Examining factors behind offensive speech, with Dr. Timothy Jay

A talk with Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist and expert on the phenomenon of cursing. He has written several books, including Why We Curse, Cursing in America, and We Did What? (here is Dr. Jay’s Amazon author page). A transcript is below.

On social media, we often see videos of someone saying or doing rude, antisocial things, which can include threatening, misogynistic, or racist speech. Some of these people are suffering from conditions that can affect their judgment or ability to control their behavior, whether that be mental illness, Tourette’s Syndrome, or substance abuse. In this talk, we discuss some of the factors that can help explain some people’s offensive, aggressive, and taboo language.

For more on this subject: Farther down in this post, I’ve included a transcription from the podcast that talks more about this issue.

Links to this episode:

Topics discussed include:

  • How cursing can be governed by a different part of the brain than “normal” language
  • The nature of Tourette’s Syndrome, and why some TS sufferers (a small percentage) exhibit offensive language or behavior and some (most) do not
  • Why people with mental illness and/or personality disorders may lash out in aggressive and offensive ways as a coping mechanism to deal with a world they perceive as threatening
  • How we as a society need more understanding and empathy for the factors that can sometimes help explain outrageous or offensive behavior
  • Social media, and its role in making conflict and taboo-transgression into entertainment
  • Why the creation of taboos can create desire for those same taboo things

Stuff mentioned in this interview, or related content:


Zachary: Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. In this episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist who has studied the phenomenon of cursing and offensive language and has written several books on that subject. His books include Why We Curse, Cursing In America, and his most recent book published in 2016 is called We Did What?, which is a look at inappropriate behavior from throughout American history. I’ll be talking to Dr. Jay about cursing, but also about the use of offensive language by people with Tourette’s syndrome and other conditions, including various types of mental illness. First, I wanted to go into a little backstory about why I wanted to talk about this subject. On social media these days, it’s a pretty common thing to see videos of people engaging in offensive behavior; of someone saying, or doing rude, antisocial things, which can include misogynistic or racist speech.

Some of these examples of bad behavior are people suffering from mental issues. In some videos, the person’s behavior is not just bad, but also incoherent and disorganized. One recent example, the example that led to me wanting to talk about this, was a woman who had been captured in several videos saying racist and rude things to Asian people. There was a lot of outrage about this on social media, with people calling her racist and evil and similar harsh judgements. One popular Twitter account shared one of the videos of her and said, “This is an ugly American. There’s been a sharp increase in these ugly videos over the past three years. And it’s getting worse.” When I watched a video of her, it seemed quite obvious to me that she wasn’t psychologically well; the content of her speech didn’t make much sense. It was disorganized and nonsensical. I’m going to play the audio from that widely shared video.

The audio doesn’t convey the full strangeness of the encounter and of her behavior. She gets very close to the man and wears a carefree smile at times, almost as if she’s having fun or bantering. But she did say quite a few things that stand out as being pretty incoherent. I could spend quite a bit of time analyzing this speech, but here are a few things that stood out.

One thing she says is, “You play games. We don’t play games.” The person she was bothering, the person recording the encounter, then said, “Oh, what kind of game are you playing?” And it sounds like she says, “We play games where you get fucked to death,” which obviously is pretty strange, and doesn’t make much sense. Interestingly, in the other videos of her, she had this same theme of talking about games. This is a quote from another video that she was in.

“Listen to me. We don’t play games here anymore. Next time you talk to me like that, you’re going to get your ass kicked by my family. They’re going to fuck you up.” And then she follows that with these other illogical statements: “Do you know who your family is? Do you know who my family is? Go home to your family. This is from your government. Go home. This is from my government. Go home. You’re getting fucked. You are so fucked. You’re getting fucked. Your kids are going to get fucked.”

Just watching this video for a few seconds, this person seemed to me to be clearly suffering from some psychological disturbance. It’s so clear to me from just this video, let alone other videos where she’s doing similar things. Watching this and seeing the Twitter responses, it was disheartening to me how much outrage and moral judgment her behavior provoked, and how much people were trying to fit her behavior into various narratives, whether it was Trump’s presidency or racial injustice in general. It was disheartening, but probably shouldn’t have been surprising because we do as a society, probably across the world, have a lack of understanding and a lack of empathy about mental illness and the range of behaviors it can lead to.

After these videos came out, an apparent friend of the woman’s family, who was a doctor, posted on Twitter about her saying, “She’s massively mentally ill. Been devastating her family for years, and she’s off her meds and need severe help. No excuse. Just thought victims might want to know why.”

And now before I get to the interview with Dr. Timothy Jay, I wanted to preface it with a couple of points. First, obviously there are people who say and do bad and horrible things who know right from wrong and who have the amount of control that most people have over their own behavior. In other words, some of these viral videos of bad behavior do show people who are racists or who are just rude or antisocial, who are highly functioning. People who it would be difficult to categorize as suffering from a condition that would help explain their behavior.

