To be a white man in 2018 is to find yourself dug daily into ever deeper depths of Dante Inferno-like privilege. I recently learned of an entirely new arena in which my behavior supposedly reflects my precipice status: I don’t curse.
I have cursed, on occasion, in the past. A random ‘damn’ slips my lips even now, though it’s been years since I let out a satisfying string of expletives. I don’t use vulgar language in my writing; I agonized over whether to include ‘sh*t’ in a direct quote until my editor cautioned that masking the word would violate the quote. I don’t even raise my middle finger when I cycle any more, though I assure you many drivers deserve it.
My father cursed, like the Dickens, which likely explains my aversion to the practice. My housemate, the nicest person on the planet, lets four-letter streams loose. My brothers curse, probably my son as well, though he’s too careful to do so around me.
The day our President ranted against Haiti and African countries, reporters initially cited an ‘inappropriate’ word, without actually uttering it. The first banner headline I saw contained the term, ‘Sh*thole.’ Within hours, commentators said the actual word on air; banners spelled it in full. In less than one day, media protocol shifted. Whatever words a President chooses immediately enter common parlance.
In a recent New Yorker piece—a magazine that prints the F-word pretty casually these days—author Emma Byrne (Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language) says that the idea that we were once more courteous and less obscene is a fiction. “That attitude comes from a place of privilege. If you can be in this world, and not feel a level of intense frustration, upset, or even desperation such that you feel the need to sear, then you are in a very lucky position indeed.”
I am intrigued by Ms. Byrne’s notion, and admit to my own lucky position, but I’m not convinced her correlation is valid. I’ve always credited my chaste tongue with me being a prig more than being privileged. Sure, American subcultures that emphasize obscenities are more prevalent among marginalized people, but not all oppressed persons find escape in a curse. African Americans are often prolific and creative in bad-mouthing: Native Americans, not so much. Meanwhile, are any of us surprised to learn that Donny Trump can mouth a foul word or two without skipping a beat? And who, after all, possesses more privilege on our planet than that man?