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in: A Man's Life, Sunday Firesides

Sunday Firesides: Profanity Is Performative

In 1934, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd spent almost five months living entirely alone in a tiny shack buried under the ice of Antarctica’s interior.

Though the military pilot and polar explorer was ostensibly there to gather scientific data, he admitted to really being after the experience itself; he wanted to pare life down to the essentials, and see how being cut off from civilization would change him.

One of the first discoveries Byrd made during his sojourn was that “solitude is an excellent laboratory in which to observe the extent to which manners and habits are conditioned by others.” 

The longer Byrd spent in isolation, the more he noticed the trappings of his old life fall away. He grew his hair out. Dropped his table manners. And, interestingly, stopped swearing. “Although at first I was quick to open fire at everything that tried my patience,” he observed, “Now I seldom cuss.”

Byrd realized that profanity is essentially performative — done for the sake of others. To shock. To evince toughness. To add emphasis. Even a swear uttered when alone is born of the societal habit — the hope of attracting attention, and, if the curse was evoked from pain or fear, eliciting help.

The performative nature of profanity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All the world’s a stage, and we all adopt roles that allow us to put on life’s plays. Words are tools, weapons, and occasionally, a curse is the absolute best, unduplicable expression for achieving properly dramatic effect.  

But when someone puts profanity in every other sentence, it demonstrates they’ve bought too much into the theater, that they live more outwardly than inwardly. Though we think of swearing as being rebellious, the more one uses it, the more it reveals a compass that points away from an individual pole, and towards the conforming crowd.

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