This is a long winded way to state what I hope is obvious: I’m not saying that all bad behavior is due to brain conditions or psychological conditions and can be excused in those ways. The point I do want to make is that in many cases of these widely shared videos of bad behavior, we don’t have enough information to come to a good conclusion about what’s going on. If someone is behaving in bad ways, especially if they’re behaving incoherently, we should first consider the possibility that that person has some condition that might explain their behavior. Because unfortunately, some people who suffer from mental illness can behave in antisocial and aggressive ways, in ways that are out of their control, in ways that they wouldn’t behave if they were in a more calm, normal state. In other words, in ways that don’t reflect who they really are fundamentally. And so my goal with this episode is to raise awareness about that, because I think that this lack of understanding and empathy is an important topic.

It’s an especially important topic in a modern society where so much behavior is immediately uploaded for people to analyze and watch and share, and where misunderstandings and overreactions are pretty frequent. And this topic also relates to excessive police violence because a disproportionate number of people hurt or killed by police are people with mental issues. This is an important issue in many ways.

Another aspect I think is often overlooked: If someone is behaving in a horrible way, and that person is aware that they’re being recorded, that scenario greatly increases the odds that that person is suffering from something affecting their judgment. When I look at some of these videos, the first thing that strikes me is that no person who was doing well mentally or in full control of their behavior would behave like that, knowing what most of us know about how these things play out and how such behavior can negatively impact someone’s life.

Also something I think is not well understood: Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding of how someone can be fairly high functioning yet still have serious mental issues. In the example that I played the audio of, the woman in the video was driving a pretty nice car. And some people would use this to support the idea that she couldn’t be that mentally ill, because she wouldn’t be allowed to drive a car if she were. But of course there are plenty of people driving cars who suffer from mental issues. Some people can have sudden psychotic episodes that come out of the blue. Some people can be quite stable for awhile and then have an episode maybe due to going off their meds or due to stressors in their life, or for whatever reason.

Another widely shared video from a year ago or so showed a man being rude and abusive in a bagel shop, including him threatening people in the shop. He accused women and society of mistreating him because he was short. The man ended up getting punched and tackled by someone in the bagel shop during their encounter. This was another video where the man’s behavior immediately struck me as being due to psychological issues. It came out that the man had a YouTube channel where he could be seen behaving in similar ways and where he ranted about his mistreatment for being short. He even referred to himself as the Martin Luther King of short people. Some people expressed the point of view that because he had a YouTube channel that he couldn’t be that mentally ill, that the ability to create a YouTube channel showed that he was in some sense, mentally competent. And all of this, I think shows a misunderstanding of how a mental illness can present because you can of course, drive cars and upload videos to YouTube and do many complex things, including holding down pretty decent jobs, while having serious mental issues, or having the capacity to have a serious mental episode.

All of this is to say that I think we, as a society, as a planet, need more understanding of the struggles of people with mental illness, and that we need to take a step back when trying to interpret videos of bad behavior. Because so often we lack context about the situation and we lack knowledge about the conditions that people in such videos might have. One final note before I play the interview, Dr. Jay and I talk about some sensitive areas, and it can be difficult to talk about these areas off the cuff, without occasionally saying something inaccurate or a bit insensitive, at least when taken on its own. And this kind of misspeaking becomes more likely when you’re not an expert in the area you’re talking about. In my case, I have no degree in psychology. And if I accidentally say something that you think is inaccurate or insensitive, my apologies. Any questions or criticisms, please send via the contact form on my website, The following interview was recorded on July 30th, 2020.

Zach Elwood: Hi Dr. Jay, thanks for coming on.

Dr. Timothy Jay: I’m happy to be here.

Zach: Let’s start with how you would define cursing. Would you say it’s a gray area of language or is it more of a black and white line?

Timothy: First, defining cursing or swearing, it’s our use of emotional language for two reasons. One is to vent or to get our emotions out, and the other is to communicate those emotions to other people. So, it does both of those things. But usually, people think of it in terms of venting. But it does, no matter the variety of words you can pick, there’s a whole range of appropriateness. What constitutes a curse word is gray. There are some that are clearly… The four-letter words are clearly curse words and have been for hundreds of years, but then there are more mild slangy expressions that… For example, oh my god. I think a lot of people wouldn’t consider oh my god to be swearing. But a hundred years ago, you couldn’t say that on the radio and you couldn’t put it in a motion picture. Our view of language evolves, and appropriateness, like clothing styles, shifts with time.

Zach: I’ve read that singing and talking can be governed by different parts of the brain. Is it also true that some curse words like the more involuntary ones can be governed by a different section of the brain than normal speech? Is that accurate?

Timothy: Yeah, there are clear tie-ins with cursing to the limbic system or the lower part of the brain and the right hemisphere. When people have damage to their left hemisphere, where I guess you would say regular languages, when there’s damage to that part of the brain, people still can swear. And you see this in senility, you see this in dementia. People forget who their relatives are, but they still know how to swear. It’s called non-propositional speech. There are idioms, clichés, sing-songs, lyrics, those are all in a different part of the brain connected to regular speech but in a different part of the brain.

