulate itself in the sound of a voice. It needs the more refined mode of signs, in the form of letters that form words which can be strung together in meaningful patterns or sentences, which can be multiplied endlessly to create discourse.
The problem with swearing is that it is more voice than language, more animal than human. Swear words are not chosen for the meaning they convey, but rather for their impact. Swearing is used to punctuate and emphasize discourse in the same way that exclamation marks function. Swearing is a base form of communication that indicates “perception of pleasure and pain.” It is akin to the barking of a dog, the howling of a wolf, or the crowing of a rooster. Swearing isn’t meant to mean anything. It is simply meant to make an impression. The swearing that passes for language in modern social discourse is essentially a counterfeit language that heralds a de-volution of the human subject to a more animal state. After all, as Aristotle points out, human beings have language but animals have only voice. The reliance on swear words to punctuate and emphasize discourse reveals an undeveloped vocabulary and the failure of human reason and this failure has political and ethical ramifications.
Later in the Politics, Aristotle connects indecent speech to indecent action and gives his most virulent opposition to its practice:
Indeed, there is nothing which the legislator should be more careful to drive away than indecency of speech; for the light of utterance of shameful words leads soon to shameful actions. The young especially should never be allowed to repeat or hear anything of the sort. A freemen who is found saying or doing what is forbidden, if he be too young as yet to have the privilege of reclining at he public tables, should be disgraced and beaten, and an elder person degraded as his slavish conduct deserves (Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII, 1336b.14-11 Emphasis mine.)
While Aristotle’s suggestion of penalties for those uttering “shameful words” is hardly defensible in a modern context, his point is clear and instructive: the language we use creates an ethical framework for action. Isn’t it clear, that thought takes form in language and language becomes an environment in which human activity takes place? One example of this might be the way “hate speech” functions to create unsafe environments for “outsiders” and cultivates animosity towards them in those who employ this type of speech. Swearing is similar. Using swear words to communicate in sound what cannot be articulated in language can lead to behavior that is fueled by passion rather than reason. One need only consider how often unethical behavior is preceded by “F- it!”, or something similar, which serves to cut-off the psychic disturbances of fear, anxiety or guilt.
Now, I anticipate that some of my readers will argue that placing limitations on language is tantamount to censorship and cultural tyranny, and I sympathize with the underlying sentiment in this objection. However, I am also persuaded with Slavoj Zizek, that “Our freedom of choice effectively often functions as a mere formal gesture of consent to our own oppression and exploitation (Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, 147.)” The descent of the human subject from language to voice in the act of swearing is a consent to limitations, not a freedom from them. To shout obscenities in public, or season regular discourse with generous “f-bombs”, reveals one’s limitations, not one’s freedom. To have a command of language and to choose among the many words and patterns available to the rational being, is an exercise in freedom. To bark expletives rather than searching for the most appropriate word to express what one is thinking is an exercise in intellectual laziness that is the first symptom of the fall of man.