Keywords: Curse Words, Audience, Speaker, Media, Burke
Curse words are present in every language and are used in multiple focal points of discourse throughout society, from daily conversations to media. Curse words can be defined as words that hold a level of taboo. These levels of taboo are dependent on an individual’s own set of beliefs. Because of the offensive nature of curse words, these words hold a weight that other words do not contain. If curse words fall under the category of taboo, it would make sense to assume that curse words are bad in all contexts, but this is not the case. Depending on the setting and usage in which the discourse takes place, curse words can make an argument more persuasive or less persuasive. Argumentation serves as a branch of discourse and is a node of convincing an audience of something (“Discourse Examples and Definition”). In this chapter, I analyze the positive effects of swearing in argumentation (such as humor and elicitation) and the negative effects of swearing (offending the audience and conveying a lack of education) (Jay).
First, it would be beneficial to lay out the reasons why curse words can be seen both positively and negatively from an audience’s perspective. There are a few key rhetorical theories that explain the relationship between speaker and audience. Edwin Black’s second persona focuses on a set of shared values between speaker and audience. A speaker will have a set of values that they share with their audience, but also a unique set of values and morals that do not align with the audience. Kenneth Burke argues that social identity is founded “spontaneously, intuitively, and even unconsciously.” This theory states if the audience is a predetermined entity, the speaker will go into to conversation instinctually understanding that identification with the audience members is a necessity in producing a convincing argument. Because of this, the speaker’s choice of lexicon is pertinent in staying relatable with an audience. Lastly, Maurice Charland’s constitutive rhetoric is another lens to describe the audience as an entity containing an identity. This theory explains how an audience can be swayed one way or another because, as a unit, the audience makes up their minds on whether to support the speaker’s ideals or not. In the case of curse words, observing popular media and listeners’ reactions to the use of these words may be a way to understand the effects of the words on specific audience members.
When a comedian is on stage, their goal is to convince the audience that they are funny. Often, comedians use raunchy anecdotes, hypothetical situations, and punchlines to argue the point that they are funny. A comedy set, however, has the potential to produce both positive and negative reactions in an audience. A historically controversial comedian that has gotten large scale pushback from his sets is Dave Chappelle. Due to his language, including the N word and homophobic F slur, Chappelle’s audience members have spoken out against his comedy sets. This is an example on how curse words can take away from an argument. If a comedian uses certain words and offends the audience to the point where they are angry as opposed to make them laugh, the comedian’s argument is no longer effective. The Chappelle example serves as evidence on how rhetoric containing curse words can weaken an argument for the speaker, but in other cases the exact opposite may happen.
A famous speech example from popular media containing foul language that strengthens the speaker’s argument is the fictional dialogue from Al Pacino’s character in the movie Any Given Sunday in his Inch speech. Pacino is readying his team up for an important game, and as the speech is reaching its climax, Pacino uses the F word. Although fictional, the written dialogue is meant to be realistic and mirror how a real audience would react. This use of profanity is welcomed with strong agreements and cheers from the entire team. In this instance, Pacino’s tone becomes more and more aggressive while he is giving his speech up until he uses the swear word, which in this case is a substitution for aggression but used in a constructive way to inspire the team. As Jay argues, “Swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for… fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression.” This audience already contains an identity shared with the coach, and this moment of identification positively contributes to the outcome of his speech. The curse word Pacino uses positively enhances his argument and helps his team come together.
Curse words affect an argument because the level of agreeability within an argument is set to a spectrum, with one side of the spectrum being complete agreement, and the other side of the argument being total disagreement. It is crucial to acknowledge both sides of the spectrum so that the audience can have a better sense of the polarizing the effects of curse words. Because the number of positions and population of listeners is infinite, “Use of swear words is heavily context-sensitive and also because their meanings can be seen as expressive, rather than as referential/descriptive,” the outcomes of a negotiation would have situational implications when using curse words (Goddard). The limitation is that that every person is different, and when talking about an audience, it would be difficult to gage to what specific degree an audience is swayed. However, observing an audience through Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, considering the audience as an entity, as students on rhetoric and argumentation we can understand whether the audience agrees or disagrees. After the presentation concludes, based on an audience’s reaction, we can observe how and why they are capable of being influenced. Moreover, conversations and arguments have an unlimited set of presenters and audience members, each with a set of morals and levels of agreeability. Because of this, it would be impossible to accurately account for every individual member of an audience when studying how a curse word may affect an audience. Jay writes that, “Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity” (Jay). The varying degrees of taboo present in both speakers and audiences impact the effect of curse words.
In the context of Chappelle’s stand-up skits and Pacino’s speech, the audiences are varied. In the case of Dave Chappelle, the argument that his jokes are funny on stage were met with criticisms due to his racial and homophobic cursing throughout his set. In the case of the Inch speech, the coach presents himself as an active unit of his team and seeks to motivate his team to win in an aggressive sport. By using a swearword in this context, the coach shows his (fictional) team that he is still one of them and he is outgoing and passionate about his faith in his team, thus making his argument an overall success. Using these two examples from popular media as evidence, I argue that curse words have contextual effects on an argument, on one hand an argument can be embellished by swearing and this embellishment can lead to the argument being more persuasive, on the other hand, curse words can offend an audience and can take away levels of agreement from the audience, weakening the strength of an argument.
Devices, 31 Oct. 2015, https://literarydevices.com/discourse/.
Goddard, Cliff. “‘Swear Words’ and ‘Curse Words’ in Australian (and American) English. At the Crossroads of Pragmatics, Semantics and Sociolinguistics.” Intercultural Pragmatics, vol. 12, no. 2, Jan. 2015, https://doi.org/10.1515/ip-2015-0010.
Jay, Timothy. “The Science of Swearing.” APS Observer, vol. 25, no. 5, Apr. 2012, www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/the-science-of-swearing.