Prepare to be offended — cussing, political correctness & the word “like”

At a party we hosted, we set down one ground rule for the evening: No using the word “like.” That’s it. Malefactors would be required to put a sticker on their face for every use of the word “like” that evening.

It wasn’t long before our friend Keith had 50 stickers on his face.

The word “like” has infested our language like dandelions in an untended lawn. It fills up empty spaces in our speaking like “um” and “uh.” But even worse, it takes the punch out of what we say. It turns decisive statements into bland, half-hearted sentiments.

“That was the best meal I’ve ever had!” becomes “That was like the best meal I’ve ever had.”

Linguist John McWhorter in his Great Courses lecture series Language A to Z claims this use of “like” is brand new in the history of language. Nowhere around the world have people gutted their definitive statements in the way we have over the past few decades with this insidious word.

And it’s a spreading contagion. European languages are becoming infected, too. In fact, everywhere that political correctness has settled in, the people in that culture have also become infested with “like.”

I wish I could blame Moon Unit Zappa and her song “Valley Girl” (featured on her father Frank Zappa’s 1982 album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch), which is where my friends and I learned to say “like” in almost every sentence:

Like, OH MY GOD! (Valley Girl)
Like, TOTALLY (Valley Girl)
Encino is like SO BITCHEN (Valley Girl)
There’s like the Galleria (Valley Girl)
And like all these like really great shoe stores
I love going into like clothing stores and stuff
I like buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff
It’s like so BITCHEN cuz like everybody’s like
Super-super nice…
It’s like so BITCHEN..,

But the Zappas aren’t to blame. They just pushed us over the tipping point. We had already begun to lose ourselves to political correctness way back in 1982.

Political correctness is all about being nice, about not offending anyone, about doing everything possible to make sure no one ever feels bad. This is the same reason why we refuse to tell people about their mistakes and why we hand out participation trophies for kids who suck at sports. Is there like any question about why the word “like” is like the most important word on Facebook?

Political correctness is like all about being liked.

And this brings me to cussing.

In his brilliant (and quite salty) book What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, Benjamin K. Bergen shares his freakingly revealing insight into our use of language based on the research he and others have done on profanity.

First off, Bergen points out that there are only four categories for profanity: religious, sexual, bodily functions, and slurs. That’s it. Every bad word you know falls into one of those four categories. If you live in a particularly religious culture (especially Latin America), the amount of religious profanity is higher (the word “profanity” itself suggests profane or unholy language). Germans are apparently potty-mouthed, since they tend to lean toward butts and excrement and such in their cussing.

Of the four categories of swearing, only slurs have been proven to cause any real damage to those who speak or hear them. The first three categories are merely crass and are the intense, adult version of other words that are socially acceptable. Slurs, on the other hand, are intended to cause harm.

But here’s what got me. Bergen ends his book by making an observation which disturbs him. He says our culture has moved away from treating most of the words in the first three categories as bad anymore — languages are living, changing things and words which used to be on the naughty list when I was a kid are now regularly spoken on TV and by myself and my kids. Even the notorious f-bomb isn’t nearly as taboo as it once was.

That’s not what disturbs him. What disturbs Bergen is that with the falling away of the first three categories, there has been a rise in slurs. Words which were inoffensive for decades have become unmentionable.

We see this, for example,  in the uproar over sports teams named for Native Americans. Where no offense was intended or taken when the names were given, now people are scandalized. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

People are taking offense all over the place and far out of proportion than ever before.

If my wife and I ever mention the skin tone of anyone, our kids shout out, “That’s racist!” We have dear friends of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, but if we make a passing physical description of one of them, out comes the cry of racism.

According to Bergen, words become bad when we perceive them as bad. We get what we expect from language. This is why in Samoa, the first word spoken by all babies is a poopy cuss word. Research has shown that it’s not because their babies are exposed to swearing that their first word is crap, but because those who are listening expect not “Mama” or “Papa” or “ball” to come from their mouths, but “shit.” And so that’s what they hear, even though their babies actually make the same exact babbling sounds all babies around the globe make.

Expectation is reality. Or at least it’s perceived reality.

And since we have been creating a culture that expects to hear slurs, we hear them everywhere. It’s as if we’re straining our ears to hear them. We miss everything else people say, but we latch onto and are deeply offended by their slurs.

Bergen suggests that we are becoming an increasingly hurtful culture because of this, since slurs are by definition hurtful speech. This is why we now have a President who excels at put-downs and talk show hosts who far more cleverly do the same, just with a lot more snark.

Mockery is at an all-time high and it’s killing us.

The word “like” was our canary in the mineshaft. It should have shown us what was happening to our language, that we were losing our ability to speak our minds, that we were feeling pressure to soften our statements, that political correctness was robbing us of the ability to say anything definitively. It should have pointed to our preference for meek niceness over robust love.

What we didn’t realize in this effort to become a kinder, gentler people is that it would backfire and turn us into the most slur-ridden culture there is. And in a slur-based culture, is there any surprise that violent racism and anti-religious screeds are on the rise?

The timid niceness of political correctness masked a quest for offense. And Bergen offers two recommendations to stop our slide into slurs.

First, he suggests simply stopping our use of slurs to try to hurt people. This sounds more like an extension of the PC agenda, but we still need to hear it. Intensionally offensive speech is, well, offensive. So, toning down our rhetoric is important.

But the most important thing, according to Bergen, is this:

We simply need to stop being so easily offended.

I’ve asked my kids who at school gets teased and mocked the least. Their answer: The kids who don’t react to it. Rejecting feelings of offense are the easiest ways to take the power out of slurs.

When the homosexual community embraced the words “gay” and “queer” and made them their own, these two former slurs lost much (not all) of their ability to offend. Conversely, it only increases the power of a homosexual slur when an athlete unthinkingly uses it and it becomes big news and is followed by a strong penalty, as in the Kevin Pillar case.

The word “Christian” was actually a slur when it was first used. The earliest Christians called themselves “followers of The Way.” But because they talked about Christ so much, people started calling them Christians (Acts 11:26). But instead of being offended by it, they embraced it.

The same is true of Methodists. They didn’t invent the name for themselves. It was a mockery of how methodical John Wesley was in his program for discipleship. But the epithet stuck and they took it as their name.

In each of the cases above, the maligned communities developed strong self-identities that could withstand mockery. In fact, being shunned by others helped to strengthen their identities. They didn’t need to be liked but rather expected to be disliked. They were prepared to be offended and that took much (not all) of the sting out of the offense.

We have become soft. Our desire for everyone to click the Like button has made us intolerant of anything else. We need emotional resiliency. We need to prepare to be offended.