Zach: It kind of makes sense in a way because when you hurt yourself, suddenly you can come out with a curse word and it seems almost involuntary– something different and a class different than when you’re just speaking normally.

Timothy: Yeah, I think there’s a range of that automaticity. There are some reactions that are ballistic and they’re almost unretrievable, and then there’s more thoughtful, more controlled, more purposeful use of swear words. So yeah, there’s a range of that. But the habit of swearing—I’ll refer to it as a habit because nobody’s born with that habit, you learn that habit—it’s built on our real primitive emotional expressions like crying and yelling and screaming and biting and scratching and what you see in infancy, that kind of emotional expression. So the habit of swearing when you hit your thumb, a classic example, it’s a learned behavior.

Zach: You’ve written a good amount about Tourette’s syndrome, which as people probably know, includes symptoms of involuntary behavior, which can include physical involuntary movements like small movements and repetitive movements, vocal tics like grunting or coughing, and it can include curse words, including offensive sexual words or racial epithets. Is it understood why people with Tourette’s cannot control those kinds of behaviors? Are there respected theories about that?

Timothy: Yeah, the understanding now is Tourette’s syndrome is a motor tic disorder. So, you could think of it as a muscular disorder or the inability to control. You can’t stop touching the doorknob, you can’t stop turning your head. And these symptoms usually start from head to tail. They start from the head and mouth and face and then they work themselves downward with time. What’s happening is the basal ganglia which control ballistic movements, the break doesn’t work on that. It’s thought that the dopamine receptors in the caudate nucleus of the basal ganglia, which puts on the break, that those aren’t working. And so the person has these uncontrollable tics, movements, vocalizations, and swear words. I think it’s important to say that the overwhelming majority of Tourette’s syndrome patients do not have uncontrollable swearing. Most Touretters do not exhibit corpulalia or uncontrollable swearing. It’s important to say that because we have a different stereotype of Tourette’s syndrome, which is voiced on us by popular media. Most Touretters have milder motor tics. And the things that we remember are the more dramatic examples that we see on television or movies.

Zach: Is it known why Tourette’s syndrome can present in so many different ways? For example, why does one person have small physical tics and another person say very offensive things like we think about in the popular idea of it? Do you have an opinion on why and how it presents in so many different ways?

Timothy: Well, it’s a function of the severity of the damage to that motor part of the cortex. The more widespread that is, the larger the variety of symptoms. Some people… Like any physical impairment, there’s a wide range of severity. There’s a wide range of the impairment. So it manifests itself at different levels. I’ve had students in my class who after we talk about Tourette’s syndrome, they will come up and tell me they have Tourette’s syndrome and there’s no obvious indication that they do. They take the medication and it controls the symptoms.

Zach: Is it possible to have more taboo or offensive physical gestures too, not just offensive verbal statements?

Timothy: Oh, yes. These are what I call corporal phenomena. What’s interesting about these is they vary from culture to culture. You know, giving the finger will work in America but not in Greece, so you’ll get these obscene gestures. It can be behaviors like pulling down your pants, simulating masturbation… In Kuwait, there’s documentation of a young girl who would—a Muslim—who would pull up her skirt and show her leg, which is taboo. An American wouldn’t do that. So the symptoms manifest themselves in a variety of uncontrollable motor movements. And for the people that have the compulsive corporal phenomena, this could also be writing. It could also be writing swear words. So there’s a wide range of motor behaviors besides speech that exhibit this. But again, it depends on culture. We think of this as a disease like measles, but its outer expression depends on a cultural context.

Zach: It’s interesting trying to imagine a culture that has no taboo words, if such a thing could exist. How would someone with that kind of Tourette’s syndrome wiring respond? Would they just go to physical offensive things or, you know? Yeah, it’s interesting to think about how much the culture influences the presentation.

Timothy: Yeah. Well, every culture has taboos.

Zach: Yeah. I guess you have to, right?

Timothy: Yeah. These are developed by the elders. You know, in ancient times, religious elders created these. So even now, when we look at a culture like Brazil or Spain or some other country where religion is more prominent than in America, you’ll get a predominance of religious profanities saying, “Oh, my God,” or saying, “Holy mother,” word. You know, things like that which wouldn’t be so taboo in America but are taboo in these other highly religious cultures.

Zach: Do you think there’s… Are there some overlaps or gray areas with other brain or mental issues? For example, can someone who presents as seemingly having Tourette’s maybe have some other mental issues there? Or do you think it’s always a clear cut?

