Does Swearing Corrode Society?

From Ozzy and his f-word to Tony Soprano's profane tirades, the dirty words on cable TV these days would make a longshoreman blush—and the networks aren't much different. A survey by the Parents Television Council (PTC), a conservative watchdog group, showed that offensive language on network TV between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.—the "family hour" time slot—has been on the rise. According to the PTC, foul language on TV contributes to a general decline in civility and an erosion of moral values. Moreover, they say, it's harmful to youngsters. But do young minds—not to mention civil society—really crumble so easily?

"There's no social-science evidence that it's true," says Timothy Jay, a dirty-word expert at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. "And the harm that befalls children is never specified [by groups like the PTC]. There's no evidence that a word in and of itself has a negative effect on anyone." Cussing on TV may make naughty words more acceptable in everyday life, says Barry Sapolsky, who studies offensive language on TV at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Nevertheless, he is "very hesitant to draw any conclusion that this influences behavior."

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The PTC acknowledges that the specific harm caused by four-letter words is hard to pin down, but "the position seems fairly obvious," says Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the PTC. "Foul language is the language of aggression: It can lead to violent acts. And it impoverishes the English language."

Jay disagrees on both counts. "Swearing is basically a way to relieve anger and frustration in a nonphysical way," he explains. Because they're so uniquely expressive, he says, curse words play an important—even privileged—role in our language and minds. They have a deep emotional tie—in that other words don't have, and they persist through the final stages of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, long after the rest of our vocabulary is gone.

The PTC's heart is in the right place, says Sapolsky, but he cautions that protecting children shouldn't prevent adults from being able to enjoy grittier entertainment: "We'd be left with the programming on the PAX network—Little House on the Prairie for everyone."

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.