Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Swearing

Is D&D a children's game?  Should it be?  I ask because I stumbled into a fantasy gaming podcast earlier today that started off with the warning, "We're going to use adult language and talk about adult themes" . . . whereupon the swearing commenced.

To be honest, I remain confused about this culture's habitual attitude towards both the use of swearing and its supposed restraint of it.  I swear regularly on this blog, but I abstain from swearing at all in the books I write.  In real life, I swear all the time - my friends swear all the time and most people I meet in passing swear quite comfortably.  But when I walk into the workplace, again, I don't swear at all.  In fact, I had developed a reputation at my last workplace as "the man who doesn't swear."

That is because I can turn it off and on again like a switch.  I can talk quite comfortably all night, rant, go on the verbal attack and debate, all without a swear word even occurring to me.  Yet when I'm relaxed, not putting on a show, swearing comes without thinking.

I am a child of my age.

As a boy, back in '70-'71, at the tender age of six and seven, I remember that every boy swore.  I don't remember if the girls did - boys and girls kept to themselves when I was growing up, at least until junior high school, when all at once they were everywhere.  I remember quite well that the 12 and 13 year old girls that I went to grade 7 with swore with proficiency.  But hell, we didn't think of ourselves as children by then - Beth, who was part of my grade 8 home room, would walk the stroll on 3rd Avenue at 14 for money.  Every kid who knew her knew that - and we didn't care that much.  Not that we volunteered the information to our parents - knowing it would have driven our parents crazy, something that we understood perfectly.

We learned pretty early as children how to dance around issues we knew all about to convey the idea of innocence for our parents.  I learned not to swear around my mother, pretty much the ONLY place in my universe where I couldn't swear.  By '78 even the teachers had accepted that kids were going to swear - and I had several teachers who would themselves.  Teachers who swore were cool.  Everyone thought so.

Here it is, 37 years later, and there is still this silly notion that kids have to be protected from adult language and adult themes . . . as if this shit isn't everywhere on the internet.  Yes, you must be warned about THIS podcast, because we are not like the millions of podcasts that do not bother to warn you.  Nor are we like the easy and available footage of every horrible event going on everywhere in the world.  Yes, kiddies, we're going to use swear words - words you can't possibly even know.

It isn't for the children, is it?  Really, the warning is for that significant number of people who just can't get over the use of words.  Words convey ideas and there are people who aren't comfortable with the ideas behind fucking, cock-sucking and shit.  It isn't that the words are bad, it's those pesky ideas that we don't want pushed into our faces - things we would rather go through our whole day not thinking about.

Funny, but I never think of actual feces when I use or hear the word 'shit.'  I never think of copulation in relation to the word 'fuck.'  I hear frustration, anger, passion, impatience . . . but these are ideas too, aren't they?  Ideas that also bother people, since emotions akin to anger and impatience are very difficult to handle.  Part of the reason that I don't swear at my job is because I don't want any of my co-workers to know when I'm impassioned or frustrated.  In the workplace, passion makes bored or unhappy listeners deeply self-conscious of their misery.  Frustration, on the other hand, suggests incompetence.  By never appearing passionate or frustrated, I have always portrayed an image of perfect ability and perfect respect for my co-workers.  It's all a sham, but it works.

Some people do get very upset when they hear swear words - and in the workplace, where life is harder, I'm willing to spare them this pain.  Out of the workplace, on the other hand, when I am not building a team between my fellow human and myself, fuck it.  Out of the workplace, tell me not to swear at your peril.  Out of the workplace, your inability to handle swearing makes you weak.  Well, it does in the workplace too, but in the workplace I'm willing to tolerate and give support for your weakness.  In the workplace, you're useful to me.  Out of the workplace, your weakness is just annoying.

Is it fair to call you weak because you find swearing difficult to tolerate?  That's difficult, because at times I'm going to swear no matter how it makes the reader feel and at times I'm going to make allowances.  Circumstances dictate my actions.

Coming back to the subject of D&D and children.  I had just written a section in the upcoming book about the value of plunder and murder in role-playing games . . . an intrinsic part of the game that has been reworked and reinvented with marketing terms in order to make palatable for people who cannot reconcile its existence.  There are other aspects too, like the presence of evil or torture, the use of body parts to make potions for spells, and a whole host of concerns about kill-happy players, lust or greed.  The fantasy game is not always pretty - because life itself is not always pretty, because we don't want to condemn the inclusion of things just because they make some people uncomfortable.

