Vice Squad
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Pinker on Obscenity

Two weeks ago Vice Squad was in attendance when Steven Pinker came to town to talk about his new book, The Stuff of Thought. The vice angle concerned cursing, and now Pinker has a related essay in The New Republic -- thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the pointer. The essay is bookended by a discussion of the curse word that Bono blurted out in a live television broadcast in 2003. Pinker is no fan of the FCC's indecency controls that put broadcasters at risk of huge fines from curse words going out over the airwaves -- which is not to say that speakers and writers should not economize on their use of swearing.

But why is it that words related to sex are among those that have become curses? Part of the answer, according to Pinker, is that traditionally sex is often more painful than joyful:
Sex has high stakes, including exploitation, disease, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, feuding, child abuse, and rape. These hazards have been around for a long time and have left their mark on our customs and our emotions. Thoughts about sex are likely to be fraught, and not entertained lightly.
Here's an 18-minute sample of Pinker from the indispensable TED Talks series.

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