Timothy: No, that’s a good question because it comes in a variety of flavors. Like I mentioned before, it can be severe, it can be more chronic. Tourette’s occurs with, or co-occurs sometimes with obsessive-compulsive disorder or obsessive-compulsive behavior. And you can see if you have an uncontrollable touching, like somebody who has to touch everything they walk by; they’ve got to touch the doorknob, they got to touch the car, they’ve got to touch the fence. You know, they’ve got to touch the wall. They can’t stop that. And so the pharmaceuticals that will alleviate the symptoms of Tourette syndrome are also the same things you prescribe with some people with severe obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Zach: Right. How I think about a lot of conditions and issues is there’s just this wide spectrum, and the things that we call these conditions are just an attempt to capture these things that are just on so many dimensions and across so many spectrums. It seems to be the case here because OCD and Tourette’s, now that you say that, it’s very similar.

Timothy: Well, I started studying how and why Americans curse almost 50 years ago. And the reason I’ve documented this in a half dozen books is… This is it. Not only the words are taboo, but as a phenomenon to study in various specialties from medicine to psychology, counseling, psychiatry, sociolinguistics, therapy, the literature, when I started studying this, was very thin and scattered. Why I wrote “Cursing in America” and “Why We Curse” is to bring together—and if you went through the bibliography, you could see I’ve called on law, medicine, psychology, sociology, mental health… I’ve called from all of these areas little bits and pieces. And it’s not until I would say within the last 10 years that we now have scholars like me who have found this area to be of scholarly interest or that it’s a legitimate area. But I think over the years and over the different disciplines, this was pretty much ignored. And it’s only something dramatic like Tourette’s syndrome that captures the general public’s attention. But swearing, it’s a very complex physiological, psychological, and cultural phenomenon. When you go to look at the literature of mental health and swearing, you find… I mean, I can ask nurses, I can ask my friends who work in psych wards,
“Do people with substance abuse or anti-social personality swear?”
“Yeah, they sure do. You know, they might pick up something and throw at you.”
But finding that evidence in the literature when I started out was almost impossible. I’ve studied swearing in a variety of mental health context as a way to educate people, but also as a way to educate my students who want to work with the elderly, who want to work with defiant teenagers, who want to work in nursing homes, or people with various mental disorders, to let them know what’s out there. I’ve chased this down with epilepsy, with senility, with type A personality disorders, and Tourette’s syndrome is just one facet of this big complex picture.

Zach: When I got your book, “Why We Curse”, I honestly wasn’t expecting much because I thought, “Oh, how much is there to say on this topic?” But the more I read, I was like, wow, this is actually really interesting. Like a lot of things, it seems like there’s not that much to say, but when you actually look at it, you delved into the law, the legal aspects, some cases around it. You know? Yeah, it’s just a really, really interesting book. So you have “Why We Curse” and then there was “Cursing in America”. And I think you wrote one more about cursing.

Timothy: Well, I have books; What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty, What to Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty, and I have The Psychology of Language, where I try to tie all of this in with the normal study of language. And then my latest book, which is sort of an encyclopedia, it’s called “We Did What?” It’s all about offensive and inappropriate behavior throughout American history.

Zach: Oh, interesting.

Timothy: To me, I loved writing that book because I like these encyclopedia-type books. So you look at things like compulsive swearing, like the evolution of bathing suits in our country, the film censorship… I put swearing as a taboo in the context of sort of all inappropriate behavior. I think when I will look back on my career, I would say I pioneered this area. I tried to document the scope of cursing in “Cursing in America”, and then “Why We Curse” comes back as the theory, like we need a theory to explain.

Zach: Yeah. Well, inappropriate behavior sounds like a fun read.

Timothy: I was raised by a fairly religious mother and my interest in this comes about through that idea of taboo. Like when you learn the 10 Commandments, you have to know all the things you’re not supposed to do so that you don’t do them. Those infractions are in everybody’s head. Now, I’ll say the same thing about swearing. Swearing is normal. Every competent person who learns a language knows how to swear. You have to know what not to say. And again, that comes in shades of like, “Wow, that’s really bad. Don’t say that,” or, “I can say this with my buddies, but I’m not going to use that word with my doctor.” So, everybody’s ingrained with these things. And when you look at mental disorders or dysfunctions like senility, Tourette syndrome, frontal lobe damage, Alzheimer’s, or dementia, there’s where you see what is usually suppressed. You see what’s in there. It’s fascinating but for some people, it’s too dark. It’s too emotionally offensive, sexist, racist, talking about body parts and things that come out of your body. Some people just don’t have the sensibility to approach that topic. But it’s part of being human.

What fascinated me in the beginning was that this was rarely, if ever, discussed in psychology. And you could read a book on developmental psychology about children or specifically about children’s language and never read that children have trouble with swear words and that they cause problems. But every parent in America knows that. Every parent in America knew that for centuries. Why isn’t it in the books that educate people about children? It’s a fascinating idea that for a while, I think that the common person understood this better than scientists wrote about it.

Zach: Yeah, it’s interesting when you talked about research on this being hard to find. I had the same experience because, as you know, I started Googling about this just recently because I was interested in racist kind of language from people with mental illness. And I couldn’t find much about that, but I also just couldn’t find much about anti-social taboo language from people with mental illnesses in general. And it kind of made me think that one aspect is not wanting to present a negative view of people suffering from mental illnesses. Would you agree with that, that that might be one reason why you wouldn’t see that kind of thing written about?

