I was thinking about censorship today, mostly because somebody told me a school board in Arizona has banned 'The Tempest'.
Banning a Shakespeare play? Seriously?
But that reminded me of the entire fight over Mark Twain and a certain word. You know the one. It begins with 'n'...and it is a powerful word. It is a frightening word. It is a word white people are literally afraid to ever use...the only person I've heard use it in the last six months was black.
There are other powerful words, too. What about the one that has four letters and begins with f? See. don't want to use that one either, do we.
I would also call these 'heavy' words. They have a lot of weight to them. And, yes, we are often afraid to use them.
These are words that at least some of the population perceives as 'evil'. So, should we use them in writing?
The answer, in my mind, is yes. If you are writing something set in the antebellum South, then you need to be unafraid to use the n word. It's not a powerful word in that context, it's a normal, every day word. Everyone used it. Including Sam Clements, whom we know as Mark Twain. There may well be words we use now as normal, every day words that in the future might develop power and become words people fear. Harry Turtledove is unafraid to use racist terms when it is appropriate in historical context, and he certainly sells enough books. In a modern setting, however...be careful. Some editors will remove these terms even if they're being used by bad guys to highlight how bad they are...and one can't blame them for doing so. It might reduce sales.
As for swear words...if your character would use them, use them. I used to know somebody who actually used swear words as punctuation. She used so many of them they lost their power and when I was talking to her, I stopped even hearing them. I don't know that I'd ever write a character like that, though. Why? Because if you use them sparingly, you preserve their power. And then when you do use one, they carry an emotional load that can be useful. A character who never swears doing so is a perfect 'show'...it shows the reader that the situation is Really That Bad.
Which brings me to a final point. The more you use a powerful word, the less powerful it becomes. By avoiding using these words, we give them power and weight. Perhaps, then, we need to actually think about using them more...