[lg policy] Power and politeness: key drivers behind profanity and self-censorship [excerpt]

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Sep 30 10:33:20 EDT 2017

Power and politeness: key drivers behind profanity and self-censorship
In Praise of Profanity
Buy Now

   - By Michael Adams <https://blog.oup.com/authors/michael-adams/>
   - September 30th 2017

 Social conventions determine why we use profane language. The deliberate
use (or avoidance) of profanity is often a socially conscious decision:
self-censorship may be driven by politeness, while profane language may be
used to establish a sense of power. The following shortened excerpt from *In
Praise of Profanity*
by Michael Adams takes a look at the connotations behind of profanity and
analyzes the social drivers behind its usage.

*Politeness *is the linguistic term for the philosopher’s moralized
*manners*, while *etiquette *is the mere and perhaps not very reliable
expression of politeness or manners. Much more is at stake in manners and
politeness than in etiquette, though when confronted with a dozen forks at
a fancy dinner, etiquette may seem, for the moment, a life-and-death matter.

Sometimes those inclined to proscribe profanity are more concerned with
etiquette than with manners. I don’t feel it a breach in manners when a
truly frustrated person says “Shit!” Indeed, I may recognize the
frustration, sympathize with the person, and experience relief when I hear
the profanity. The frustrated person and I share moral aims and I have to
make some room for the expression of authentic feeling.

Still, saying “Shit!” may violate a social convention and even if it
doesn’t, even if conventions are changing and different auditors gauge the
authority of conventions differently, exclamatory profanity nonetheless
rubs some “fragile sensibilities” the wrong way. What if your negative face
merely wants peace and quiet, or to be spiritually undisturbed? Is someone
else’s frustration—when expletively expressed— an imposition on those who
unexpectedly witness it? And should we avoid profanity in order to save
others’ faces rather than threaten them? These are all reasonable
questions, especially if one is cautious about answering them absolutely,
because the rules are complex and flexible. In some situations, *bitch *isn’t
face threatening—it’s hard to imagine when *cunt *isn’t—and *Fuck you *can
be endearing, an expression of intimacy or solidarity, rather than a
challenge, said to the right person, for the right reason, in the right
U.S. Route 60 Virginia Beach by Mobilus In Mobili. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Can’t we all just get along? Surely, we can negotiate our way through our
myriad, often competitive needs and desires. Surely, we can find room for
strong expression but in less obtrusive forms of speech. Perhaps the very
frustrated person could say—as some people do—“Sugar!” instead of “Shit!”
Everyone sidesteps a steaming heap of scatology, and no one need take
offense. Euphemism compromises strong expression but insists that speakers
can say some version of what they want to say. You can avoid saying, “So,
your grandmother’s dead” by saying “So, your grandmother kicked the
bucket,” though a dysphemistic euphemism like that is likely to threaten a
lot of faces, not least grandmother’s posthumous one. But “So, your
grandmother’s gone to a better place” gets the death idea across while
giving it a positive spin and threatening no face at all. *Sugar! *isn’t *Shit!
*in expletive force, but it’s at least some sort of release—it expresses
frustration as well, some would argue, as politeness allows.

Who can argue against being polite? We interpret politeness as private
virtue in the public interest. In general, we follow the principle Edwin L.
Battistella advances in his elegant book, *Bad Language*: “Avoiding coarse
language in public signals an understanding of the boundary between public
and private discourse and a tacit acceptance of that boundary.” But
politeness can be put to complex and, if not malignant, certainly not
benign social purposes—power takes advantage of our “tacit acceptance.” The
linguistic category politeness may be universal, but profanity isn’t
universally or historically framed as impolite. The question arises under
certain conditions, as Tony McEnery argues in *Swearing in English: Bad
Language, Purity, and* *Power from 1586 to the Present*, and he lays them
out as follows:

[M]odern attitudes to bad language were established by the moral reform
movements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries . . .
[and] were established to form a discourse of power for the growing middle
classes in Britain[, and] . . . the moral and political framework supported
by a discourse of power can be threatened by the subversion of that

Thus, the motive for euphemism may be a matter of manners, but manners may
be a means of social subordination, and language policy deriving from
manners may end up serving the interests of the few rather than those of
the mass of speakers.

In the end, whether it’s a matter of deliberate language policy or just the
sort of self-censorship we administer when we understand the limits and
know we’re going too far, language use conforms to parameters imposed by
power. So, Bourdieu says, symbolic power does not reside in ‘symbolic
systems’ but . . . is defined in and through a given relation between those
who exercise power and those who submit to it. . . . What creates the power
of words and slogans, a power capable of maintaining or subverting the
social order, is the belief in the legitimacy of words and of those who
utter them. And words alone cannot create this belief.

In other words, the “problem” isn’t profanity or euphemism, but the
interests outside and beyond them that govern value in social markets.

When we swear, we create and enact power, which is, indeed, related to
extralinguistic power, and that power—the nonlinguistic kind—certainly
shapes language use but it also simultaneously depends on it. The notion
that the power of words and slogans either maintains or subverts the social
order doesn’t account for the complexities of profanity. When the vice
president uses profanity to construct his relationship to a senior senator,
is he maintaining or subverting the social order? Both, it seems to me, and
would he have said what he said if saying it had been irrelevant to his
extralinguistic power? Isn’t saying it a proof of that power, but also a
sign of weakness, in the sense that the power needs proof? In profanity, as
well as in euphemism, linguistic and extralinguistic power interact, and
the point of profanity might well be to draw our attention to interaction
we overlook in commonplace discourse.


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