Fuckshitcunt: The Linguistics of Foul Language – What Pinker Gets Wrong

Steven Pinker has a piece in The New Republic this month entitled Swearing_2

What the F***? Why We Swear“. He starts off with an FCC ruling on Bono’s 2002 Golden Globes acceptance utterance, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant,” for which NBC wasn’t penalized because of the context of his remark.

Then Pinker goes on to examine the many different ways in which we swear and asks the pertinent question, why do we really care in the first place?

My angry mind jumps to religious blaspheme-based mores that have infiltrated the government just to trounce on my freedom of speech. But of course Pinker smartly broadens the argument with evolutionary biology, neurology, and yes, religious subtext along with our centuries-long progression of views on sex, anatomy, and disease-carrying bodily fluids.

He examines what, exactly, we’re reacting to. Sound? Meaning? Intent?

The strange emotional power of swearing–as well as the presence of linguistic taboos in all cultures– suggests that taboo words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain. In general, words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the word literally refers to, as in principled versus stubborn and slender versus scrawny. The difference between a taboo word and its genteel synonyms, such as shit and feces, cunt and vagina, or fucking and making love, is an extreme example of the distinction. Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain.

Scans show that humans process denotation, implicit meaning in a word or image, primarily in the neo-cortex, or “fore-brain”, where much of our “intellect” (reasoning and delayed gratification) resides. Connotation on the other hand, (innuendo and subtext) spans across the neo-cortex and into the limbic system, or “hind brain”. The limbic system handles, among other things, knee-jerk emotional response and instantaneous “fight or flight” kind of stuff. This suggests that connotation can evoke a strong and involuntary emotional response. Maybe it’s why sarcasm can have such a sting.

Anyway, it’s all fascinating. I love it…

Until this:

A discussion about bodily fluids, namely why shit, piss, fart, snot, and spit are each less offensive than the last because in actuality each would be less offensive to do in public, turns to the evolutionary acknowledgment that each of these fluids are also great carriers of bacteria and other disease-spreading organisms and therefore our aversion to them serves a purpose. Then he says

Some people have been puzzled about why cunt should be taboo. It is not just an unprintable word for the vagina but the most offensive epithet for a woman in America. One might have thought that, in the male-dominated world of swearing, the vagina would be revered, not reviled. After all, it’s been said that no sooner does a boy come out of it than he spends the rest of his life trying to get back in. This becomes less mysterious if one imagines the connotations in an age before tampons, toilet paper, regular bathing, and antifungal drugs.

How can someone so completely miss the point? Women have been seen not only as second class – weaker, less intelligent, not competent to make decisions about their own lives, but also as agents of sinful thoughts and desires. Women’s bodies are stilled widely seen as great temptations that cause men to act in ways they cannot expect to be held accountable for. In Muslim countries it is the sole purpose of purdah. In the US it is why a woman’s outfit on the night in question is an admissible topic in a rape trial.

Instead of celebrating the life-giving attributes of a woman’s body, historically women are led to feel ashamed and to hide them. How many non-married women have “disappeared” for nine months before re-emerging and acting as though nothing had happened? Until this decade maternity clothes were meant to cloak. Even today, a woman breast-feeding in public stirs emotional debate.

When I was in India I visited a site of ancient cenotaphs and a sign at the entrance read “A woman in her monthly time will please refrain from entering.” I can tell you it’s not because menstrual blood has more disease-causing agents than blood or piss or spit.

Cunt has become the word that it is precisely because it is the very center of womanhood. Men may be “trying to get back in”, but it’s not out of reverence. It’s about physical pleasure, ownership and control.

Later in the article he says

Not surprisingly, in all cultures men pursue sex more eagerly, are more willing to have casual sex, and are more likely to seduce, deceive, or coerce to get sex. All things being equal, casual sex works to the advantage of men, both genetically and emotionally. We might expect casual talk about sex to show the same asymmetry, and so it does. Men swear more, on average, and many
taboo sexual terms are felt to be especially demeaning to women– hence the old prohibition of swearing “in mixed company.”

A sex difference in tolerance for sexual language may seem like a throwback to Victorian daintiness. But an unanticipated consequence of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s was a revived sense of offense at swearing, the linguistic companion to the campaign against pornography. As a result, many universities and businesses have published guidelines on sexual harassment that ban telling sexual jokes, and, in 1993, veteran Boston Globe journalist David Nyhan was forced to apologize and donate $1,250 to a women’s organization when a female staffer overheard him in the newsroom using the word pussy-whipped with a male colleague who declined his invitation to play basketball after work. The feminist writer Andrea Dworkin explicitly connected coarse sexual language to the oppression of women: “Fucking requires that the male act on one who has less power and this valuation is so deep, so completely implicit in the act, that the one who is fucked is stigmatized.”

This is really unfair. First of all, it wasn’t that women were less sexual and less likely to appreciate bawdy subject matter. (See the working class of the time, walk into a Victorian pub in 1850 and how many pale, blushing ladies would you expect to find?) Men weren’t to speak coarsely in “mixed company because women were deemed weaker and would be somehow harmed by the stress of hearing harsh language. They needed to be protected and only needed to know what the men in their lives felt they should know. (Look at all the women who perish from a broken heart in Victorian novels.)

My mothers still finds it flattering when a man refuses to use rough language in her presence. I , however, am offended. Do they think they’ll break me? That I’ll faint?

But what’s really not fair is Pinker’s inclusion of the women’s movement in the 70’s. Having not so much as alluded to, or given evidence that he is even aware of, the incredible injustices that women have suffered and continue to suffer, he cheapens the reality of an important era in women’s history by picking two really outlandish samples. $1,250 for being exposed to the term pussy-whipped? That’s ridiculous and puritanical and not “liberated” at all. In fact it encourages a “not in mixed company” doctrine and is a misguided and completely inadequate example of “sexual harassment”.

As for Andrea Dworkin’s quote that

“Fucking requires that the male act on one who has less power and this valuation is so deep, so completely implicit in the act, that the one who is fucked is stigmatized.”

Um, no it doesn’t. No they aren’t. Not unless a man is treating a woman in a demeaning way, robbing her of her power by his words or actions. No. No, fucking is fucking! It’s sex. The connotation’s not very romantic, but it isn’t supposed to be. If Pinker’s trying underly the usage of “Oh man, you’re so fucked!”, while I wouldn’t agree, I could maybe see the point. But he’s clearly not. He’s just citing another example of how language is re-evaluated based on changing perceptions.

I think Pinker is brilliant, actually. (Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier?) But if he’s going to enter the gender-roles arena at all, he is remiss to take such a thoughtless approach. It’s incomplete and misleading.

I understand he is a cognitive and evolutionary psychologist. He’s not a sociologist. He’s not an anthropologist. Fine. Gender inequality can have evolutionary underpinnings. In fact, everything probably does.

My point is simply this: either leave it out or give it the treatment it deserves.


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