Timothy: Yeah, I think the underlying there is that, “Let’s try to paint a rosy picture,” but then I think the scholars working in those areas didn’t fully understand it. Yeah, and I think that’s another—I’ll preface saying that everybody knows how to swear, everybody swears, and so to say, “Oh, people do this because they don’t have a good vocabulary or they’re undereducated or they’re from a bad background or they have a mental disorder,” well, everybody knows how to do this so that’s not a criterion to discriminate against someone if everybody knows how to do it. But yeah, I think that certainly is part of our culture. That’s why I gave the reminder in the beginning that most Touretters don’t have trouble with language.

Zach: Right. I think there’s also this instinct to not talk about it, to not present these negative viewpoints. For example, I was talking about this on Twitter, talking about people with mental issues, Schizophrenia, and those kinds of conditions saying anti-social taboo things. And someone said, “Well, I’m offended that you would talk about that because it gives people… I suffer from bipolar and I don’t want people having that opinion or having that presentation.” And to me, that’s the wrong way to approach it because you’re actually, by not talking about it—even if it’s a small percentage of people that present like that—you’re making less empathy or understanding for the people that do have those presentations. By avoiding the topic, you’re also avoiding educating people and letting people have more understanding about how those symptoms present. That got me thinking about the instinct we have to not even talk about the taboo, you know, not talk about the taboo things people say. There can be beneficial things to talking about it and letting people understand. Like the issues like Tourette’s, people suffer from it even if it’s a small number, or the issues that people with other conditions suffer from, just increasing empathy for this range of behavior that can be kind of hard to wrap your head around or be empathetic with.

Timothy: There’s a very simple mechanism underlying taboo. And that is, once you say this is taboo, don’t do it, and you punish people for what they do or what they say, that’s the mechanism which makes it powerful. We’ve probably done the most extensive studies of children from one to 12 and how they learn how to swear and how their parents punish them. We’ve studied how parents punish children, too. So you say that that’s a bad word, and usually most parents verbally reprimand their kids or some of them do things like they still wash out their mouth or make them put hot sauce on their tongue and things like that. It’s that punishment of it that reinforces the power of it. And so in any domain where you’re talking about children or mental patients, the avoidance of the taboo is what keeps it powerful. So I think what we need in terms of mental health is not just why do people with mental disorders swear, but people with bipolar disorder, what does that whole population look like? And what portion of those people with bipolar disorder or Tourette’s syndrome or senile dementia, what’s the average in that?

That helps you if you could look at the base rate of any phenomenon like Tourette’s syndrome and say, “Well, look, 80% of these people don’t present this.” That way, you get a better understanding of swearing if we’re looking at that in mental health population, but it also educates you more about what the average person with senile dementia what their speech looks like. Cause some people get senile and get angry and frustrated and become very infantile and others just become very placid and serene, but what does that whole population look like? And so I think what happens in popular media is we get these exaggerated stereotypes and those become the images that when we call on a memory about something, we dredge up the stereotype instead of, “Well, most people don’t do that.”

It’s like seeing a shark attack and you think, “Well, millions of people swim every day around the world but we’re afraid of sharks because we saw that on the news last night.” So I think the same thing. Most of what we hear about mental health patients is when they’ve done something destructive or self-destructive in the news. You know, the guy that’s off his meds out shouting and swearing, he’s the guy that’s going to get on the news. Not the millions of people who don’t do that.

Zach: Let’s talk a little bit about other mental conditions like schizophrenia or other organic brain conditions that might lead to verbally aggressive or taboo behavior. Do you see some of that behavior as being linked in some way to the same factors that lead to taboo language by Tourette’s syndrome sufferers? Can there be a factor of being drawn to these, even unconsciously, being drawn to these taboo or anti-social concepts? Does that make sense?

Timothy: Yeah, there’s two broad categories of problems or problem populations. Tourette’s syndrome, I put in the category with when we talked about that uncontrollable non-propositional right hemisphere kind of speech. Those people have something that we would call organic. There’s something problematic about their brain, or they’ve had brain damage or some type of compromise of the physiology. So those would be things like stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, encephalitis. Something’s wrong with your brain that causes you to expel these taboo words. The second category is not organic, but it’s what we would call functional. This would be more like an anti-social personality or the type A personality who’s always hostile and aggressive, the kind of road rage person. There’s something wrong with them psychologically, but not necessarily their brain. So, these two different populations manifest swearing for different reasons. You can see the same symptom but the cause of it, in one case is the brain, and in the other case is some convention that they’ve learned or some coping mechanism that they’ve learned.

Zach: I’ve read a good amount about schizophrenia and psychosis and the theories and presentations of them, and some of them have an aspect of testing boundaries, basically. One springs to mind, it was a first-person memoir about their schizophrenia experiences and describes them being very aggressive towards the doctors in the mental hospital and saying horrible things to them. And some other presentations play into this. But it strikes me basically like a boundary testing. They’re testing reality in a way, wanting to see what they can get away with. Not to say that it’s purposeful, but there seems to be an involuntary, like you want to see what you can get away with. At least for some patients anyway.

