Tuesday, June 12, 2018


I had an interesting conversation about Christians and swearing a while back. I don't quite recall with whom, so I can't give credit, but thanks, whoever you are/were. The idea brought forth was an examination of the purpose for Christians taking a strong stance against profanity. (Even the definition of what words are course, offensive, or "bad" is a pretty tough slog, but we'll just define them as however you would define them, for the purposes of this post.) Christians generally try to avoid needlessly offending people (so much so we've gotten squeamish about necessarily offending people, but that's a topic for another day) - and avoiding certain words was a way of ensuring we weren't lumped in with a particular, marginal group of people - you know, the proverbial sailors and skullduggers, the kind of people who had tattoos back when tattoos were something only a few, unwashed people had. It was a "set apart" kind of thing, an abstention from something that was generally seen as detrimental to society.

The question then emerges, what is the purposes of maintaining such abstention when the only people who are really offended by those words are the Christians themselves? I mean, in a world where you can't say "crud" because we all know you really want to say "crap" and crap is just a stand-in for "shit," which you can't even say on television (except you mostly can, now, because, by and large, don't care), is any of this verbal gymnastic even serving a purpose?

There's something to be said for a unique distinctive. Holy means to be set apart, after all, and there's lots of peculiar things Christians do because they're Christians. My question remains, though, is this one really saying anything of substance theologically? Does utter avoidance of certain words strengthen or enhance the cause of God's Kingdom in the world?

I'm not saying we go willy-nilly, say whatever the (circle one) heck/hell/
fuck you want, because that's just selfish and inconsiderate. I'm all about embracing situational appropriateness. There are times and places for every word just as there are, most assuredly, times and places where they don't belong. I'm not even saying we should abandon the worthwhile endeavor to avoid offense in our speech; I'm just saying that maybe we tone down the good/bad talk and treat every word in relation to context.

Christians should absolutely be an odd, marginal people in the world, but probably not because of the words we avoid.

There's a book that came out last year, one that I've been on the library waiting list for, called Swearing is Good for You by Emma Byrne. As I said, I've yet to read it, but I did catch a very short article by her, about the book, in TIME Magazine (link unavailable) where her basic argument is that "profanity" words have real power and should be reserved for appropriate times. (Funny how he brings up a book that agrees with the idea he just put forth. Hmmmm....) I'm looking forward to reading the book because she talks about how people develop positive associations with particular swear words. Research seems to indicate that positive connections only occur during adolescence and come from "a friend's laughter, parent's disappointment or an enemy's fury," to name some examples. It's a learned behavior.

Not learned so much as "someone taught me," more learned in that swearing induces pleasure when it makes someone uncomfortable, angry, or upset. In other words, parents lecturing their kids about swearing only make those same kids MORE likely to swear. It really does seem like a universal issue - abstinence and/or shame (because they're almost always the same) imbues a thing with greater power than it would otherwise possess.

As I said, twice, I've yet to read this book, but instinctually I took this tact with my (now six year old) daughter. I've never said a single thing to her about "good" or "bad" words. She's heard swear words on occasion - whether it's something slipped into a podcast or some neighbor on the street - I've tried really hard not to react in any way to those instances (other than perhaps repeated or gratuitous use, where I might make some comment about needed a broader vocabulary to vary one's word choice). I feel like it's worked out pretty well. Our kids learn their vocabulary from the words they hear us use, not from everyone word they hear anywhere. My daughter is going to learn to talk the way my wife and I talk - for better or worse. If we're using words in ways that are comfortable to us, she will, too.

I was just using some potentially faulty logic when I made that decision, but I'm glad to know science backs me up on this one.

I still cringe a bit (at least internally) when I think about the little mouth click/disapproval vocalization my dad made literally every time an even moderately offensive word was uttered in our presence (and outside our presence, for all I know). There was certainly no doubt which words were acceptable and which weren't - and what's more, I don't think I was harmed in any real way by that. I'm not sure it served the purpose for which it was intended, but I do appreciate growing up in an environment where I was taught to consider my words.

That's the other side of the coin on this one.

We all know people for whom "those words" make up a shockingly high percentage of their vocabulary - like where the 'f's outnumber the conjunctions. There's something a little off in those conversation - not because such a person is lesser in any way, but because words do, in fact, mean something. I've got a pet theory I'd love for sciency person to actually test out: I think people who swear so casually are more likely to be violent.

Hear me out on this. "Swear" words are those we generally save for our most emotionally intense situations - from the proverbial hitting on a thumb with a hammer, to hearing the news that a loved one has tragically and unexpectedly died - the moments when we feel our feels to the feeling-est degree are often those times when profanity is most understandably used. These are special words to express special emotions at special times. (That's the very definition of profanity, by the way, making sacred - or special - things ordinary.)

My theory is that people who use profanity casually, as placeholder or filler word, when they encounter those moments of extreme emotion - the places where profanity is most appropriate - they lack a vocabulary to properly express those emotions and there's nothing left but a physical response. If some guy hits my care out of sheer carelessness, I might say "what the _____ were you thinking" while we wait for the tow truck on the side of the road. But if that's my response to someone setting the table with forks on the right or bringing back an espresso instead of a macchiato, I may lack the ability to express myself appropriately after the car crash and just take a swing at the guy.

I'm not saying it has to happen that way, just that it makes sense that it would for some people. I'm suggesting correlation, not that individuals who swear a lot are more violent, just that collectively, people who swear a lot might be more violent. Obviously it's an unscientific hypothesis that's convenient in that it proves my point. Still, I think it's got some merit.

This brings me back around to where I started in the first place. How and why do Christians approach this topic? Maybe, since Christianity is profoundly non-violent, there is some real world, theological purpose for avoiding profanity. Maybe banning even the replacement words, like darn or gosh, really does help us learn to save the "bad" words for extreme moments. There's also an argument to made that Christians shouldn't be reacting out of anger anyway (and that's one I do agree with, by the way) - disciplining our use of profanity might actually be discipline, as in practices designed to control our use of those very words so can avoid them even when they might be warranted and overcome the kind of anger that leads us to act in un-Christian ways towards other people.

I guess I'm saying if we're going to call people to be really, really careful with the way they use words, we should also be really, really careful that we know why we're doing it (both calling people to greater consideration and avoiding certain words ourselves). "That sucks" might be a crude phrase I was discouraged from saying growing up, but, as a pastor, I've found it profoundly helpful as a response when someone tells me a parent has died, or they lost their job, or an engagement was called off. It's an expression of compassion and solidarity and truth, regardless of how it's judged socially - I've found it to be comforting and cathartic and appropriate in ways I never would've imagined.

Words are indeed just words... in the same way that people are just people. We can define them from afar, offer our value judgments, and put them into neat little boxes, but none of that can actually define who or what they are in the context of our relationship to them. The world would be a lot easier if people would just be happy being who we expect them to be - that's just not how things work. We need a language that's just as specific and unique and flexible as the world we use that language to create, describe, and engage.

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