Reviewing the review – “Benjamin Bergen, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves”

I’ve just read this review of Benjamin Bergen’s recent book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves” in the New York Review of Books. An exciting read, but with some qualification.

The review is enough to convince me to buy the book. It is also a reminder that we cannot escape ideology, however positivistically we frame our language. Take this example from the latter part of the review.

I applaud his [Bergen’s] sentiment [to liberate dirty words from censorship]. But he should not have tried to make this controversy [about racial slurs] parallel to quarrels over obscenity. Calling someone a fuck face is not nice, but it is meant to insult only one person. By contrast, a white person calling a black person nigger, the word the slave owners used, is insulting 13 percent of the population of the United States and reinvoking, in a perversely casual tone—as if everything were okay now—the worst crime our country ever committed, one whose consequences we are still living with, every day. (By the end of his discussion of slurs, Bergen seems to agree. I think his editor may have asked him to tone it down.)

Liberation? I don’t think so. It is merely a reshuffling of taboos, a realignment with mainstream ideology. “Oh my fucking God” is value-neutral, the reviewer might say, but racial profanity is not. I disagree. Calling a black person nigger is certainly an insult to that person, but it is no more insulting to 13 percent of the US population than religious profanity is to people of faith. Our culture of offensibility is still at work amid heroic attempts to move away from it. It is what it is, but at least we shouldn’t delude ourselves about it, and about ourselves.

The NYRB article may be read here.

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