On Profanity: 2
Mores and Ethics
The “essentialist” type of thinking as regards right and wrong involves a sort of “law and order” mentality, a belief that there’s a moral/natural/social/divine order that can be parsed into specific rules, defining distinct acts as existing on a spectrum that runs from mandatory (acts we must do) through laudatory (acts we should but could not do) through discouraged (acts we could but should not do) to forbidden (acts we must not do). Considered essentially true, and more or less absolute depending on the depth to which they have been instilled in an individual, generally conceived as universally applicable, and very often traced to sources of wisdom granted profound authority (religious or philosophical patriarchs usually, if not God himself), these socially-constructed dicta are what I mean by the term “mores”. Theft is wrong. Murder is wrong. Rape is wrong. Mostly they make sense. Sodomy is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Miscegenation is wrong. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, in the law and order mentality these mores construct a system of beliefs and behaviours that is held individually but constructed socially and very often institutionalised formally. It’s this system that I’m talking about, quite specifically, when I use the terms “moral” or “morality”. Given the etymology, I think, this is a valid mooring of these terms to a precise usage within the philosophy of right and wrong. Indeed, I think it’s a necessary distinction to avoid confusion with quite different types of thinking as regards right and wrong.
Anyway, in this type of thinking, acts are, in and of themselves, right and wrong; and the speaking of words is, of course, an act. Heresy is wrong. Blasphemy is wrong. Profanity is wrong. And that’s the way it is, for the moralist. Certain things should just never be said.
The other type of thinking is an “existentialist” approach, in which that moral system is rendered subject to critique and abstraction. The belief underlying this mentality is that whether or not we view those mores as absolute and necessary truths, getting to know them and understand them requires a process of interrogation of the moral system, out of which we develop a set of premises and principles and practices which, crucially, we understand to be quite personal, informed by our different experiences and insights, or the different weights we place on empathic and pragmatic considerations. This is what I mean by “ethics”, why I distinguish “ethical” judgement from “moral” judgement. Given that one could see this type of thinking as beginning at the point when an individual begins to question whether this or that moré regarding what’s right and wrong is, in and of itself, right or wrong, it’s not hard to see how these two types of thinking can enter direct conflict; further, many those premises and principles and practices may be entirely interrogative rather than imperative. Which is to say, in any given situation, faced with an ethical dilemma, moral judgement consitutes the straightforward application of a moré, the result of which is a “do this” or “don’t do that” answer. Ethical judgement, on the other hand, consists of an active evaluation of the importance of some or all of the relevant mores, factoring in our own feelings of empathy and self-interest, our projections of consequences, our feelings as regards those potential consequences, the importance of some or all mores that relate to those potential consequences, and so on. The result of this, far from being a “do this” or “don’t do that” answer, may well be an action that ultimately articulates a suppositional premise rather than a categorical conclusion, enacting not “I should do this” but rather “should I do this?” An ethical judgement may well be, more often than not, “I really don’t know; on the one hand I should do this; on the other hand I should do that; my gut says this, so let’s go for it and see what fucking happens.”
Of course, systems of ethics can be socially constructed, codified across communities of individuals — c.f. the distinct “professional” ethics of an artist, a soldier, a journalist, a nurse — but the personal nature of those ethical codes remains. You and I might both live by the pirate code, me hearty. Alternatively, one of us might live by the pirate code while the other is a ninja, with a different code entirely; and both of us may entirely respect the other’s choice of path. Or not, as the case may be, pirates and ninjas being mortal enemies. Either way, even within those professional ethics, there may be distinct differences between individuals. One writer may avoid blasphemy and profanity in their work, not because they see them as simply wrong (i.e. in a moral judgement), but because of what they’re writing, who they’re writing for. For much the same reasons, with a bit of a flip in general premises, I’m probably a bit notorious for my flytings of God and general potty mouth. As far as I’m concerned, every single fucking swear word, every motherfucking sacrilege is, by God’s hairy cunt, entirely fucking justified. If I were writing for children, on the other hand, I’d maybe be inclined to tone it down… not by much, mind, but a little. This is kind of a personal professional ethic for me.
So, when I’m writing one of my scabrous invectives against God and religion, I know that I’m going to be throwing out heresy, blasphemy and profanity left, right and centre. I don’t subscribe to the mores that condemn such actions as just plain wrong, but I do know some perfectly nice people will be shocked. Empathy says that one shouldn’t distress folks like that, but then empathy for the folks I see as victims of the moral system I’m kicking against counterbalances that. Pragmatics, however, tells me that I might be alienating the very people I want to be talking to, defeating the whole purpose, and if I really want that scabrous invective to be anything more than preaching to the shaitanic choir, I should tone it down. But I don’t know if that’s actually how things will play out. And my gut says, fuck it, just say what you think, and don’t hold back. That’s the ethical judgement that wins out in the end: just don’t hold back; don’t censor yourself, because if you don’t have the guts to say it, maybe nobody else will and maybe it needs to be said. When they say that certain things should never be said, maybe they’re dead wrong. Maybe. I really don’t know, but let’s go for it and see what fucking happens.
That’s mores versus ethics.
