"This is a Big #%4&ing Deal": Profanity, Emotion and Politics

Fun (and interesting if you are a psychologist) stuff from yesterday's signing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After Joe Biden introduced the President he took a moment to whisper in Obama's ear. The live mic (just barely) caught what he said to the President:

"This is a big f**king deal."

And the media went all abuzz about it.

As you may or may not know, I have an interest in the psychology and spirituality of profanity. In fact, in the current issue of The Journal of Psychology and Theology I have a paper on profanity and "The Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television."

In many ways, Joe Biden's swearing is expected. We often curse when we feel emotional. For example, my friend Mel recently reminded of a study (which I posted about last year) that showed an association between swearing and pain tolerance. Specifically, if you swear after you hit your thumb with a hammer it might actually help deal with the pain. In short, swearing seems to be intimately involved with our Limbic System where pain, pleasure and other emotions originate in the brain. So when we feel really, really emotional, like slamming a finger in the car door or signing historic health care reform, sometimes that old Limbic System just blurts things out. And, if you are Joe Biden, you don't have a lot of verbal restraint going for you in the first place.

Regarding politics and swearing, Slate has up an interesting historical essay--WTF Did Biden Just Say? by John Dickerson--on the topic. According to Dickerson, there is quite a Presidential history with swearing as "Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Bush and Clinton all used rough language." Even Jimmy Carter. Ronald Regan, apparently, kept it clean, even going as far as spelling "hell" as "h--l" in his personal diary. Now that is restraint. Too bad we couldn't get his take on yesterday's historic events. He just might have let a f-bomb slip...

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5 thoughts on “"This is a Big #%4&ing Deal": Profanity, Emotion and Politics”

  1. Interesting stuff.
    My question for you, since this is one of your areas of expertise, "What happens when there are no more swear words?"

    Teaching college, I overhear an almost countless number of conversations. Even at my school, which by virtue of being next door to Texas A&M is really conservative and "Christian Professing", there is a large amount of salty language in everyday conversation. So what happens when s--t and f--k become so commonplace they are no longer effective as swear words? Do other words take their place?

    For instance, I could make a case that a politician would get in much more hot water for calling someone "faggot" than calling them a "s--t head". So are "faggot" and "nig---" becoming the new swear words?

    Thanks for your efforts and time.

  2. rob,
    Here's a thought.

    Profanity can function as an emotional ejaculation or as way of adding emphasis (among other things). For example, if you hit your thumb you might scream "F**k!" That ejaculation is, I'm guessing, right from the limbic system. Now take Bono of U2 at the Golden Globes a few years back. He gets his award and says "This is f**king brilliant." The f-word here is less an emotional outburst and more of a way to add color, texture and emphasis. My hunch is that the frontal cortex is handling this.

    In short, my very uneducated guess is that there are two versions of "f**k." A frontal cortex version and a limbic system version. As society gets looser with language I expect we will see more frontal cortex swearing: Unemotional and commonplace. However, if someone got angry I don't know if that frontal cortex use would affect one screaming "F**k you!"

  3. All I know is that if I get angry, I simply go out to the car, turn the music up loud, and let my mouth fly -- after a couple of minutes, everything is better.

  4. my ex girlfriend is japanese. she told me that when she mentally swears, she swears in english, because the japanese language patterns are just too polite.

    perhaps something for a psycologist to stew on or investigate.


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