Monday, 7 April 2014

Sentimental Pieties and the F-word

Justin Trudeau’s use of the F-word the other day led one of our national newspapers to ask its readers what they thought of that.  Many of them criticized him for a variety of reasons, but the reason that struck me, and stuck in my craw, you might say, was the claim that people who use obscenities have limited vocabularies.

On the contrary, I argued in a letter I wrote back, doesn’t it show the exact opposite?  Their vocabularies are unlimited, by good taste, decorum, whatever.

Of course, there are no doubt uneducated people out there who resort to obscenity because they know little else, but Justin Trudeau?  Or his even more famous father, who let off an F-bomb in the House of Commons of all places?  You can criticize the Trudeaus for many things, but I doubt that a limited vocabulary is one of them.

But it was not just this week’s letter-writers who conjured up this argument.  I’ve heard it many times before, and I wonder at its longevity.  Why do people believe that those who swear know few other words?  Perhaps they would just like to believe it.  Perhaps they are directing one of the strongest insults they can at the users of obscenity, calling them in effect uneducated and illiterate.

(As strong insults go, this is not much perhaps, but if you deny yourself the use of obscenities, you are perhaps limited when it comes time to express outrage.  Who indeed has the more limited vocabulary?)

Now, none of this is to advocate obscenity.  I am quite restrained in using it myself, but that doesn’t mean we should resort to falsehoods when opposing it.  And I don’t really oppose it either.  I can swear, perhaps not with the best of them, but just because I do doesn’t mean my vocabulary is limited.  It may, as I wrote originally, be just the opposite.

I wonder, then, where the argument originates about obscenity users having limited vocabularies.  Perhaps it’s meant to cow the educated and abash the rest.

It reminds me for some reason of another sentimental piety: about inner beauty being the true beauty.  It reminds me in particular of the scene in the movie Liar, Liar when the little boy voices that sentiment to his father (played by Jim Carrey).  Carrey responds, “That’s just something ugly people say.”

There are things we perhaps want to believe; perhaps we think we can be superior to those who have scared us by using swear words when we tell them that this shows their vocabulary is limited.  We, of course, have much fuller vocabularies and would never be forced to resort to four letter words. 

Well, it is perhaps a comforting belief, like the belief that the 9-11 terrorists were cowards.  For questioning that piety, Bill Maher lost his job, so I’ll be careful what I say, but it seems to me that attitudes and opinions based on wish-fulfillment are not the best guides to the truth.  We may not like the truth, but perhaps we should face it.

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