Why Are Bad Words Bad?

@#$%!

We are all familiar with swear words. Whether they are taught to us by an older sibling, or a particularly mischievous kid at the playground, or you happen to overhear adults swearing, these words often fascinate us as children.

It makes sense. Children, particularly very young children, are among the most powerless members of society. They have to be fed, clothed, taken everywhere, they don’t have or make money. And yet, just by speaking a particular set of words, they can elicit a reaction from adults all around.

These words also hold some fascination, even for adults. You may or may not swear yourself, but cursing is everywhere. Certain words are bleeped on broadcast TV, sometimes with humorous effects. For example, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has a recurring segment called “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship“. In it, non-swear words are bleeped, with the intended effect to make seemingly innocuous speech sound dirty.

But what is it about these words that makes them bad?

$#*!

To help examine this question, let’s look at the word shit. What makes this word bad? What are the qualities that make it so offensive that it can’t be spoken in polite conversation?

Certainly it isn’t the action itself. We are all familiar with going to the bathroom — it is among those things that everybody does. There is even a children’s book called “Everybody Poops”. The concept of pooping is something that is explained to every child in every language and in every culture. It has to be, because, well, everybody poops.

So there must be a difference between the word poop and the word shit. They can’t simply be synonyms, or else why would you be able to say “poop” on broadcast TV and not be bleeped, but “shit” is censored every time?

What is the difference? Is it the context in which it is used? Is it simply that everyone agrees that it is a bad word? Would it be possible to just agree that a bad word is no longer a bad word? Why are bad words bad?

Related questions: How does your vocabulary influence how you think? Where do shared ideas exist? What do we have in common? What words have the most power?

What Is Beauty?

There are many things that can be considered beautiful. For example, you might consider a painting a thing of great beauty. A particular song, a pair of shoes, a deer in the woods, an elegant theorem — all might be considered beautiful.

But what exactly does that mean?

Studies have been done where people rate the attractiveness of faces shown to them. As it turns out, people tend to prefer a face that is more symmetrical. Why? The presumption is that symmetry denotes health, which means a good candidate for successful mating. What we find beautiful is encoded in our genes as an evolutionary strategy.

Or is it? It seems that notions of beauty change over time. In the middle ages, women as depicted in paintings tended to be larger than the wafer-thin models that stride the catwalks.

Are we simply programmed by our society as to what constitutes beauty? The people we see in magazines and on television… are they in our media because they are beautiful, or do we consider them to be beautiful because they are in our media?

Similarly, we can consider the art world. Imagine a particular painting is prominently displayed in a museum, or is sold for a large sum of money, or is presented in an art history class. Might we not start to assume it has great beauty?

Some people describe ideas as being beautiful. But what does beauty mean in that case? Does it simply mean that it is useful? Some might describe a theory that explains a complicated idea in a few short words or equations as elegant. Is “beauty” in this case just a synonym for “simple”? And do we mean the same thing when talking about art, or ideas, or faces?

What is beauty?

Related questions: Why do we like what we like? How much of our thoughts are our own? How important is the artist to art?

Is Technology Neutral?

The word “technology” refers to methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes. Examples are all around us. Whether you’re reading this question on a desktop, laptop, or a smartphone you are, of course, using technology.

Cameras are an example, from the early devices called daguerreotypes to today’s digital cameras. Are each of these devices neutral, their value only determined by their use? For example, cameras can be used positively or negatively.  You might capture a loved family portrait or stalk celebrities as an over-zealous paparazzi.

In addition, what about technology being used on a grander scale? For instance, the science of splitting the atom is used to produce electricity from nuclear reactors as well as to build potentially population-erasing bombs. Are these technologies neutral or do they have inherent value?

Simply asking if nuclear energy is “clean,” or do its waste stockpiles serve as a danger for current and countless future generations implies value, doesn’t it?

Do nuclear bombs make us less safe due to their destructive capacity? Or alternately, do they make us safer because of the deterrence their existence creates?

This debate is a long-standing one. Critics claim that technology is used/built for a reason — reasons that carry inherent positive or negative values — while the other side posits that it is simply a process or tool that derives value solely from its use by the user.

Where do you stand on this issue? Is technology neutral?

Related questions: Are science and religion compatible? What role does technology play in your life? What do you get out of social media?

What Is Truth?

We live in turbulent times. Politically, accusations of lies are thrown in both directions. A new term has entered our lexicon to capture this idea: Fake News. Everyone seems to bemoan the lack of truth in our conversation.

We want truth, from our politicians, from corporations, from family members. But can we recognize truth when we are exposed to it?

It has gotten to the point that two different people can observe the same event, and have different beliefs about what occurred. How can these two viewpoints be reconciled? Is one “true” and the other “false”? Or are they both some combination of true and false? And if so, how can you hope to convince each that the other is right, at least a little bit?

We live in a complicated world, and making sense of it with information coming from a variety of different sources is a new challenge, unique to this era. Before we are able to separate out a factual statement from a lie, we have to know what “truth” is, how to recognize and evaluate it, and how to store and share it with others.

Does truth depend on what you already believe? Is it relative, or absolute? What is truth?

Related questions: How do you know who to trust? When is a lie justified? How much of our thoughts are our own? What is necessary to change your mind? When is doubt helpful? What beliefs do you have that might be wrong?

How Important Is Respect?

The notion of respect plays an important role in our life and in our culture. We have sayings like, “respect your elders”. Often, it is among the first social lessons parents teach their children. There is even a song that spells it out: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

With that in mind, it seems natural that some people get upset when disrespect is shown. They might get particularly agitated when the subject matter is something they care passionately about.

However, there is an obvious problem: there are no rules about what deserves respect and what doesn’t. Or how to show it.

In some instances, we codify these rules into laws. For instance, you should respect the sanctity of human life. Then if you do not, there are legal consequences.

But not every issue rises to that level of importance. For those that do not, how should we deal with it when two people disagree?

It might seem important to respect the beliefs of others. But what if one of those beliefs is something you strongly disagree with? Or that you feel places someone else in danger?

For example, let’s consider the issue of spanking. One person might believe that spanking is a good way to discipline a child. Another person may view spanking as child abuse. Should we respect the rights of a parent to raise their child the way they wish, or the beliefs of the person concerned for the welfare of that child?

The scale for what deserves respect is a sliding one, different for each individual. We all have different values, and finding common ground can be challenging.

How important is respect? What should the consequences be for disrespect? Who should decide what should be respected and what shouldn’t?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? How can we encourage debate? What do we have in common? What does it mean to be thankful? Where does authority come from? What beliefs do you have that might be wrong?