It’s a curse, I swear

Police officers are subject to a double and even triple standard in many respects. We are expected to catch bad guys without hurting them, solve problems in a few minutes that existed for years before we got called, get to emergencies instantly without driving too fast, and stop crime without making contacts with minority groups or rich white people.

I remember listening to a citizen make a complaint on one of my officers for using foul language on a contact. I don't remember her exact words but it was something on the order of "Your [bleeping] cop used some [bleeping] language around my [bleeping] son and I think it was [bleeping] uncalled for and you should [bleeping] reprimand his [bleep]." Her point, although not well articulated, was that she could cuss but my officer couldn't. I actually agreed with her.

Naturally, if I begin a diatribe against the use of swearing the first offended person will say, "Oh, like you never cussed in uniform!" I confess I have. My use of foul language has been rare and was used for linguistic effect given the context, and with a purpose to achieve a specific communicative effect. Have I ever said other inappropriate things or acted out of emotion? Yes. As Sgt. Friday famously said, "The only problem with police work is that you have to recruit from the human race.”

Words have meaning. I used to have morning coffee with a cranky retired physics professor who would get a pained look on his face during holidays and sunny weather. On one particular morning, he was talking about the silliness of thinly disguised euphemistic language in a sitcom he had watched in which the word "boinking" was used to refer to sex. His final assessment was that words are meaningless so you might as well use the "real" words. As I thought about his foolish assumption that words are meaningless I considered looking him in the eye and saying, "You know, you old bastard, that's really true," as a means to test his theory.

The words and phrases that we use to describe this kind of language are meaningful as well. We talk about "cussing," which is a slang derivative of "cursing," associated with "swearing." Before language was easily reduced to writing for contracts and pledges, a person's word truly was a bond. History was passed down orally and naming a child often had a determinant effect on a life. Spoken words were powerful. False speaking was condemned in both legal and social discourse by ancient codes including the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi. Mystics believed - and still do I suppose - that you could speak a curse on someone and change their life course. Jesus taught that calling someone a disrespectful name was tantamount to murder in motive and heart.

I once led a study by a group of middle schoolers from my church and talked about this very subject. I asked them to write down every cuss word they knew. Although they were hesitant at first, they quickly began, obviously, to enjoy the exercise. I wrote all the words and phrases on the blackboard (which I carefully and fastidiously erased at the end of the session) and began to reveal the hurtfulness behind each word or phrase. The sexual references often were demeaning to women, spoke of violence and adultery, or human waste and worthlessness. Other words spoke of disrespect to the Creator or expressing the desire for someone to be condemned to a life or eternity of suffering. The heaviness of the reality of what is meant by the words we so easily throw around became evident to the young people.

One theory of aggression blames violence on our liberal use of foul language - not that bad words cause violence (although what fight starts without them?) - but that if cussing becomes meaningless by overuse then what's the next level of venting but punching somebody? Growing up in a home where my Dad was a religiously disciplined man I never heard him swear except when he was working on the car or telling the banker who came to repossess the farm to get off our land. He taught by example that cussing was reserved for special occasions.

There is an evolution of language that makes some words and phrases harsher or softer over time. When I was in high school if something "sucked" the reference was to a demeaning, forced sex act. Today the word connotes a vacuum, emptiness, or worthlessness and most people have little objection to it. The epithet of calling someone a bastard has lost its sting in today's America where babies born out of wedlock is the norm. Other examples come to mind but I feel like a little boy behind the barn practicing my curse words if I ponder it too much.

The most ubiquitous and harsh word is the word that originates as a reference to rape. It is referred to as the F-word, eff, f***, or other recognizable codes for public print. There are plenty of arguments for avoiding this word in addition to its potential moral revulsion. In most cases, the word is just a space-filler and makes no grammatical sense whatsoeffingever. Since police officers in emotionally charged situations tend to revert to what they practice, the word pops up on videotapes of crisis situations too frequently. If I never hear "Get on the f***ing ground and show me your f***ing hands now!" again I'd be grateful. The word has no communicative purpose and, in fact, obscures the flow of the language and the conciseness of compliance commands. It can also be prejudicial to juries and attorneys even though they are quite content using the language themselves or at least enjoying movies and HBO without the slightest flinch at the word.

As for the argument that this is the language of the streets and people need to know how serious we are, I just have to say that avoiding that language in my experience has never kept somebody from responding to my commands. We're not "one of them" and pretending that using gutter language bonds us to our rough communities is disingenuous. None of this is to say that total foul language abstinence is necessary any more than to say that we never do anything in the course of our jobs that is not also proper in normal social intercourse. We do use harsh language, we do use force, and we do use deception, all of which involve ethical calculations of ends justifying means and that, in a perfect world, would never be necessary tools of the trade.

Avoiding swearing in public requires the discipline of avoiding it in private. The exercise might be a good self-improvement project for this year. What the heck – it couldn't hurt.

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