My buddy, Sean McCabe, whom I respect greatly, published an article today entitled Cheap, Lazy, & Foolish: Professional Profanity. You should read it. It’s full of Sean’s typical thoughtfulness and unique style. (And while you’re at it, subscribe to Sean’s podcast. Trust me, it’s one of the best on the internet.)
However, I felt the need to respond with an article of my own, because I disagree so strongly. Coincidentally, I just had a long conversation on Twitter with my friend Jonathan Christopher on the same topic. The issue appears to be on people’s minds, at least within my circles.
I want to say at the outset, that I don’t feel dogmatic about this issue. It’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. I don’t care whether you use profanity or not. However, I strongly disagree with Sean’s foundational presupposition and felt the need to respond.
For Sean, the issue is preconceived projections. He puts it this way:
Blog posts, tweets, speeches, books; they’re all produced with forethought.
You plan out what you post, you prepare what you speak, you have all the time in the world before your press publish, and yet you choose to curse intentionally.
You are making a conscious decision to trade class for crass.
Sean is baffled that anyone would intentionally choose to use profanity and believes that those who do are trading “class for crass”. The foundational presupposition here is that words, in and of themselves, have an objective quality. Meaning, some words are objectively classy and others are not.
This is my main point of contention. Words, like all forms of art, are relative. One person’s class is another’s crass and vice versa. Who are we to stand in judgement of what is tasteful and what is not (from an objective sense)? Everyone is, of course, free to form their own personal opinions, but we’ll get to that later.
Sean says that speakers (and I’m going to include writers, podcasters, musicians, film makers and anyone who puts their art out into the world) use profanity for shock value or to appear cool or hip.
Some speakers will leverage this informality and speak crudely in an attempt to appear “cool” or “hip” to the audience.
Here’s the problem: You don’t sound relatable and you don’t sound cool. You sound unintelligent and you look cheap. Of all the descriptive words you could have chosen, you selected this stale, worn-out cliché of a profanity because you’re apathetic.
First, as I said above, it seems to me that this is merely Sean’s opinion. It may be true for him, but not for everyone. We can’t possibly know the motivations behind an artist’s art (unless they tell us), so this broad brush generalization seems ill-informed.
Second, calling it cheap, stale, unintelligent, worn-out and apathetic is, again, a statement of personal taste, not an objective reality of the art in question.
Let’s look to the world of music as an example, because who doesn’t love a good analogy?
What defines a quality work of music? For some, it may be Bach’s Prelude in C Major, while others would choose Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. But can we really say one is objectively better than the other?
What if, instead, Sean had said, “Anyone who chooses to use Nirvana instead of Bach in their speech is trading class for crass.”
It seems arrogant to me, to take one’s personal opinion and make it objective truth for everyone else.
Anyone is free to think, on a personal basis, that Bach is better than Nirvana, which in the end means it’s better for them. But to argue that Bach is the best that exists, as if such a thing could even be proven—that’s where the trouble lies.
I would venture to say the same goes for language. Language is an art form, after all, just like music. How can we objectively assign greater or lesser value to a particular grouping of English letters? To me, that is what is foolish.
Sean goes on to make a case for considering your audience:
Is it really worth estranging such a huge subset of people that could potentially be in your audience? In extremely practical terms, we’re talking about potential sales here. These people could be buying your products, hiring you for your services, or compensating you for whatever it is that you offer.
It seems that Sean is switching gears here from discussing the use of profanity in a general public sense to its use in sales and marketing.
So, now the question is, is profanity “cheap, lazy, & foolish” in marketing?
I can see why some would say “yes”, but for me the answer is still “no”.
Because you should never pander to the crowd. Pandering can certainly achieve fame and riches, but at what cost?
If you alter your message to be more palatable to a certain portion of the population, you’re not really connecting. You’re a hypocrite. It’s smoke and mirrors. People can smell fakeness a mile away.
Don’t be fake. Be yourself. Authenticity wins every time.
What connects people to one another is authenticity, vulnerability and realness. I can’t stress that enough. Be who you are. If you are the guy who never curses, that is completely fine. Be that guy. Embrace it. Find the people who love you for who you are and be vulnerable with them.
And if you’re the guy who curses, the same advice applies. Embrace it. Don’t worry about the people that don’t like it. If it is truly who you are, you will find the people that love you, the people you can serve and with whom you can be vulnerable.
Don’t stop being who you are because some people won’t like you or find you cheap, lazy or foolish. My guess is, you don’t want those people in your tribe anyway.
I don’t really care about who the world at large thinks I should be. I know who I should be and I want to put out into the world the things I feel inside me. I don’t care if a certain part of the population doesn’t like me. There are people out there who will like me and those are my people. Those are the people that matter.
My biggest complaint is the implication that those who choose to use profanity are somehow lazy, foolish, unimaginative or inarticulate. Some of the deepest thinkers I know, use profanity. Sometimes you just have to say fuck.
Maybe for Sean, it is cheap, lazy and foolish to curse. But that is for him to decide for himself. Claiming that this is objective truth for all humanity seems unprovable at best and arrogant at worst.
I hope none of this comes across as a personal criticism of Sean. As I said, Sean is a brilliant guy, a valued friend and trusted advisor. If you’re reading this Sean, I love you buddy and couldn’t think more highly of you. ;)