But the struggle between them is not so clear-cut as that might make it sound. It’s not just directly mappable to conservatives versus liberals. Because the critique and abstraction of a moral system doesn’t tear those rules apart without new ones emerging in the process. That existential ethics bears comparison to the “post-conventional” type of thinking in Kohlberg’s theory of stages of ethical development, a type of ethics he characterises by abstract principles that are applicable across variant contexts — “from each according to ability, to each according to need”, “the greatest good for the greatest number”, “do unto others as you’d have them do to you”. The rules are not always so cerebral. We might equally well, I’d argue, be working with premises and principles that are far more loosely formulated, barely articulated rules-of-thumb. We might just as well be applying a rough-and-ready notion that we should “treat people with a bit of fucking respect”. What is actually pertinent about all such maxims is, I think, that they require, in their vagueness, precisely that existential process of evaluation outlined above. But then, when it comes to a fuzzy maxim like “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” its not hard to see how simple specific practices might be so blindingly obvious to anyone with a spark of decency that they’re bound to become fairly hard-and-fast, equally specific rules. Not calling a black person “nigger”, for example, that’s pretty much a no-brainer far as I’m concerned. Hell, unless I’m writing dialogue or referencing the term itself, I see no reason to use it at all. Same goes for all those racial epithets: “kike”, “paki”, “spic”, “wop” and so on. It’s not about “political correctness”. I don’t need a rulebook of words not to use. All I need to know is to “treat people with a bit of fucking respect.” But I’m damn sure that, in practice, the ethical certainty with which most civilised individuals shun those terms, and the social reinforcement of that certainty, will engrain them in those individuals as moral dicta.
So it’s interesting to note the quirks that emerge when this becomes obvious, as with those who refuse to even quote “nigger”, for example, but refer to it as “the n-word”, in a taboo exactly paralleling the taboo that subsitutes “the f-word” for “fuck”. We don’t dance around the word “fuck” in case the sexual act is offended; we do so because the word is so taboo to us that we feel the need to shun it completely. Same with “nigger”. That the word is a bona fide taboo now seems fairly well evidenced by the example of a Washington aide forced to resign after a staffer was offended by his use of the word “niggardly” to describe a budget. The word “niggardly” has fuck-all to do with “nigger” or the Spanish “negro” it derives from. It means miserly. But the sound pushed a button, breached a taboo, and where my own ethics, speaking personally, would have weighed up the trauma experienced by the poor staffer and the inconvenience of the Washington aide forced to find a new job — factoring in the pragmatic reality of linguistic meaning, the choice between validating ignorance and decency — and slapped the staffer upside the head for being a dumbass, instead the pig-headed self-righteousness of mores stomped reason into the ground and forced the aide to fall on his sword.
This is the sort of gross stupidity that sprinkles magic fucking pixie dust on the conservative straw man of political correctness and brings it to life. And the worst of it is that this is conservative fucking thinking disguised as liberalism. It’s mores disguised as ethics. Applying the “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” maxim would have meant ripping up that aide’s resignation letter and buying the staffer a fucking dictionary. Instead we have an absolute injunction against saying the word “nigger” applied to “niggardly”, seemingly on the basis that the second vowel is indistinguishable so the former is, like, acoustically contained within the latter. It’s like Beavis and Butthead laughing at the word “assets”. “Huh-huh, huh-huh, he said, ‘ass-ets’!” So, yeah. He said “nigg’r-dly”. And the rule says that’s wrong, so it must be. This is what I really fucking hate about mores, actually. Ethics is constantly redefining them, tearing them apart with critique and empathy, but even as the next generation inherits a culture where the mores maybe don’t condemn miscegenation or sodomy or abortion — or at least a culture where those mores are on the run, challenged on the battleground of public opinion — that next generation is full of dipshits who’re simply following a different set of rules with the same blind faith. And that may well mean they’re not really a liberal; they’re a bloody liability.
Now, the issues about particular usages of the word “rape” are eminently more reasonable than the “niggardly” example above, and I’m certainly not seeking to lump those who raised aforesaid issues in with the sort of liberal moralism that would lead to a resignation on such spurious grounds. Especially given that the comments are fairly short, reading more as general musings on the subject than strident disavowal. But it’s in the idle conversational agreements — that, no, you shouldn’t really do this, or that, well, it’s OK, I suppose, but I wouldn’t do that myself — that individual ethical judgements are affirmed and cemented into mores; and the question of how we should and should not use the word “rape” — where the grounds for concern are that it might cause offense and the word itself is categorised with “cunt” — does take us into the territory of profanity. For me it raises the spectre of an ethical consensus becoming moral dicta becoming taboo. Rape is too important, too terrible, too abhorrent for the word to be used just as any other. Rape is a special word to be afforded special treatment because it has the power to summon the abhorrence of what it represents. It is a shocking word. It is not to be spoken idly. It is to be used only in certain contexts.
It worries me that this attitude is the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy at the heart of what renders a word truly taboo, when we accept that because it represents a shocking thing, it is itself shocking, that because we abhor what it refers to it and uttering the work invokes all that abhorrence, we must take that word out of our everyday vocabulary, put it to one side so we can reach it if we need to but won’t use it unthinkingly… maybe in a little box of reticence because we don’t want the children to think they can just pick it up and play with it… maybe locked up nice and tight just to make sure they don’t. Not in front of the children, dear.
OK, my views on morality and taboos and profanity are probably not the most conventional, and almost certainly a little obsessive, but as I say: when they say that certain things should never be said, maybe they’re dead wrong. Maybe.
Which brings us to “cunt”.