Let’s discuss language.
Now I know what you’re thinking… I’m not talking about the literary concept of “language,” but rather the use of cursing and slurs used in literature. Is it appropriate? Useful? Needful? Well, rather than taking sides, I’m going to try to approach this issue with as unbiased a position as I can.
[WARNING: THE BELOW POST IS BRIMMING WITH PROFANITY.]
ye ‘ave been warned…
First of all, there are some curse words that must fall into the category of vulgarity. These are words like: “crap, ass (arse), shit (shite), and some of the various forms of fuck.” These words are offensive because they are the “vulgar” Germanic or Frankish synonyms to Latin/French words in the English language–the class split between poor, vulgar, Germanic folk and upper-class, aristocratic Latins still echoes through our language history to this day! For the most part, these are not words that are embedded in a racist, sexist, or any other -ist context, but mirror and react to societal taboos.
From my experience, the use of “vulgarity” in literature can be regarded like the use of an exclamation mark or as a method of characterizing a specific individual as callous, gruff, easily offended, easily angered, hot-headed/tempered, coarse, or uneducated, alongside other forms of characterization, of course. It can also be used by the author to show humor or gravity. The usage of pure vulgarity, then, is ultimately an artistic decision. Excessive use can be seen as either alienating or attractive/real-to-life depending on audience, but what we all know is that there is an audience for it. What is important to remember is that vulgarity largely affects tone rather than content or message, so books without foul language have the potential to perform just as well as stories rife with it.
The language problem rears its head when we use words that are considered “bad language” not because they stem from cultural taboos, but because they either used to or have evolved to pejoratively target a specific person or a group of people. These are words like “bitch” or “bastard” that have become degrading insults, or any racial, sexual, or gender-specific slur.
All of the above have been used in literature. Why?
Art and literature are manifestations of society. Some literature draws attention to massive societal issues by laying them bare at the reader’s feet. They might also attempt to shock the audience into action or a certain line of thinking, or open the reader’s eyes to a new perspective. Insults are also real-to-life. Racist, sexist bigots exist on planet Earth; any accurate portrayal of a world should also include racist, sexist bigots or risk looking unreal or ignorant of the human condition.
A classic, controversial example of this is the use of racial slurs in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The term is offensive yet its use is accurate to the historical times, which highlights the crux of the issue.
On the other hand, rather than seeing literature as a reaction to society, it is also possible to view literature and art as a kind of guide, or compass, for society. Most practically, we can observe this in how science fiction sometimes leads or is the genesis of research and development through modelling previously unimagined fictitious inventions or devices. Literature is both an extension and reaction to society, and a model for individuals in that society to either follow or reject. In this case, perpetuating racial slurs–even to heighten realism or draw attention to inequality–is in turn perpetuating the usage and “acceptability” of a word, and potentially desensitizing a portion of the readership to the harm inherent in the word itself.
Another usage of slurs is to identify certain characters as amoral, evil, or bigoted. However, many believe that this cheapens the meticulous art of characterization.
Picture this: our female protagonist is called a “stupid cunt” by a character who the writer wants to identify as a minor villain. The reaction is immediate: the “evil” character’s insult will disgust most readers, thereby accomplishing the writer’s immediate literary goal without the challenge of masterful characterization. This can either be seen as efficient writing or lazy writing, depending on who you ask.
In summary, you’re either helping to destroy society’s moral bedrock or ignoring the reality of a damaged existence and supplanting it with a fanciful dreamworld. Seems like you’ve got a choice to make…
No matter what you think about self-censorship, I believe that it is very important to at least have thought about the issues and be able to provide a reason to back up your stance. Without overemphasizing the scope and reach of our work, we writers need to understand how our profession affects the people around us. Only from that understanding–that responsibility–can we make a truly educated choice regarding our work.
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Don’t steal my words. They’re mine. Zachary Barnes 2016©