Timothy: Yeah, you’ve raised two important aspects of this. The schizophrenic’s behavior and speech might look chaotic and random to you, but what does it mean to that person? Why are they doing this? So, what you see might be different than what their goal is or what their purpose is. And the second aspect is, a lot of this really depends on context. You’ve raised an interesting point that the schizophrenic in a clinical setting with clinicians, with doctors, that is a source of agitation, which manifests itself in the offensive language. But in a totally different context, the person might be much more quiescent and peaceful. I see that a lot with senility in a nursing home. A nursing home is very controlled and there’s many sources of agitation for a person in a nursing home; lack of control over what I’m doing, where I’m going. And so the context itself can’t be ruled out as giving rise to compulsive swearing or swearing for any mental health patient. You’ve got to look at where are they when they’re doing this. So yeah, schizophrenia, again, it can be a wide variety of very florid, unusual behaviors, or it can be more mild. And you take that person in a different context, you have to really look at the person in the context to get a sense of what they’re presenting.

Zach: As you say, I think when people view the world in threatening ways as schizophrenics do, there’s coping mechanisms involving lashing out and basically offending and attacking other people physically or verbally or these coping mechanisms to deal with a very threatening world. And it may seem completely outlandish and chaotic and nonsensical to us, but there is some reason there. They’re dealing with a very scary, terrifying world.

Timothy: Yes. Yes, well put. I agree with that.

Zach: This is a topical issue because there’s been a lot of cases of people behaving badly in viral videos and a lot of social media responses to those kinds of videos that show horrible, offensive, antisocial language. And that can be anything from just saying horrible things to racist language or just horrible things in general. In some of these instances, some of these people seem to me to be very high likelihood of having some mental issues going on based on chaotic and nonsensical things that they were saying. And when I brought that idea up in social media, there’s a lot of people that respond with basically an idea that even if they’re having mental issues, they must be fundamentally hateful or racist or bad in some way to say such things, which seems to me just to be a lack of understanding of how asocial behavior can present from people with mental issues. I’m wondering if you have an idea of how much these bad, taboo things that people say or offensive things that people say actually can be said to reflect what they actually believe when they’re in a more normal, calm moment or whatever.

Timothy: I’ll go back to my 10 commandments, you know? Everybody knows what’s inappropriate. To function in our culture, you have to know what racist language is. Everybody knows those things, but let’s have some understanding for why is the person saying this. Do they have a personality disorder? Do they have a substance abuse disorder? Do they have bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia? Do they have control over this or not? You can’t say the argument against the person is that they still shouldn’t do this. Well, if they have brain dysfunction, they can’t help themselves. People with frontal lobe damage, they don’t have the executive function to stop these things that they would have without the brain damage. So, what part of it is the person and what part of it is the brain? I think that’s one thing. All of us know what racist language is, but the Touretter who uses the N-word when she’s standing in line behind the guy in the bank, that word’s in there. But that context, she’s anxious waiting in the bank to do her business, and that occasion triggers that response. I think what people need to do- looking in the media- you don’t need to just moralize about this, “Well, you shouldn’t do it.” Well, the Touretter shouldn’t have their tics, but their brain is doing it. You have to really look at where’s the agency, and what’s the context. Again, what crops up in social media are these things that are interesting, dramatic, funny, sad, repulsive. You’re not going to put too much mundane things on there of that same person sitting comfortably on a park bench, it’s not—

Zach: It’s not going to go viral.

Timothy: No. I’ve written an article about offensive things on the internet, and the moral order over what’s out there, what should be out there like how different populations have free speech but at the same time you should have the freedom to not see some things. The internet and social media is a very complex environment. And we can see this every day, we’re just learning what the limits of this are and who should control it. So, you take something problematic that most people don’t understand like compulsive swearing and put that out where billions of people can look at it, and you’re going to get confusion about what it really means. People that have mental problems, you can’t say, “Hey, just be normal.” If we could control our emotions, we wouldn’t need psychiatry. I think that’s kind of the point. Some people can’t control these kinds of behaviors, that’s why we have all these pharmacological interventions. It’s not just a religious moral thing like, “Hey, behave yourself.” All these examples we’re using of people with behavior problems, they need help.

Zach: There was a response yesterday. There was a Twitter thread about Kanye West’s mental health struggles and his strange sometimes offensive public statements, and someone said, “If people with mental illness want equal rights, then they should realize that they too will be called out for saying or doing something that is outrageously asinine.” I thought about that a bit because in a way, there is some truth to it because we still have to judge and call out bad behavior, but it also struck me as very insensitive. Like you said, some people cannot control their behavior in that way, and to just act like it’s a matter of calling them out, there needs to be some greater awareness of the struggles people have with the various mental struggles people can have. And I think that’s what we lack as a society widely. It’s just a lack of understanding of these kinds of issues and people jump to conclusions all the time about very bad behavior, and it just seems like we need more understanding about that.

