The Stigma of Swearing: When is it Appropriate?

Darya Foroohar, ‘20

December 2018

Recently, there have been questions raised on the acceptability of profanity in school newspapers such as this one, with certain critics doubting the validity of these publications due to a small word or two appearing in but one of the many articles present. Freedom of speech, an apparently inalienable right, is known by students to be not entirely realistic, especially when profanity is involved. Most of the time, school is a place for learning which should not involve mindless swearing, and so limits on speech in the classroom are generally accepted. But an instance of a swear word in a newspaper headline raises the question of how to divide thoughtful, thought-provoking prose from casual cursing.

If news headlines are meant to attract attention and pull readers in, then it would seem obvious that the language in those headlines should be crafted to reflect this goal. While it is true that many interesting headlines can be created without using profanity as a crutch, those who berate its use see it only as this crutch and cannot comprehend that it can be used in a way that is shocking without being coarse. A headline that is simply “f**k this s**t” should obviously be changed, but a headline that uses a single expletive within context to both attract readers and best explain the situation described in the full article has no reason to be modified, especially if this modification comes at the cost of the clarity and appeal of the headline. Many instances of censorship are guilty of this; in their quest to make a headline clean they butcher it with unnecessary words and a clean, cookie-cutter formula that does not make the article seem like something anyone would want to read.

Profanity in headlines has been described as bad taste, but this only raises the question of what words can be considered bad taste. Slurs are more than bad taste and should never be used in a headline, so lumping them in with regular profanity is an ineffective argument and one that makes it seem as though the one arguing this cannot tell the difference between swear words and slurs. But in terms of the former, we must ask ourselves why we put so much emphasis on certain words. Why is the word “poop” considered everyday language, but the word “shit” is almost taboo? The difference between these two words is arbitrary in the definition. The only difference comes from their connotations, which we have built up in our minds and passed down to younger generations until everyone is terrified of a few words that have essentially no different from the rest contained in the dictionary. Therefore, the argument that swear words are in “bad taste” does not come from any objective instance; it is just people restricting themselves and wanting everyone else to play by their rules.

Furthermore, by early adolescence, the taboo of swearing has virtually vanished for most people, and even those who swear off swearing are used to hearing and reading it. It is a very small percentage of the population who gets extremely upset when hearing a swear word tossed about among friends in a casual setting. This example brings me to my next point, which is that if news is expected to be as honest about the world it covers as possible, treating a swear word as if it is a nuclear bomb serves to enforce a sanitized, edited version of the world we live in that only discourages young reporters from depicting life as they truly know it. One striking instance that comes to mind is in the form of a (now deleted) line from an article in last year’s Bardvark entitled “The Nikkei” (Evan Farley, ‘20). The line in question was a quote from Japan exchange participant Nicole Gutierrez (‘19), in which she exclaimed “s**t, we deada*s going to Japan.” The quote was used to conclude the article, and it is my personal belief (as this is indeed an op-ed) that it was much more honest about the Japan exchange participants’ feelings about their trip and a better way to close out the article than what was eventually used, which I cannot even recall because it did not captivate me in any way. The quote was cut due to a ridiculous amount of censorship that erased the feeling, truth, and individuality of the piece in favor of something that adults believe is suitable for teenagers (even if we are supposed to be college students) to read.

Lastly, one must keep in mind that the Bardvark is a student newspaper with a student audience, and it is no secret that this newspaper does not have the most enthusiastic readership. One need only walk into any classroom and find copies ripped apart, scattered on tables, or stuffed in the trash. This is because BHSEC students often do not find this newspaper interesting (and I don’t imagine too many teachers do as well, except if they see something they need to censor), despite all the hard work the staff and contributing authors have put into it. When this is taken into consideration, you must ask yourself if it is the best decision to attack a student for creating a headline that was perhaps a little shocking because they wanted more people to read the article that followed. My answer to this is no. Students should not be berated for their creative choices, but allowed to grow and flourish as writers in a supportive environment. In addition, a student-run newspaper should be just that: student-run. BHSEC is an early college, so if the administration cannot trust us to create a newspaper, how will they trust us enough to let us take college classes and eventually give us an associate’s degree?

Cursing has become so ubiquitous in our lives that to not include it would be to perpetuate a false idea about students and youth in general that is the exact opposite of what  the Bardvark is trying to achieve. It is my hope that the contributing authors may use this paper to foster a love of journalism that they carry with them their entire lives, but if they are constantly told what to write, they will never develop a strong sense of judgment and independence. The Bardvark is devoted to creating interesting, honest, and captivating articles, and sometimes these articles may include a word of profanity, but I (and I guarantee my fellow staff members agree) believe that each article should be judged by its overall quality and not by a single word that some may find unspeakable. I just hope the administration of BHSEC can take a moment to read this and see if they can agree.