I’ll be the first to admit that classroom profanity is an issue that most likely impacts me more poignantly than the average high school teacher, as I work in a private Christian school. The contemporary Christian tradition frowns fairly heavily on profanity in most if not all contexts. And, to be fair, I appreciate the intense thought and care that goes into the way my school approaches some aspects of language as a result of this sensitivity to profanity. However, I’d like to take a moment to assert my very deep and passionate belief in the importance of creating educational spaces that allow and perhaps even invite student experiences and interactions with profanity.
The tough thing about unilaterally barring classroom profanity is that profanity is a delightfully and infinitely complicated and nuanced entity. It can encompass certain words that are considered taboo or inappropriate, or it can more generally refer to concepts or ideas that shouldn’t be discussed per cultural norms. Some profanity, particularly racial epithets, can be taboo without technically counting as a swear. All profanity is highly cultural. As this BBC article points out, there are curse words in some languages that quite simply don’t exist in others or invoke none of the shock value. The reality is that none of these words carry intrinsic, profane meaning; they are only loaded with the cultural value that we have charged them with. The whole idea of profanity is fundamentally subjective, which means that it’s going to be a tough thing to take an objective attitude towards.
Because profanity is profoundly subjective, each educator has to decide for themselves how best to integrate it into their classroom. With that in mind, please allow me to propose just a few of my reasons for considering profanity an important and necessary presence in the composition classroom.
1 – Swearing is actually a high-order language device that requires a fair amount of skill and rhetorical awareness to wield well. I often hear protests in some way or another implying that those who swear are limited in their vocabulary or fluency. The belief here is that swearing is the poor man’s resort when no other course of action can be devised. In reality, as Emma Byrne points out, “swearing is often impressively strategic, and a fluency in crass language typically correlates with verbal fluency in general.” Whether to offend, amuse, empathize, or express deep pain, swearing is a very complicated tool relying on highly nuanced linguistic and social skills. An effort to give students flexibility and fluency with communication through language should, at the very least, expose them to the wealth of linguistic and cultural power harnessed through profanity.
2 – Swearing is a powerful tool for expressing pain. Curse words are intensely expressive and cathartic. When teaching our students how words can be used to emote effectively, I’m not sure how one can entirely overlook profanity. Richard Stephens of Keele University conducted a study that suggests that individuals can withstand more physical pain when swearing than when not, pointing to the power that swearing has with regards to human suffering. I teach my students to use their words to express and release emotion. For some students, giving them the option of using profanity to do that can be extremely meaningful. It is equally if not more important for my students to understand this power in profane words used by people around them. This is an important element of empathy and hearing the pain of others through their words.
3 – Profanity is already saturating their existences. It feels a little like denial to me to avoid student profanity in the classroom. Our students are immersed in profanity constantly. I feel negligent when I choose not to equip them with the experience, tools, and awareness they need to meaningfully process the roles and uses of profanity in their environment and to exert the control they need to make kind and ethical choices with their words.
4 – I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the added complications surrounding swearing and gender. I am very conscious of the fact that women who swear often face a double standard. Societal expectations pressure women more than men into politeness, morality, and good behavior. While cultural stereotypes of male swearing usually suggest strength or rogue rebellion, female swearing is often perceived as distasteful, immoral, and unattractive. This is a manifestation of deeply problematic social standards, and, as a feminist who promotes female agency in my classroom, it is important for me to undermine this. My students should choose for themselves the role of profanity in their self expression, but their gender should not be the reason they do so.
Words matter. All words matter. My goal with my students is to teach them that their communication, with words and otherwise, needs to always be intentional, careful, and kind. Their purpose should never be to tear down those around them, but should only be used to build goodness in a broken world. Words are one of the many tools we use to do this. It is my belief that profanity is a part of using and understanding the power of words. My students should know the power of profanity to devastate and dishonor, but also to connect, understand, and communicate.
Do I think my students should swear all the time? No. But not because swearing is bad. My students should be very conscious of whether or not they swear, when, where, and/or how they swear because profanity is powerful and prevalent. How they want to wield that power is outside of my control, but I’ll be damned if they’re going to head out into the world without some understanding of and experience with it.