Timothy: Yeah, I think you made a great point that’s probably one of the underlying themes of our talk here, and that is an insensitivity to an insensitivity. You’re being insensitive to a person who’s not controlling their behavior for a variety of reasons. So, I think the picture we need to develop is a compassion for somebody who has mental problems. And not just fly-off-the-handle interpretation and reaction about what their problems are, it’s like, think about what’s happening there before you criticize. But we’re in a culture where we’re very competitive and so we want to knee-jerk reaction to things we like and don’t like. It’s not very thoughtful.

Zach: By responding to people with mental issues who are displaying anti-social offensive behavior by giving them outrage, in a way, that is what they are seeking. It’s not that they’re seeking that consciously, but for whatever reason, they’re choosing that anti-social behavior. And by giving them that, you’re basically exacerbating their issues in a way. I don’t know. I’d have thought that, it didn’t come out very well.

Timothy: Think about what your reaction would be to somebody on the corner, maybe not dressed appropriately and clothes are disheveled or dirty, and they’re spouting on about something and using some offensive or racial language. What’s your reaction when you see that person? Most people just want to get away from them or yell at them or do something aggressive towards them, which is going to make it worse. But what that person needs is help. And the compassionate reaction to that person would be, “Hey, man, what can I do to help? Can I help you?” But our knee-jerk reaction is, “God, get me away from this person.” Being aggressive toward them is going to make things worse. People should think, “How would I react? How should I react? How would I explain this to my kid?” You’ve got a little kid that’s watching this saying, “Mom, what’s wrong with that guy?” How do you explain it? Can you explain it?

Zach: Well, yeah, you made me think, too. Some of the people I see on the street in Portland that are behaving in chaotic, aggressive ways, it almost has an element of they are looking for an interaction with the world. And the fact that they are continually ignored, it’s almost like they… I’m not a psychologist, but it almost seems like they are looking for someone to interact with them. And the fact that they haven’t got interaction makes them continually act more and more worse. I think there can be an element of that, where it’s like they are seeking some connection in some way, and maybe a factor of them acting badly is that either they’re responded to badly or just completely ignored.

Timothy: Yeah, I think that the disability population would say the same thing. They’re invisible.

Zach: Or treated like pariahs, one or the other.

Timothy: Yes. Yeah, neither of those things are good for mental health.

Zach: And I once read somewhere—I can’t remember where—it always stuck with me that it was very unfair that the people who really need our love the most are also the people that are the most hard for us to love. That’s a tough thing and a sad thing, but I think it’s often true.

Timothy: Well, I think we have a healthcare population that attracts a certain kind of person who wants to work with the elderly, or the infirm, or the disturbed. Not all of us want to do that, so it takes a certain kind of sensibility to reach out and help. But again, like we’ve said, the bottom line is we need to be educated about these populations of patients, what’s their life like.

Zach: This is kind of a left turn, but something that you said earlier made me want to ask this. When you talk about religious taboos, like the things that a religion or a culture sets aside as taboo, do you think for people that really follow that religion or that belief system, can there be something about the taboo that draws people to it? It’s the forbidden… I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.

Timothy: I’ve worked with Mormons who claim they don’t swear, at least not in public, but they develop euphemisms. So, darn for damn, sugar for shit… So the mechanism for emotional expression is still there, right? We’re emotional animals. But they’ve learned this other habit which kind of masquerades and covers up what is there. I think the important dimension is order or control. The religious mind is one which has a certain view of the world, what’s tolerable, what’s not tolerable, and I evaluate my worth as a person by my ability to follow this moral code. And then there’s a lot of reasons why people reject that or not conform to that, or if they have mental compromise, why that rigidity would be compromised and then you would get the inappropriate behavior or inappropriate language. Again, some religions are intolerant of any… Some of the things we see in the Middle East are intolerant of what Americans would consider as a small infraction. You know, being seen with a woman in public or showing your face in public. That’s not even on the radar for most Americans, but it depends on how you were raised in that religious culture and what the consequence would be for breaking those taboos. If death is a consequence, you better not fool around with those taboos.

Zach: Sometimes it seems like the taboo can represent freedom in a way, and maybe that’s why sometimes people are drawn to those behaviors. I’m not just thinking about cursing or whatever, but also just religious people caught doing things that they speak out against, or they kind of want to escape this strict thing they’ve built for themselves.

Timothy: Yeah, I think it’s not just freedom. It’s exhilarating. It’s exciting.

Zach: Mhh, exciting. Right.

Timothy: Yeah, it’s amazingly appealing because it’s so exciting to do this and get away with it. The preacher who rails against sexuality and then gets caught with a prostitute two or three times.

Zach: Yeah. Whereas some of these things are not exciting for other people, they’re very exciting for the people that have set them as taboos.

