Swearing Has Permeated Modern Discourse — and American Politics. Have We Lost Our Sense of Civility?

When future historians begin to chronicle the past few years, they may be surprised to discover how much time Western civilization has invested in discussing the benefits of talking like drunken sailors. According to many scientists and psychologists, the secret to a long and healthy life lies not in a balanced diet or regular exercise but in our ability to swear with abandon.

Serious research dates back more than a century, but this decade has witnessed an explosion in studies and experiments that suggest swearing helps you tolerate pain, creates bonds in the workplace, and even improves performance at the gym. Swearing has found supporters in the normally genteel world of publishing: books with the F-word in the title have become a niche but thriving market — whether it’s the “subtle art” or the “life-changing magic” of not giving a f*ck, or the more in-your-face F*ck Feelings. You can even find (adult) colouring books of swear words and how-to guides to improve your profanity prowess.

As Emma Byrne, a researcher in evolutionary psychology at University of London, writes in her book Swearing Is Good for You, bad language often serves as a pressure valve, letting out steam to avoid more catastrophic explosion. America has been on the verge of that boiling point since the 2016 election. So when Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan told supporters that the Democratic majority is going to “impeach the motherfucker” on the same day she was sworn in earlier this year, it seemed like a warranted and long-awaited response to the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Byrne’s book also advances the argument that swearing may have helped the development of the human race, as it replaced the need for violent or murderous outbursts. Instead of throwing rocks at each other, our ancestors hurled insults. But it doesn’t look like our response to swear words has evolved alongside our ability to dish them out. There’s a missing link somewhere. I’m one of those people who may swear in the course of a private conversation but find that too much profanity degrades the public conversation. It can also derail it, as the outrage that followed Tlaib’s outburst proves.

Her one cuss word came to symbolize a decline in the level of public discourse, even when its target is the one who has arguably contributed the most to this slide into incivility. According to a study by the (liberal) Media Matters for America, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC dedicated more than two and half hours to Tlaib’s outburst. By comparison, comments in the New York Times by Republican Steve King questioning why “white supremacy” is now considered a bad word received less than 30 minutes.

“The future of Western democracies may depend on how we address — and not just contain — our anger. Non-stop F-bombs and misplaced civility are not the only options.”

This incident unfolded just as calls for more civility in dealing with “the other side” and condemnations of the toxic political culture seem to gain momentum. Hate has crept into the very political grammar of North America (and elsewhere, but I’m staying closer to home for now). Nearly 80 per cent in the U.S. believe that lack of civility will end in violence. The picture is not all that different in Canada, as anyone following the anti–Justin Trudeau “yellow vest” demonstrations in Alberta can tell. When signs attacking the sexual history of the prime minister’s mother or Facebook posts calling for his head become part of the rhetoric of a protest movement, it’s safe to say this is about more than the economy or a pipeline. According to an Abacus Data poll conducted in late December 2018, one in four Canadians “hate” their political opponents. The ratio is not large enough to predict a civil war, but it registers a worrying shift in the nature of Canada’s political debates.

It seems like a call for civility is the right one to turn down the heat, but I don’t think it’s as straightforward or as noble as its supporters claim. While swearing is easy to identify because it touches on taboos (sex now, religion then), civility can be harder to define or agree on. Are individuals who drive White House staff or Republican officials out of restaurants committing an uncivil act or exercising their democratic right to protest?Is civility merely about public figures not trolling their opponents on Twitter and instead agreeing to disagree? Given such broad range, calls for civility can turn into a blunt instrument, and so need to be subjected to a more rigorous test.

As I watch democracies divided along colour, gender, and class lines, I’ve come to think of calls for civility as classic misdirection and false equivalency. The real obscenity may not be what one rookie congresswoman has said in the heat of a moment but when we as voters ignore or remain silent as some politicians call for civility in discourse from one side of their mouth and enact the most uncivil and cruel measures with the other.

Decisions around civility should be weighed based not on who stands to gain from it but who will lose the most by it. Sarah Jones in New York magazine nailed it when she wrote last fall: “We do not suffer problems that can be solved with better etiquette.” Another pundit compared calls for civility to measuring the temperature without diagnosing what ails America. There’s enough rot in the current White House administration or in the rise of extremist political parties in Europe to justify screaming and swearing. But then what?

The future of Western democracies may depend on how we address — and not just contain — this anger. Non-stop F-bombs and misplaced civility, an endless cycle of attack and retreat, are not the only options. Going back to the studies that show swearing’s positive impact offers a good starting point. Most of them show the benefits to individuals, and say relatively little about its collective effect. By focusing on the individual, swearing continues the pervasive self-improvement culture. It’s hard to see what the societal advantage will be unless we all lace our conversations with profanities. But will that change the course of history or help others who are affected by current directions?

I hardly think so. These changes will not come through swearing or, for that matter, civility alone. Neither tackles the challenges our democracies are facing at the moment, and both feel like Band-Aid solutions to festering problems. Three short years ago, I would have written a column advocating civility with little to no hesitation. In this current political environment, all bets and standard responses are off. My views on swearing in public remain unchanged — for now. Like Tlaib and the millions who want to read about dystopias and not live in them, the pressure may get to me sooner or later.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is a journalist and professor at Ryerson University, and the author of the award-winning books Intolerable and Brown.