The endemic proportions of police brutality seen in the 2020 riots is nothing short of horrifying. Sadly, the violence perpetrated against minority groups and allies is nothing new, but the world is moving rapidly to a louder, clearer cry that Black Lives Matter. While I have no expertise to comment on the physical brutality occurring across the world during protests, there has recently been journalist reports of the use of swearing as violence.
On May 28th, 2020 San Jose Police Department (SJPD) Officer Jared Yuen was filmed shouting, amongst other things, at protesters. The San Jose Inside led the story with the following headline: “Thousands Demand Firing of San Jose Cop Filmed Antagonizing, Swearing at Protesters”1. The Daily Mail, esteemed establishment of journalism that it is, went with: “Investigation is launched and thousands demand firing of cop caught screaming ‘let’s get this motherf***er’ and ‘shut up, b****’ at George Floyd protesters in San Jose”2.
From my perspective, these editorial lines were choices.
While it is true that SJPD Officer Yuen swore both at protestors and to himself on May 28th, 2020. Yuen did more than just antagonise or swear at protestors. Yuen fired rubber bullets into the crowd3. He charged into the group with his gun raised. He was not provoked into doing so. And so, it is interesting that the editors decided to distil such abhorrence into the primary act of ‘swearing’. I think it is worth exploring what may have been happening here, both for the editorial staff and Yuen, during these questionable decision-making moments.
Swearing is the use of taboo language as a way of communicating information about your emotions or internal state4. While swearing fulfils many functions, such as providing emphasis or allowing for the punchline to really bite – functions that are useful and positive5, it will not shock you that swearing has an image problem. In the public eye, swearing has been described as comparable to physical violence. Anecdotal accounts have outlined that people feel swearing can be ‘like a punch’ – but with words. It may be that the editors, being overwhelmed by content relating to physical violence in the riots, therefore chose to exemplify psychical violence.
It needs must be remarked that there is no scientific evidence that swearing is the same as, or leads to, physical aggression in normative populations4. To buy into such a line of thinking may serve to reduce the impact of Yuen’s actions of grievous physical violence. Because, in reality, we all agree that swearing is not in the same league as shooting groups of people at point-blank range. There is also an issue with assuming swearing is wholly negative, as it promotes moral judgements about language use. That is: the bad man is bad because he uses bad words. Yuen was ‘a bad man’ not because he used swearwords, but because of the way he used them.
When swearing is used as a weapon against minority groups, it is known to lead to the ‘spiral of silence’6. The ‘spiral of silence’ refers to the tendency to not share feelings and thoughts with others if you do not expect a positive outcome. People with minority viewpoints feel unable to speak out against the person swearing because they feel that the costs outweigh the benefits. It is a mechanism which removes the voice from those already marginalised. The act of swearing states that the speaker has the ability to speak, that the audience must hear them. Riots are the language of the unheard, and Yuen used swearwords to suppress those groups further.
Even though there is no scientific evidence that swearing is comparable to physical violence, it is clear that the effects of swearing reverberate through our psychological selves. Swearing is likely to have had a lasting impact on both Yuen and the victims. And, in this instance, I think the impact is largely because swearing is a language of power. When we swear, the taboo words ooze with implicit meaning. Uttering those words, we ourselves are mired in power7. Power, in this sense, relates to the ability to influence reality for other people. Influence may include providing resources or administering punishments8. It is the capacity with which you can affect other people, both physically and emotionally.
It follows that having the opportunity to swear is an action of power, in and of itself. Those who have social status are the ones afforded with the opportunity to use whatever language they choose. In social interactions, you are unlikely to swear in front of your boss or with someone who has greater contextual privileges than you. Those who have the freedom to swear do so with the understanding of the social norms being violated or ignored. And, while there might be no evidence that swearing leads to physical aggression, in both the UK and America you can be arrested for swearing at a police officer. Doing so can qualify as ‘assault’9. Yuen had the power to speak in a manner that his victims did not. He was able to highlight the social inequity between himself and protestors, and manipulate that for his own emotional and personal gain.
When an individual manipulates the power in a situation to the detriment of others, they may not always mean to cause physical harm. But we know that the process of instilling an imbalance of power can humiliate, intimidate, or torment victims. And it is clear: being sworn at hurts. In a study where nurses were asked to rate different forms of aggression from least to most distressing, swearing was at the top of the list10. It is likely that by calling a protestor a ‘bitch’, Yuen understood the power and pain he was inflicting on someone who did not have the same opportunities as he did in that moment. It is arguable that he intended to harm those whom he pledged to protect and serve.
Choices have been made, both by editorial staff and Officer Yuen. Editorial taglines, such as those used to describe the events relating to Yuen, whichminimise actual violence into verbal acts detract from the gravity of the events. I would further argue that without fully explaining why swearing can be weaponised, we cannot fight this insidious form of oppression.
Officer Yuen found himself the benefactor of systematic and institutional power. With great power comes great responsibility. But he failed. Yuen used his power to denigrate and hurt the citizens of San Jose, and for this he should be held accountable.
N.B. You may have seen videos of protestors using swearwords in response to police brutality. Yuen used swearwords for a different purpose than that of protestors. The function that swearing played for protestors in that moment is another blog for another day.
1. Hase, G. (2020, May 31). Thousands Demand Firing of San Jose Cop Filmed Antagonizing, Swearing at Protesters. San Jose Inside. Retrieved from https://www.sanjoseinside.com
2. Carr, J. (2020, June 1). Cop caught screaming ‘let’s get this motherf***er’ at protesters. Mail Online. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk
3. Viral Twitter video shows San Jose police officer barking at a protester, ‘Shut up, bitch’. (2020, June 2). Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com
4. Jay, T., & Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research, 4(2), 267-288.
5. Robertson, O., Stephens, R., & van Beest, I. (2019, September). Swearing as Emotion Regulation. Presented at the BPS Psychobiology Section Annual Scientific Meeting.
6. Kwon, K. H., & Gruzd, A. (2017). Is aggression contagious online? A case of swearing on Donald Trump’s campaign videos on YouTube.
7. White, Rob (2002). Indigenous young Australians, criminal justice and offensive lan-guage.Journal of Youth Studies5: 2134.
8. Keltner, D. (2007, December 1). The Power Paradox. Greater Good. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu
9. Ask the Police: Can a person be arrested for just swearing in the street? (n.d.). Retrieved 2 June 2020, from https://www.askthe.police.uk/content/Q675.htm
10. Stone, T., McMillan, M., Hazelton, M., & Clayton, E. H. (2011). Wounding words: swearing and verbal aggression in an inpatient setting. Perspectives in psychiatric care, 47(4), 194-203.