Profanity, the “Real” World, and the Author’s Responsibility

Photo by mbgrigby, via Flickr

One of my online writing communities had an in-depth discussion a while back about profanity and its place (or lack thereof) in literature.

I got to thinking, as I read people’s perspectives, that there’s a pretty deep philosophical question contained in this conversation.

Whenever we talk about the line between too much sex/profanity/violence and an unrealistic picture of the world, the argument boils down to this: We’re writing the real world, and these things exist in the real world; therefore they belong in our stories.

I find that an overly simplistic argument, as I’ve written before. As story creators, we are constantly being counseled to push the envelope, because it’s the unusual and the sensational that sells books—first to agents and editors, and then to the public. But the more we push the envelope, the more desensitized the audience becomes, and the greater the shock value has to be.

The million dollar question is: Does any of this actually change people’s behaviors or thinking patterns?

Well, I know how much movies, TV, songs and books have influenced the way I interact with the world, and you cannot convince me that the same is not true for everyone else. At least to some extent, the real world goes in the direction it is pushed by its artists.

So really, as creators, we are simultaneously trying to do two things that are in conflict with each other:

1) reflect the real world; and

2) craft the unique angle that makes our story different from, more extreme (and thus heroic) than, the real world.

This, then, raises a question. Are we bound to reflect only reality, without imposing philosophical, ethical, or (dare I say) moral judgment upon what we see? The answer is no. Authors don’t write stories just for the sake of writing stories. If, through our storytelling, we explore themes–the plight of women in abusive relationships, or parents who refuse to accept their children for who they are, or mothers who need to learn to let go of absolute control, or the way we handle grief, or whatever it might be–we’re attempting to influence the world, because we see something in it that is broken. Dysfunctional. Not the way it should be.

I would argue then, that we as authors (or screenwriters, or songwriters) don’t have to portray the world the way so much of modern entertainment and literature does: potty-mouthed, hooking up as if sex is without consequences, and so on. First of all, not everybody is doing these things, and suggesting otherwise influences the next generation of humanity inaccurately. Secondly, as authors and other creators of art, we have the right–the duty, even–to hold a mirror up to the world and say, “Hey, this is really not okay. Think about it.”

The other thing that occurred to me in the middle of the conversation on profanity is this: if it’s not okay for children to hear, why is it okay for adults to hear?

There are things that kids can’t handle that adults can. Things they won’t understand at age six, that they’ll misunderstand at age eleven, and finally be ready to process appropriately when they’re sixteen. (I’m just pulling those numbers out of my head for the sake of illustration. Don’t read anything into them.) Some of those things, adults need in order to navigate the world.

Profanity is not one of those things.

Generally speaking, it seems to me that people use profanity either to express negative emotions, or to sound cooler than they do without it (at least in their own minds). I think there are also some who use profanity to shock or titillate, and others who use it to prove that they’re not stodgy and goody two shoes. (Hello, Kate, that finger is pointing at you.)

The last three of those are terrible reasons to use profanity, because they’re all related to making decisions and character traits based on what others think of us. Bad idea, on principle.

As for the first…There’s plenty of negativity in the world. The more we sputter and curse at it, the worse we feel. Anger feeds on itself, bitterness too, and frustration and irritation and everything else we are expressing when we use profanity. It makes no sense to encourage it. Life throws enough challenges at us without chasing after negative feelings.

I lay all this out there not to suggest that I’m a paragon of uprightness in this matter, because I’m not. I say some things out loud and more things in my head. And sure, the characters I create are going to be the same way, some of them more than others, based on their backgrounds and influences. The same is true of the way the characters I create treat others and interact with the world.

But as an author, my basic responsibility as a human being to try to make the world a better place takes on more importance. I have to write with that responsibility in mind.