Vulgarity should not be seen as a sign of ignorance

Writer David Sedaris, who is visiting UNCW on April 15, 2019

Ingrid Christie

Writer David Sedaris, who is visiting UNCW on April 15, 2019

Darius Melton, Opinion Editor

One of the largest arguments against the use of foul language has always been that it’s a sign of lower intelligence, with the point to this side being that if someone has to use curse words to get their point across, they don’t have a masterful handle on their language. This is especially clear in a school setting like a college or university.

Here’s an experiment: Turn in an academic essay to one of your teachers, but make sure to casually drop in the F-word in the penultimate paragraph. Depending on your major, you’ll likely get one of a couple responses. As a psychology major, you may find yourself getting pulled aside by your teacher after class. Focus on English or history, and you’ll probably end up getting an even sterner talking to.

But then there’s situations such as the creative writing department, where students have written papers on the history of that very same big, scary swear word just this semester.

On a personal level, my non-fiction class recently discussed the story “You Can’t Kill the Rooster” by David Sedaris, in which Sedaris – who is visiting UNC Wilmington on Monday, April 15 – explains the wild lifestyle of his younger brother, Paul. A lot of the humor of this story comes from the frequency in which it shoots curse words at the reader, and while my peers and I eagerly read direct quotes from the story, a lot of us – especially those of us with a more traditional minor like history – were keenly aware that we wouldn’t be able to talk like this outside of Kenan Hall.

Michael Ramos, a creative writing professor and interim assistant director of the publishing laboratory here at UNCW, voiced his own opinion on the topic of the amount of foul language we see today and the theory that such speech is tied to low intelligence.

“I think that’s an antiquated view, much like tattoos are considered for criminals and that’s about it. I think that society has changed; society has become less formal and, for better or worse, swear words have crept into the lexicon,” Ramos said.

Ramos noted that professionalism does play a factor in when and where one should employ the usage of swear words, but he also says that we live in a society now where people with doctorates will casually slip that kind of language into their conversations in the office. Though such informality would be likely be looked down upon in any non-military job back in the 1980s or so, in 2019, it’s a bit harder to pin-down a universally-accepted definition for what constitutes as “informal.”

The creative writing department is far from a group of people sitting around and trading poisoned barbs like sailors, though, and Ramos has reservations of his own when it comes to the over-usage of foul language in creative pieces.

“I will say I am much more conservative when it comes to swearing in writing, and I think that is, much like my philosophy on spoken language, it’s about context,” Ramos said.

Ramos gave one example of a story he read in which the author had pages full of beautiful sentences get undercut by the last sentence, where she carelessly used the word “tits” and it stuck out like a sore thumb. In another instance, however, one teacher called Ramos out back when he was a student because he censored the speech of his master sergeant and made it sound unrealistic. Holding back can be just as detrimental to your craft as being too heavy-handed.

There is something admirable about people who do hold back and refrain from launching vulgarities at their peers, but the impressiveness comes more from the ability to stick to ones morals or sense of professionalism rather than a sign of high-intellect. Because swear words are just that – words – they have a place in our language and are just as valid as words like “desolate” or “crestfallen.”

“As a writer, I’m very conscious of my craft, and you choosing when, or how often, or not at all to interject curse words or vulgarity, that takes a high degree of intelligence,” Ramos said.