Stray Observations on the Art of Profanity

by Sam Buntz

I once wrote a column in my college newspaper mocking a recurring feature in the campus’s liberal periodical. It wasn’t an anti-liberal column, for the record—more a barbed piece of constructive criticism—and its tone would probably best be described as “schoolmarmish, yet cutting.” Essentially, it suggested that the feature—a dual-article entitled, “Fuck that Shit”/ “Love that Shit,” a Point/Counterpoint, where one anonymous columnist praised something and another derided it—mistook the repeated use of four-letter words for wit. The problem, I argued, was that the periodical’s writers didn’t really know how to curse: a well-placed f-word can, in the right circumstances, work wonders, but too many can easily ruin things. Curses are condiments or spices. You don’t want to pour out the whole bottle of red pepper flakes; you just want a sprinkle. It’s also like what Jerry Seinfeld said, regarding the absence of profanity in his stand-up act: “The F-word is a Corvette”—meaning it’s a giant, flashy piece of shit (oops) that’s should, to any right-thinking person, seem totally unnecessary. (I don’t personally have anything against Corvettes, though—and wouldn’t go as far as Seinfeld).

Of course, an editor from this now-defunct magazine wrote in to defend “Fuck that Shit”/”Love that Shit” as some sort of liberating force, freeing people from their hang-ups—the old “Ooh, Mr. Conventional is afraid of the Revolution” spiel. But, when I ran into him at a campus party a week or so later, he (perhaps under the influence of a Pabst Blue Ribbon or seven) confessed that I was right. He may have even used the word “magisterial” to describe my column—I don’t remember.

Nonetheless, here we are in 2014, roughly four or five years later, and the hipster-heavy quarters of the Internet (yes, some have criticized the widespread overuse of the term “hipster”—but what is one to say?) still make regular use of brainless profanity. For instance, I really like Vice Media—they’re pretty awesome, and they (as they never tire of telling you) go places where other major media outlets tremble to step. Yet, there’s a new feature on Vice entitled Fuck, That’s Delicious!,a video series where we watch obese white-rapper Action Bronson consume various un-healthy food items. It’s a decent enough example of what I’m talking about—and not just because of the uncreative title. Monsieur Bronson always says things similar to (and I’m improvising, but he really talks like this) “these muthafuckin’ chili dogs are muthafuckin’ delicious” or “some muthafuckas are gonna come around and we’re gonna eat some muthafuckin’ Doritos.” (Hate-watch it if you want to.) Also, the super-popular feminist blog, Jezebel, keeps running articles with titles like “Thurston Moore Confirms He’s a Dick”—because twentysomethings won’t read an article without that kind of “edge”, apparently. But that’s not really edge, at all—it’s lazy.

Also, individual, hip columnists like Matt Taibbi (who sometimes writes for Rolling Stone) are guilty too. Taibbi wrote a column attacking David Brooks—who penned a pro-gay-marriage column that Taibbi doesn’t seem to have understood all that well, mistaking Brooks apparently straightforward articulations of his social philosophy for condescension and sarcasm—which contains such trenchant digs at Brooks as “What an asshole!” and “This is some seriously crazy shit!” So, yeah… But, of course, Taibbi once spiked a cream pie with horse semen and threw it in the face of The New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief. So, maybe I’m looking at the wrong sort of target, in the first place, in arguing that we should have some vague journalistic, pseudo-decorum, even in these twilight years.

Nonetheless, there’s something dispiriting about it all. My favorite literary critic, Northrop Frye, once said that the most depressing sentence he’d ever heard was “That fucking fucker’s fucked”—not because it’s profane or “offensive”, but because it’s simply so inarticulate. You’ve got one word that you use to mean everything (“fuck” or one of its permutations) and you entirely dispense with the particulars that give language nuance and depth. Your prose becomes a gray drizzle, as opposed to the rhetorical thunderclouds you thought you were amassing.

[Note: since writing this column, I’ve become much more familiar with Matt Taibbi’s journalism, and discovered that I like much of it.  So, chalk the David Brooks disagreement down as a fluke.  I still don’t know what to make of the horse semen pie thing, though…]

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