The use of profanity
When I was a child, my mother strictly forbade me from using profanity. On a couple of occasions, she warned me: “If you ever use that [cuss] word again, I will rinse out your mouth.”
From a parent’s prohibition of cuss words to what turns out now to be their use as presidential prerogative, lessons can be gleaned on the nature of language and its effect on relationships.
Language is abstract but it is our way to express concretely our perceptions, thoughts and emotions. By so doing, we seek to describe, influence and transform our world—what is inside us and outside us, the people around us, and the rest of our material reality. Language is essential to progress, to achieving our goals, to who we are and who we want to be.
To me, the rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency and his popularity are partly based on the paradox of repulsion and attraction engendered by his liberal use of profanity. Just as opposite poles of a magnet attract each other, so did the repulsiveness of Mr. Duterte’s manner and methods provide the attraction to the promised results. All the presidential candidates promised more or less the same things—less poverty, no corruption, peace and order, ad nauseam. But only Mr. Duterte seemed to have the elusive political will and the character to do as he promised. Thus, repulsiveness, pushed far enough to outrageous lengths, became attractive. Certain Filipinos simply got tired of a seemingly effete decency, of a straight path that did not change our elitist political and economic structures in a basic way.
Now we have a head of state with a foul mouth that even my mother will not have the energy to wash out, considering she is now 87 and also puts in a juicy Cebuano cuss word (“Yawa!” which means “devil”) whenever she gets vexed, courtesy of her dementia.
Nothing is as visceral and as raw as a cuss word, just as there is nothing as uplifting or as thrilling as an expression of love or an ideal. There is a world of difference between “P*tangina,” “Go to hell” or “F*ck you” and “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” Maybe used for the proper purposes—to assert our independence, to exorcise the demons of bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption—maybe “P*tangina,” “Go to hell,” or “F*ck you” will eventually result in “Liberty, equality, fraternity” for our people.
But then again, maybe this idea is just another intellectual jerk-off worthy of Mr. Duterte’s subalterns who ceaselessly try to give creative spins to his profanity-laced pronouncements. Their attempts can only go so far, because profanity is actually anti-thought. Because it has a very visceral effect, profanity gives rise to angry reactions. Profanity is an expression of anger, and anger gives rise to more anger. Profane words are thought-stoppers that make people come to blows with one another.
That is why civility is a survival tool. That is why diplomacy is always the method of choice when trying to resolve conflicts among persons and nations, or else we will always be at each other’s throat.
Language should be a beautiful thing. It is one of the faculties of being human, and ideally should be uplifting and not demeaning. Used improperly, it can be very destructive. That’s how powerful language is.
Only when we try to look beyond Mr. Duterte’s gutter language will it make sense. When you look at profanity as a process of purification—expunging badness from goodness, transforming repulsion to attraction—then it becomes meaningful, then you can begin to think, Hey, cursing might actually work. Even my mother would not care, and might even approve of it.
Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.
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