There are many games where aspects of life are banned - just as swearing is banned.  I have no problem with this; if everyone at the table agrees that swearing is off the menu, I can support that.  I could easily play in such campaigns, without anyone knowing my out of game habits.

But will I promote such censorship?  No.  The world is out there and whether or not we try to hide from it in our rooms and at our tables, or keep the kids from finding out something they plainly already know, the big bad world is going to remain just as big and just as bad.  The crime isn't committed in being part of that world, it is committed in being afraid of that world.  Afraid to use the words and admit inwardly the ideas upon which the world is founded.

The fear of feeling uncomfortable contributes to a loss of freedom.  We cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by fear or by discomfort.  No matter how hard, we must steel ourselves and be strong.  We should be gracious to the weak; we should encourage them and gain their trust, and help them be strong.  But we can never allow ourselves to be ruled by the same weakness that rules them.

Remember that no one wants to be weak.  Weakness is a jail.  It is a limitation.  Weak people deserve consideration and support, particularly when we need them to be strong for us.  When we build weakness into a virtue, however, we jail everyone.  That is what censorship and banning practices does.  It declares that the weak can never be strong, so the strong will have to forever bow to the weak.

That way madness lies.


  1. I don't like to hear swearing because I feel it just gets horribly overused.

    My first experience with swearing was when I was a very young boy, I saw my dad put a fork through his foot. I was too young to understand how painful this was for him, (and I think it backs up your point perfectly that I both knew and understood the social context of swearwords at that age, I guess about 5 or 6) but I certainly understood that because he swore, this was serious. THis was a time to behave, do exactly as I was asked and help him as I could. In this way, swearing was a positive thing, for me and my dad.

    The way I feel about it, is that, as a society, we decided that some words are not polite. Because they are not polite, they are words earmarked for times when remaining polite is not important, thus, among friends whom you would have no problems putting your feet up with, swearing is perfectly fine. In the workplace among colleagues, the people I see every day, but would not laze in front of, I would not swear in front of either.

    Now if I were to put a fork through my foot, no-one in their right minds would expect me to remain polite, thus when I shout "Fuck" or whatever, it seems appropriate.

    What I don't like is, and this is an example I heard today, and hear similar nearly every time I'm out in public "They're [a shop] out of fucking gum". A shop, in a street full of shops which sell gum, a decided luxury being out of the product, is not in my mind a valid reason to drop being polite, which does rather lead on to the question, why don't I like people not being polite (and lets be clear, I am not saying that they are being rude) around me, when it does not affect me at all. I'd guess that the answer is social conditioning.

  2. Coincidences . . .

    Reading IMDb trivia on the film All About Eve. Found these two bits:

    Co-star Celeste Holm spoke about her experience with Bette Davis on the first day of shooting: "I walked onto the set . . . on the first day and said, 'Good morning,' and do you know her reply? She said, 'Oh shit, good manners.' I never spoke to her again - ever."

    Years later, Bette Davis said in an interview "Filming All About Eve was a very happy experience....the only bitch in the cast was Celeste Holm."

  3. You have talked a bit (if memory serves) about the tendency of some to look at role-playing as a kid's activity because it's a game. I agree. I think, however, that there is something also about fantasy as a genre that makes people think it's for children. One could make the case that historically fantasy has been written for children--and that may be--but it was full of a whole lot of shit we try to hide our kids from nowadays.

    I don't allow censorship at my table, much to the chagrin of one of my players in particular. He thinks it's a game for kids and shouldn't be taken too seriously. But there are no kids at our table. So what the hell is the point? Is he just sensitive? Immature? Controlling? Afraid? Probably a combination.

    You've already dealt with this type of person in depth, so no need to paste links for me. I know it's there, I'll go look.

  4. "... at times I'm going to swear no matter how it makes the reader feel and at times I'm going to make allowances. Circumstances dictate my actions."

    I feel like this is the crucial part that folks who don't like this are going to miss.

  5. This weird obsession with mild swear words appears to me to be something uniquely American. This bleeping of words and blanking out of a few letters, which still allows everyone to know exactly which word was said or written. It's not just censorship, it's also pointless and redundant censorship. F*** this s***! Gosh, darn heck!

    Yes, you can go overboard with it and it depends on context how much swearing is too much. But it appears in American media which they love to share with the whole word, swearing has only two settings. 0% and 100%. Wouldn't be surprised if the hyper-swearing is the result of people never having learned to swear in moderation and within appropriate limits.


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