Timothy: I mean, we all experience this all the time. Let me back up. I think what you’re saying, living in an orderly life is freeing in that I know I can’t stray out of this so I just do what I’m supposed to do, I won’t get into trouble. But then it’s exciting if I break out of these rules. So there’s like, where are you going to experience this testing the boundaries and how exciting that is? What can I get away with? But as long as I stay within the rules, everybody’s happy. I think that’s a general aspect of culture. As long as everybody obeys the rules, the power to control us is invisible. But if you break a rule, then the institutions of power, which could be your parents or religion or government or media standards, they have to assert their authority by punishing you. So I always tell my students, if you want to see who’s in power, go break a rule. Go do something you’re not supposed to do. Somebody has to sanction that. So I think whether you’re talking about religion or any other type of order, especially adolescents, they’re going through a period where they want to test these boundaries. What’s going to happen if I do this?

Zach: Anything else you would like to talk about as far as behavior or cursing-related work that you’re working on now?

Timothy: I think, to me, one of the interesting things is since we started looking at social media or the impetus for our talking was images of mental health and language in the media is how is this going to unfold in the future? What are the boundaries? Because we have a culture now. Like, I look at what’s available versus when I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s. You know, like access to offensive language behavior. We have a culture of children now that their brains are growing up in a very different environment. And what will that look like going forward? To me, the real puzzle of this, whether it’s for normal people or people with mental disorders, is we have very little idea about how children and infants acquire these things which eventually become taboo. There’s very little research into… And I think for moral and ethical reasons, it’s hard to. How would you study what parents say to their kids or why kids become racist, and what kind of language they’re used to, and how their parents punish them? That, to me, is where I think scholars like me need to focus in the future to better understand the learning mechanism behind this. The soap in the mouth doesn’t work, people. Soap in the mouth does not work.

Zach: I got that once from my grandmother. That was the only time that ever happened to me. I was like, “What is this? What are you doing?” [laughs]

Timothy: Yeah, we’ve studied this. It’s usually the mother or the grandmother, and it usually takes place in the bathroom right where you clean up things. And that’s why the soap is dirty mouth, you know, clean it up. It’s a very primitive punishment but it’s never worked. Censorship has never worked. I mean, these four-letter words that we consider are taboo have been around for probably a thousand years. And of course, we’re all going to learn them.

Zach: It’s like trying to implement prohibitions. It’s not going to work.

Timothy: You create desire by a taboo. “You’re not allowed to do this!”

Zach: It’s exhilarating like you said. Yeah.

Timothy: Yeah. I mean, that’s the whole industry of keeping people away from sex and children away from sex. That’s what makes it powerful.

Zach: Yeah. And what you said made me think we really need to advance our media literacy and awareness. In this modern age, being presented in social media with this constant onslaught of immediate things that people just did and off the cuff things people said and things people captured, I think as a society and as a world, really, we need to advance our understanding of a lot of things. And one aspect of that is awareness of mental health, awareness of context, awareness of you can be against a behavior and even decide to punish that behavior without forming a moral judgment about the person doing it. You know, basically withholding judgment in this day and age of constantly being bombarded with out-of-context clips, basically. And I think if we’re going to survive basically as a species with these new technologies, it’s like we have to become more mature in how we analyze video, media and behavior in general.

Timothy: You’re making me think we need more education and understanding, less entertainment, less being titillated and knee-jerk reactions. We need more thoughtful understanding of, well, the Buddhist idea of mindfulness of what’s really happening here, rather than just be like, “Oh, I need to be titillated. I need to be entertained. Let’s go on and look at…” You know, being aware of and understanding these kinds of poignant aspects of our life. That’s a professor of 40 years of teaching and a psychologist who sees this as just a common human frailty. We need more understanding.

Zach: Right. I think with social media and the immediacy of social media, it’s become that much more important. Because previously, we had gatekeepers of this kind of content that would be like, “Well, I’m not going to share this with a greater audience because of knowing the context of this or whatever,” whereas now, that immediately goes online where a million people can react to it. And these things have become entertainment, as you say. In a way, it’s like watching a gladiator fight or something. It’s like, “Oh, let’s see what this conflict is that has been captured!” You know?

Timothy: Yeah, I agree.

Zach: This has been Dr. Timothy Jay. It’s been great talking with you. Any last things you want to say? Anything about where people can contact you or find you? Anything like that?

Timothy: I have a website. I think if you Google Tim Jay cursing, you’ll get to my website at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, MCLA. I also have an author site with my books on Amazon, if anybody’s interested in reading more of this dirty stuff.

Zach: Well, the new book sounds great.

Timothy: Yeah, we did what? It’s got a picture. It looks like Lucille Ball on the front of it with a quizzical expression. That book is a hoot. All the entries in it are less than a thousand words, so you can put it in the bathroom and work your way from beginning to end.

Zach: Well, it’s been great talking with you, and thanks for coming on.

Timothy: Thanks for considering my work. I appreciate it, Zach.

Zach: Thanks for listening to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood.