Power of Profanity

I have implemented a swear jar in my house. As a mother of two teenage boys, and one preteen boy, I needed some help to reduce the foul language. In fairness, my kids have heard me utter many of the words they say, and my husband can be a swearing machine. Swearing, it turns out, can be a very powerful force, for both positive and negative reasons. This is a lesson learned recently by Alex Labeau, President of Idaho’s most powerful lobby group, IACI. An email containing, not only intent to undermine legislative activities for power and control reasons, also contained extremely offensive profanity directed at a legislator and teachers in Idaho.

I read a research paper titled, Do You Talk to Your Teacher with that Mouth? F*ck, a Documentary and Profanity as a Teaching Tool in the Communication Classroom, authored by Miriam Sobre-Denton & Jana Simonis. While the research paper outlines the instructor’s use of profanity to teach a unit on communication taboos, and its effect on the classroom setting, I became interested in the piece because of the recent news on Alex Labeau.

The email Labeau sent was in response to an article a colleague sent him regarding Legislator Jeff Siddoway, who indicated he would not move on a specific legislative piece until teacher’s base pay was increased to $40,000. LaBeau’s response to the email was peppered with vulgar profanity, referencing male body parts, and teachers. Profanity can be cathartic, help strengthen social connections, reflect masculinity, and be used as a relatively safe form of rebellion (Sobre-Denton & Simonis, 2012, pp. 5). LaBeau seemed to be using his profanity for these purposes. Certainly, he thought the people he sent this email to would be receptive and view him as strong and rebellious.

Unfortunately for LaBeau, somebody in that email thread did not feel a stronger social connection, and the email was leaked. Now, LaBeau is learning a lesson about word choice, and why it matters. Many people report feeling disrespected by swearing, especially by someone in a position of power or authority. Some people report losing respect for people who swear, and associate swearing with being lower class (Sobre-Denton & Simonis, 2012, pp.11). Indeed, LaBeau, while initially his board voted not take action against him, has now been placed on leave due to mounting pressure from IACI member businesses. In fact, according the the Idaho Statesman, IACI is examining the issue more closely as member businesses begin to question the leadership and the intentions of the lobby group (Dentzer, 2015).

The conclusion of the research paper is a great reflection of what has happened in the LaBeau case. While profanity can be used effectively for code-switching, to bond with small groups informally, and reflect masculinity and power, it can also be extremely divisive and controversial. Reactions to swearing can vary and researchers found that the use of profanity in the classroom caused increased engagement, and critical thinking among students. In short, swearing got their attention, and made them pay closer attention to the content of the class (Sobre-Denton & Simonis, 2012, pp.15). For Alex Labeau, his powerful, masculine language may not, in retrospect, have been worth bringing IACI and their legislative activities to center stage among an audience who is now more engaged and thinking critically about who this organization might really be. Used carefully, profanity can serve a social purpose, and can be cathartic. Used irresponsibly, it can cause a collapse in professional relationships and reputation.

Dentzer, B. (2015). Chastened by president's profane email, Idaho business lobby now looks inward. Retrieved from http://www.idahostatesman.com/2015/03/05/3678868/iaci-board-changes-course-puts.html

Sobre-Denton, M., & Simonis, J. (2012, July). Do You Talk to Your Teacher with That Mouth? F*ck: A Documentary and Profanity as a Teaching Tool in the Communication Classroom. Communication Teacher, 26(3), 178-193. doi:10.1080/17404622.2012.659196