Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cuss words and white male privilege

Some call it cussing. Some call it swearing. It's the use of four-letter words and it's very controversial. I understand that such words aren't appropriate most of the time, but I'm puzzled by people who think such words are inappropriate all of the time. My father, for instance, doesn't see the need to use cuss words ever. He seems to think cussing makes people (like me) sound uneducated or "low-class." This makes little sense to me since highly educated people swear all the time, as do upper-middle-class and rich people. My theory is that there's a link between cussing and privilege, which means certain people can get away with bad words while others can't.

Countless action movies and TV series about police officers, fire fighters, criminals and powerful men contain plenty of cussing (many refer to the use of the word fuck as "dropping an F-bomb"). It's true that many of these characters are blue collar or working class, but many are lawyers, business people or have other white collar professions. In the boardroom, male characters often use cuss words to indicate anger and, more importantly, dominance. Is it only bad characters who use "foul" language? No, the heroes talk that way, too. Our acceptance of such characters to "cuss a blue streak" in entertainment, reflects our real life attitudes about language (in English, the color blue is associated with inappropriate language or humor).

In any given hierarchy, those near the top enjoy greater freedom to disregard social etiquette, while those near the bottom must behave themselves. Who hasn't experienced this in their workplace, where managers and business owners can more easily get away with slamming phones, clipping nails, using executive assistants for personal needs or other unprofessional habits? Who hasn't heard a boss use a four-letter word that you knew you wouldn't dare use in front of her/him? Social privilege extends to language and some of the most powerful words are cuss words. When you want a real response, drop an F-bomb. When it's time to get serious, go blue. If you're already in a social position that has the respect of others, such as chairman of the board, cuss words can be a marker of your privilege over others. Those without such privilege can pay a high price for taking the liberty of an F-bomb.


As a short, Chicana woman, I don't rank extremely high in the general American social hierarchy. When someone suggests I shouldn't cuss, I think they're indicating that I can't get away with it. Mexican-American women are already seen as less intelligent and respectable. It seems that when I use four-letter words, I reinforce the stereotype of the working class, uneducated Mexican-American woman who can't talk very well and falls back on cuss words because of her limited vocabulary, not to mention her violent emotions. 

But is cussing violent? Cuss words often accompany violence, but in the vernacular -- as people actually use them -- they're more often used as words that intensify meaning and they can convey negative or positive opinions. "He fucked me good" can mean that someone did you wrong, or had sexual intercourse with you that left you very satisfied. "This stuff is shit" means it's not good at all, while "This stuff is the shit" means it's very good. We use cuss words all the time for positive emotions such as "I would do goddamn anything for you," "I am so fucking excited!" and "She played the hell out of that tune." Many people who use cuss words as part of our regular vocabulary, don't necessarily feel upset or antagonistic when we use them. They're just another way to express ourselves when we really, really mean it.

I've tried to explain the neutrality of cuss words as Americans actually use them, but people who don't like cussing don't have much open-mindedness about it. They hear bad language that they respond to with comments like "Potty mouth," "Watch your mouth," "Watch your language," "I'll wash your mouth out with soap," and "Do you kiss your wife/husband/kids with that mouth?" They make cuss words off limits, which doesn't work well for people who like to push boundaries and do what we're not supposed to do. Members of my family would have me believe that cuss words are the language of the lower class, when in fact they're just as much a part of the language of the powerful. People of all classes use four-letter words, but for some those words support their privilege in the social hierarchy while for others that language underscores how close we are to the bottom.

I refuse to tailor my everyday language because of such a hierarchy. I know not to use cuss words in professional contexts, but in casual conversation with friends and on Facebook with my family, it's safe to indulge. I'm proud to say my mother cussed in both English and Spanish (the sign of a true bilingual is what languages are used in moments of great emotion or pain). She didn't use those words in public or at work, but when she was safe from judgement, she didn't limit her expression. At home without my father around, she was in control, which made it safe for her to let out a blue streak. It was part of my early education in the power of language: cuss words were special and could only be wielded by the most important people. This belief was reinforced by how much worse it seems to be for "ladies" (women) and children to cuss. I've learned that cuss words are less offensive when used by men.

Maybe it's a combination of my mother's role modeling and my refusal to take my Mexican and female place in the American hegemony that makes me see cussing this way. I tend to do things that women, especially Mexican American women, often receive disapproval for: take up extra room on the subway, talk about menstruation in public, talk back to my boss, be honest about who I like and dislike, not believe in God, talk openly about not wanting children (or even liking them much), etc. Each time I do one of these things, I'm acting like a person with complete freedom and nothing to fear from the opinions of others. Delusional? I doubt that matters because living this way works very well for me.

Yes, I'm calling cussing another act of rebellion against the American social hegemony that wants women to act like ladies and Mexicans to act like good Mexicans. Move comfortably from highly educated language to raw cuss words and back, the way privileged white men do? How dare I?

5 comments:

Matt said...

I always remember many of my teachers, both male and female, making the point that swearing was "bad" or "foul" language, as opposed to "strong" language, which is how I often hear swearing described now. Some of my teachers even hated mild swearing. I have also encountered (mainly older) men who don't like to use the word "fuck" in front of a woman (they insist on calling her a "lady"), but will use it freely in front of other men, and it seems that some people (especially men) think women are more offended by strong language.

I agree with how the use of swear words shouldn't be seen as "low-class", as you are right about people of every class swearing.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Thanks, Matt! When someone swears in front of me and then apologizes for it, I always say, "That's okay. My mother cussed in TWO languages." I don't know why men think they can't swear in front of women. Every woman I've ever known was perfectly okay with people cussing in front of her (except for my familia who are a mystery to me).

Matt said...

No problem, Regina. I have also heard some middle-aged women comment that they don't like swearing and it is also interesting that women in your family haven't liked people swearing in front of them.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Matt, it's not just the women in my family who dislike cussing.

Matt said...

Yes, of course, sorry. You said your father doesn't like swearing either.