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The Value of Foul Language


Photo by Ben White


Do you remember what it felt like when you said your first cuss word? I grew up in a house with very few four-letter words, so I thought I was in the clear if I cussed in German, French, or the Queen’s English. Over the years, my vocabulary expanded to include swearing in Geek and Shakespeare—the more obscure, the better.

Of course, the world’s view of expletives has changed a lot since Rhett Butler issued his first “damn” in Gone with the Wind. Network television gets bolder every day as they push against content watchdogs. At the same time, some movies and cable shows do not even have to use dialogue anymore. The actors can just move from scene-to-scene, dropping f-bombs to show they are mad, happy, frightened, or aroused. It is like a multi-purpose tool—the writers think that you should never leave home without it. This transition away from “taboos” does not mean that the world does not have plenty of shock-value up its sleeve. The age of COVID-19, pseudo-justice, and pass-the-buck environmentalism has given us a whole new batch of words to muse over. These words are so grotesque that some politicians, business leaders, and average citizens cannot say them without a sour taste rising in their throat.

Are you ready to say them? Substance. Accountability. Honesty. Equality. Empathy.

While these may not be our grandmother’s version of profanity, we would be guilty of complaisance if we ignored the evidence that supported the overall impression that these words and the principles behind them are as dirty as they get.

Over the last eight months, we have witnessed a cringeworthy number of examples of individuals who behave like these words in action are as scandalous as having sex in church. Instead of adhering to the vows and values that are the foundations of their institutions and corporate mission statements, they have become limp-noodle leaders willing to do anything to curry favor with whoever is winning the current news cycle.


They have sacrificed their obligation to advocate for the communities they represent in exchange for protecting their own self-interests, and they are not alone.

When we close our eyes to injustice, whether in our places of employment or on a street corner, we become part of the systemic problems that have plagued us for generations. When we ignore health experts because we believe our individual podium is more valuable than stopping the spread of a deadly pandemic, we run the risk of having someone else’s blood on our hands. When we shrug off our responsibility to care for our planet’s health, we essentially castrate our future—not for the next generation, but for every human living now.

In 10 or 20 years, what will we say about the choices we made today? How will we explain ourselves to our children or grandchildren when they asked about this time? Will we be able to hold our head high and point to the values that we upheld for ourselves and others? Alternatively, will we be guilty of turning principles like substance, accountability, honesty, equality, and empathy into salacious words that only get whispered when the adults are out of range?

I encourage all of you to use these five “vulgar” words as often as possible. Teach them to your families. Support those around you who know how to let them fly without warning. Our lives will be better for it—no matter what dialect you use.

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