Two Sides of a Bad Coin “Fucking”. How is that for a start of an essay? Does it pack a punch? Does it surprise you? Well, that is how Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, decided to start his article “What the F***” in The New Republic. It seems inappropriate that a Harvard professor would start any piece of writing in this way; however, as the piece goes on, his stance on cursing loses its initially crude air and becomes a more credible, scientific argument.
By introducing cursing in a new scholarly light, Pinker is able to morph the reader’s initial repulsion to cursing into a thoughtful deliberation of its advantages and disadvantages. This purpose is not evident from the start though because he is preoccupied with trying to pull the readers into reading his article. He does this by first unbalancing the readers with his unconventional beginning. He then mentions the contemporary example of Bono cursing as he accepted a prize for his group to interest the readers a bit more.
Finally, he drops the expletives “asshole” , “cocksucker”, and “motherfucker” all in the same sentence and finishes brilliantly with “nigger” and “cunt”. Usually this flagrant lack of indiscretions would deter the general reader from venturing on, but in Pinker’s case, the controversial nature of his beginning is utilized to hook the readers in. In this way, it is a bit like a Michael Moore movie. All of them do not take the time to be subtle and are shockingly biased.
Yet, all types of people still watch his movies: liberal thinkers are attracted to the freedom with which taboos are mentioned while conservatives gravitate towards them, itching for the chance to disarm the argument. Both are interested for completely different reasons but the end result is the same: everyone is interested in learning more about the content. Unlike Michael Moore though, Pinker does not continuously pelt the reader with fact after fact, story after story, in an effort to get the reader completely on his side.
He takes a more gradual approach and tries to get the reader to slowly understand his side of the story. In a matter of a few paragraphs, I was surprised to find that I, a long-time dissenter of cursing, had already become habituated to reading f, c, n, m, and etc. -bombs. I appreciated how, instead of approaching cursing as a black and white subject and having a very partisan tone, he approached it in a very technical manner.
He did not handle the topic of swearing as the shunned topic it is usually treated as, but he manipulated his diction and made cursing a more sophisticated science which, according to him, “raises many other puzzles” and incorporates “linguistic, neurobiological, literary, [and] political” issues. Who has ever described cursing using these types of words? He then goes on to analyze the different parts of the brain-the limbic system and the neocortex-which are activated when people curse.
He even categorizes cursing into different types as a biologist would categorize different cell types. There is cathartic swearing, there is vulgar swearing, and there are figures of speech swearing. When I first read the article, it seemed that he was simply using this technical jargon to make his argument more intellectual and credible; however, it soon became clear that although his utilization of language did accomplish this feat, it was also a technique of his to get the reader to a less prejudiced standpoint about cursing.
Children grow up under the impression that cursing is wrong. Some children grow up to respect this belief and not curse while others decide to rebel and curse. Both sides though have their one-dimensional viewpoints in common. Cursing is rarely ever a neutral ground of conversation for anyone, but Pinker, by analyzing and discussing cursing, is able to separate the reader from the negative connotations of cursing just long enough so he could insert the idea that there is a beneficial side of cursing.
He understands that people feel comfortable with facts so he takes his evaluation and observations of cursing and throws it at the reader so they think about the data instead of dwelling on the negative undertone of the topic being discussed. Then, at the end, he finally introduces arguments which are pro-cursing. According to psychology, everyone has a confirmation bias: a tendency for people to only rely upon information which confirms their beliefs and disregard material which does not.
If Pinker had just listed reasons cursing was fine from the beginning, the reader would have probably either taken them in hungrily or downright rejected them according to their opinions. As a professor of psychology at Harvard, Pinker was probably well aware of this occurrence and therefore decided to soften the readers’ predispositions to cursing and then persuade them. As support for his pro-cursing stance, he states how cursing is necessary sometimes because of the extra flavor that it can add to a conversation and that sometimes the employment of a curse word is the most effective way to express a certain sentiment.
Pinker refers to the film adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story Curse in which a Polish girl curses after being slapped by a her Jewish husband who she had hid, fed, and kept safe during the Nazi occupation. In this awful situation there are no other words which could have had the same impact in such a concise manner. She had every right to curse at her husband. Pinker also mentions that cursing has lost much of the crude image it used to have and that many people, even people in high positions, curse frequently.
To support his point Pinker referred to the colorful usage of the English language by Lyndon Johnson, our former president, to illustrate how common cursing is in everyday society and that even people who would not be expected to curse do. Since everyone is cursing it cannot possibly be that bad. As per Pinker, swear words are nothing to be feared or dreaded; they are just words in the English Language which can be used whenever necessary and just like any other word, there is no need to over-use them, but in the correct situation, they can be the perfect words to evoke a feeling and impart the full impacted desired.
It still seems a bit strange that a Harvard professor would decide to write an article that seems as casual as this- a more scholarly article would seem more appropriate. But, I think he made a wise choice of deferring from the usual course of action because the techniques which he applied were very effective. Although I still feel that cursing is wrong and I don’t feel very comfortable with it, Pinker has successfully tempered my attitude towards it and has given me a new understanding of cursing.