Rational Arguments and Swearing

by Michel Kelly, MA

Being rational is being reasonable, logical and clear thinking. These characteristics help us be logically persuasive in our arguments. In fact it might be good to think of rationality as the gold standard for argumentation.

It can be easy to stray from this gold standard. This often happens for emotional reasons, especially when we charge our arguments with irrational and dramatic language. This irrational and dramatic content can tell us how a person feels, but it can also distort or divert us from the issues in our arguments. Worse still, it can easily lead us to places we don't really want to go, straying in the worst cases to places like verbal abuse or physical violence.

Let's consider one simple straying mechanism - swearing.

Now, I'm not getting all uppity and indignant about swearing ... after hearing it for years I'm actually quite numb to it. I could even make an argument that swearing may be a good thing. (1) Suffice it to say we all have different situational tolerances for it. (2) But what does swearing actually contribute to an argument? Not much actually - at least from a rational perspective.

Swearing is a meaningless intensive. It adds plenty of drama to an argument, but often no meaning. (3)

There are essentially five ways people swear - all beginning with the letter "S" and all potentially offensive, depending on the degree of personal and cultural tolerance. These words can escalate the emotional drama in an argument exponentially. They include:

  1. Spiritual swearing, which makes fun of, mocks or inappropriately invokes a god or deity and, by extension, devalues a person's spiritual beliefs.
  2. Societal swearing, which usually employs slurs that seek to devalue people based on their race, ethnic, physical, cultural, biological or community distinctions. People are devalued because of who they are in relation to others.
  3. Species swearing involves calling someone or something by an animal name. People are devalued by being compared with animals.
  4. Sexual swearing tends to be salacious and often employs the ubiquitous "f" word. The “f” word's utility can extend beyond sex. It can be used as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb. It is a versatile swear word. Some people hear it so often, they scarcely notice it at all. Nevertheless, pepper an argument with plenty of "f" words and we may soon stray from the rational path. (I'm reminded here of those standup comics who use the word to excess … so much so, I lose track of the actual joke. Do they use the word to excess as a compensating mechanism for a lack of talent? I often wonder.)  In the end people are often shocked, embarrassed or devalued through some sort of association with the word's original sexual content.
  5. Scatological swearing tends to be gross and preoccupied with excrement or excretion. People can be diverted from a rational argument or devalued by a disgusting metaphorical association.


From a rational perspective, some or all of these methods can simply increase the emotional tension in an argument. They can lead us away from our rational gold standard. At times the more eloquent swearers among us can even sound impressive, but they are still irrational. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said, "Beware the irrational, however seductive."

So, want to be a bit more persuasive in your arguments? Want to keep your arguments neat? Want to adopt the gold standard? A simple first step is to eliminate swearing and rely on logic, reason and the problem solving process. This helps keep arguments in the realm of the rational and focused on the issues.

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Notes:

  1. "Swearing as a response to pain-effect of daily swearing frequency." by R. Stevens and C. Umland in Journal of Pain, December, 2011.
  2. One can argue swearing is cathartic, like when we stub our toes. It can be a great way to express our pain and release the energy of frustration. In these cases the swearing is usually directed at an object (a chair, a simple error in calculation, etc.), not another person. 
  3. It can tell us how a person feels.


© 2011  Michael C Kelly