What's with all the #@%$&%# cussing?

Patrick Wiggins

Feature Editor

“I’m pretty much f*****.”

And so begins the New York Times best selling book “The Martian.”

And the college student when she realized it was close to impossible to bring her grade up to passing.

As well as the other college student who suddenly found himself pulled over by a police officer and was driving without a license.

And a citizen of Laketown when she saw Smaug the dragon flying towards them in The Hobbit.

And countless others all across this country, both in real life and the fake one.

The fake one. Television. Movies. Radio.

The fake life. The fake world. 

“TV content isn’t necessarily showing us what is real,” said Dr. Barry Smith, chair and professor of communication at The W. “It’s trying to show us what feels real. And what is real, and what feels real, or authentic, is not necessarily the same thing. So, when people are mad, they might curse a little bit because they are angry.”

Smith goes on to ask if someone was walking down the street, would they really curse to the extent that somebody on a TV show would? 

“You know, curse everything,” said Smith. “It’s almost hyperreal.”

The fake life. The fake world. The hyperreal world.

“It’s a little bit over the top, but it feels authentic when you watch it,” continues Smith. “That character really would talk like that. So it feels real, and because it feels more real than something that would be dialed back a notch or two, then that pulls us toward that as, that is real experience.”

So what does any of this have to do with people saying they are f*****?

Fictional people say it. Real people say it. 

But why?

Dr. Van Roberts, associate professor of communication at The W, has his own opinion.

“Profanity is prevalent in our society and it probably comes from the mass media and popular culture because the mass media and popular culture are gigantic mirrors that we look into and find meaning in,” said Roberts. “Because what it means to be human is only found in the mirror, and the mirror is mass communication and popular culture.”

Hold on now. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Smith said earlier?

“Does TV mirror society or does it shape society?” asks Smith. “Is it just showing us what we are already doing or is it actually pulling us along to somewhere else?”

Yes? No?

The answer is both, depending on how it is viewed.

“Kids tend to, whether we want to admit it or not, have role models, and if their role models curse, then they find it very easy to curse,” said Roberts. “When they curse between their peers, things are more relaxed socially, so that’s kind of an expected thing to do, but maybe around their parents or authority figures or certain places like church or classrooms, they may not curse as much.”

Roberts sees kids cursing more today because cursing is more common in movies or on television, while Smith attributes it more to desensitization. 

“When people are exposed to a certain kind of content, initially they have a stronger reaction to that content,” said Smith. “The first time someone sees that, they have a very visceral response, but as we are exposed to a particular type of content more and more, we become less sensitive.”

In other words, it loses its shock value.

“As we have more and more exposure to cursing on TV, then it becomes less and less shocking and becomes part of everyday life,” continues Smith. “There was a time when, if someone dropped the f-bomb, everyone in the room would gasp. Now, you’ve spent all night binge watching some TV show and the f-bomb is half the dialogue. Then the next day when you’re in class, it’s not shocking at all to drop the f-bomb yourself.”

So TV is making people curse more today than ever before, right? Well, maybe not.

“There is a progression over time of TV pulling in a certain direction and being more edgy because once you’ve been at this level for a while, that’s no longer edgy. That’s normal. So you have to push a little more to be edgy. Then you have to push a little bit more.”

It all comes back to hyperreality. People curse because they hear the words on TV. TV curses more as a way to stay edgy and to seem more realistic. People see TV as being realistic and allow their lives to mimic that.

It’s the mirrors all over again. The chicken and the egg. Television. Movies. Radio.

“We’re hearing a lot more four letter words in music,” said Eric Harlan, instructor in communication at The W and general manager of WMUW 88.5. “It cuts across all genres. It started with gangster rap, but it has pretty much come across now in all genres. There’s language in music that wasn’t around, that wasn’t acceptable, when I started in radio 30 years ago. Now it’s to the point where, at 88.5 for instance, we have to go out of our way to find clean versions and radio edits of popular songs to play because the version that gets sold has so many curse words in it that we cannot broadcast it. We would be fined heavily if we did.”

Three forms of media and popular culture. Three different ways for cursing to become ingrained into people’s minds. Cursing has become more prevalent in today’s society, but does that really mean it’s become more acceptable?

“I don’t know if I would consider it more acceptable,” said Harlan. “Rather it is less likely to be called out on. If you curse or say a four-letter word, you are less likely for someone to tell you that’s bad, don’t say that.”

Cursing is everywhere. That point has been driven home fairly well now, but that still doesn’t quite explain why it happens so often.

“When I was in college,” said Harlan, “you would hear cursing out of frustration, anger, pain, something like that. But now it’s just thrown in as an emphasis. More of an exclamation point. ‘I really mean this, so I throw in a curse word’.”

There’s nothing wrong with cursing, according to Roberts, as long as you pick judiciously when to use it.

"If you’re gonna cuss, cuss. That’s the point of profanity,” said Roberts. “It slams all the way home. It’s like taking a bullet. When you say f***, you mean something, and it covers a whole gamut of meanings.”

“If you curse, you’re not being creative,” said Harlan. “Someone who curses has a lazy mind. They’re not thinking about what to say.”

Cursing shows a lack of imagination?

“But so does a bomb,” said Roberts. “But when a bomb goes off, there is no imagination. It flattens everything around it. So if you’re going to swear, swear with passion. Swear with gusto.”

Well then. F***.