In 2019, I blogged about the ethics of writing erotica and cited an old article titled, “What Distinguishes Erotica from Pornography.” Now I’m blogging about the ethics of writing profanity. Are the ethical norms different; that is, if erotica can be distinguished from pornography, can either be distinguished from profanity? WTF?

Simplistically, the answer must be “yes,” because erotica and pornography can be written without using profanity, but profanity is profanity. It can be camouflaged, as in “WTF.” It can be spelled with missing letters, as in “F–K.” It can be subtle as in, “oral sex is not f–king.” It can brazen without using a profane word as in, “I like to grab them by the pussy.” In each case, you are writing profanity, whether camouflaged, misspelled, or anatomically descriptive. But none of that reaches the focus of this blog—are there ethical norms in writing profanity?

Using profane words in print is not inherently unethical. Cussing, swearing, damning, obscenity, blankety-blank, execrable, loathsome, and vile are kissing cousins, but as standalone words, they are not profane. They might be placeholders for, suggestions of, implications about, or veiled profanity. Writing them is neither profane nor unethical. This short blog is about real profanity, in-your-face profanity, the kind that got you spanked, scolded, or made to leave the dinner table as a child. I’m talking about words you had to confess if you were Catholic, and words that if you didn’t use as a teenager made you a dork—or worse—uncool.

The question posed in the blog is whether there is anything unethical about this fucking inquiry. If so, since it includes a profane word, can you fix the ethical misconduct by asking a different question? Is there anything unethical about asking some other f***ing question? What if you posed it the way kids do every day in America: WTF?

This topic is hardly new. Academic lectures have touched on it before. “Roache begins by distinguishing swear words from slurs, noting that merely mentioning swear words as I did above is seen as more acceptable than using them. She then moves to the questions of whether and why swearing might be thought offensive, and if so what we should do about it. First, she points out that we may think swearing should be permitted by law, even if it’s morally wrong (as the law allows us, say, to betray our friends). She then goes on to consider reasons why people might think swearing is morally wrong in so far as it is offensive: harm; impoliteness; aggression; and linguistic impoverishment.”[1]

The sports world is rife with profanity. Ten years ago, two head coaches in the NFL differed about the widespread use of profanity on and off the field by coaches, players, and fans. “The reaction in the sports world revealed deep differences in attitudes toward the use of foul language. Fellow coaches, players and sports announcers lined up on different sides of the fence . . . It’s just words, they don’t hurt anybody.”[2]

In many work environments, the use of profanity is high. “I would expect to hear a lot of swearing on the factory floor, on a building site or in a transport depot, for instance. In an office, however, it should be expected that people will conduct themselves in a businesslike manner and certainly no one should have to put up with language or behavior they find offensive, particularly from management.”[3]

Some believe profane language is a sign of a poor vocabulary, low-level intelligence, or lack of self-control. Profanities are censored on most public television broadcasts. There is some research about people who regularly use swear words.[4] There is nothing new about profanity. Mark Twain had something to say about it over a hundred years ago. “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides relief denied even to prayer.”

Profanity is rarely heard, said, or written in courts, middle-grade classrooms, or from church pulpits. But there is some support for the notion that people who use it “may be more trustworthy, according to a new three-part study analyzing swearing and straightforwardness in individuals and society. The consistent findings across the studies suggest that the positive relation between profanity and honesty is robust, and that the relationship found at the individual level indeed translates to the society level.”[5]

Politicians at the highest levels use profanity because it excites the base or is a fire-meets-fire rebuttal. “Donald Trump thundered profanities scores of times during last year’s presidential campaign, including a vow that he would ‘bomb the s***’ out of ISIS, and tell Chinese leaders, ‘Listen, you …’ Well, I can’t even bring myself to hint at it. Now in recent weeks Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has told rallies that President Trump ‘doesn’t give a s*** about health care.’ He’s also assailed the president’s proposed budget by saying, ‘They call it a skinny budget, I call it a s***** budget.'”[6]

Given its pervasive use across all socio-economic classes, and in both professional and academic arenas, the question remains: is the use of profanity in writing unethical? The answer is no, depending on who you are writing to and why you use profanity in your writing. If you are writing to children about their conduct, you should not use expletives in plain language. If you are writing to an unknown audience about serious matters, you should not swear to get attention, or to appear cool or strong. If you are writing about something specific, take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, you should not add insult to injury by cursing them, the disease, or the imperfections by governments that failed to restrain or understand its gravity. You ought to always write just like your mother said you should.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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