If you’ve ever accidentally sworn in class, you’re familiar with the consequences: the teacher gives you a look that makes your heart race, eyes widen, and breath constrict. Your efforts to explain that you only swore because you got a paper-cut are entirely futile—and you’re sent to the office for your punishment. It’s one thing if the curse is used in an insult or truly offensive statement (the vulgarity lies not in the words, but in the content and intent of the statement), but entirely another if the word is used solely to express extreme emotion. Therefore, unintentional swearing should not be punished in classrooms and schools.
Humans swear for deep, scientific, even evolutionary reasons. In an article written by Frederik Joelving for Scientific American, some of these reasons are described. According to many scientific studies, such as the one conducted at Keele University in 2009, swearing is a useful tool that combats pain and stress. In fact, the brain reacts differently when talking normally than when swearing. Brain activity during normal speech is in the “lexical center” of the brain—the “outer few millimeters of the left side of the brain,” whereas brain activity while swearing is focused in the amygdala and other parts of the deep right brain. That area of the brain is the section that triggers instinct and intense emotion. When people exposed to uncomfortable situations are encouraged to swear, the amygdala carries out the “fight-or-flight” response, resulting in a higher heart rate as well as a higher pain tolerance. During the aforementioned experiment conducted at Keele University, subjects were told to submerge their bare arms into a bucket of ice-water. One group of subjects was told to pick a neutral syllable to express their pain, while the other group was encouraged to pick one swear to say as loudly and often as the subject wanted. The subjects who were allowed to swear were able to endure the predicament, on average, forty seconds longer in the ice-water than the control group. They also reported a much smaller degree of pain than those who were not allowed to curse. Therefore, a student who stubs his or her toe in class should not be reprimanded for cursing, because it is an appropriate and effective response to pain.
Though the brain acts differently when using profanity than when using normal language, it is important to note that curses are only words. There is nothing about a word that means “excrement” that is truly offensive. The only reason why people consider the word “shit” to be in bad taste is because society has deemed it so. It is absurd and utterly nonsensical to try to pronounce a word unacceptable solely because of its arrangement of letters without any regard to its meaning. As soon as society determines a word to be objectionable, young people only want to say it more. For example, in order to maintain a “badass” image, rappers will often use the “N-Word” in their music, according to an article written for the New York Times by Michael Marriott. Until society changes, however, language will still need to be monitored in schools. Nevertheless, when a student swears, it should be the teacher’s responsibility to consider how the student meant to use the curse.
The fact of the matter is that it is difficult not to let profanity slip when pain or extreme emotion overcomes somebody. How can an adult reprimand a teenager for a natural response to problematic situations, when in that same situation the teacher would likely have said the same thing? This is not to say that schools should be a place where every other word is profane, because they are places that are supposed to prepare us to conduct ourselves like mature members of society. The occasional slip, however, shouldn’t be chastised. The teachers and students of the world should try and reach a compromise on the matter, allowing a student to go unpunished if he or she apologizes and did not use the profanity in an inappropriate manner.
Joelving, Frederik. “Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief: Scientific American.”
Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief: Scientific American. Scientific American, 12
July 2009. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-do-we-swear>.
Marriott, Michel. “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Ni****’ Fires Bitter Debate.” The New York Times. The
New York Times, 24 Jan. 1993. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/24/nyregion/rap-s-embrace-of-nigger-fires-bitter-debate.html?pagewanted=all>.
“Science on Swearing.” – Association for Psychological Science. Association for Psychological
Science, 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/video/science-on-swearing.html>.