I heard a bizarre story on NPR yesterday about 15-year-old McKay Hatch who started the No Cussing Club. It has 30,000 members worldwide. Hatch has appeared on TV with Jay Leno and Dr. Phil, and the kid has a book coming out. All centered around the idea of not swearing.
I don’t get it.
Now it’s no secret that I’ve pushed the boundaries of acceptable language and paid for it. For quite a long time I’ve questioned what defines profanity and defended certain uses. In the end, I’ve concluded that cussing is a cultural issue. Swear words are culturally defined and vary between societies. What people considered profane a few hundred years ago is standard English today. What’s taken as normal conversation here could be incredibly offensive in another part of the world.
“It just makes me feel really offended and stuff,” Hatch says. “It just doesn’t make me feel good.”
What Makes it Profanity?
But why is it offensive? Because your parents told you those word were wrong. And society told your parents those words were wrong. And the chain continues, but in the end there’s no source for what words are considered profanity and what words are OK.
“You know, when you first try to stop cussing, you can’t stop right away,” explains Hatch. “You got to have transition words or substitutes to help you stop. You can use ‘oh, pickles,’ ‘sassafras,’ ‘dang,’ ‘darn,’ ‘flip’—just anything you can think of.”
Which implies that it’s not the intended meaning of the word that matters, it’s the word itself. Which means that darning someone is OK, but damning them isn’t. Telling someone to flip off is OK, but f*ck off is not OK. Calling a girl a female dog is OK, but calling her a b*tch isn’t. Seriously?
The Spirit of the Law
I mean no disrespect to Hatch (and I think the threats he’s received are reprehensible) but I think he’s wasting his time. This sort of logic smacks of the pharisee who follows the letter of the law but not the spirit. The fact is the Bible doesn’t give us any list of words we’re not supposed to use. Instead it tells us not to take God’s name in vain, not to make unnecessary oaths and to be positive and uplifting with our language. It’s not the specific words we use that matter, it’s the way in which we use them.
But profanity is still a cultural issue and we need to be aware of those around us. If my mom is offended by certain words, I’m not going to use them around her. If a majority of the public considers something profane, I’m not going use those words in my every day language. And I’ll teach my kids the same. Too often profanity is just an attempt to be cool or tough, a chance to flaunt the rules (which seems to be Hatch’s real complaint with profanity—his friends swearing all the time and for no reason). For kids the only real thrill in swearing is the reaction of sensitive adults.
Freedom with Responsibility
The whole thing reminds me of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Some people were all freaked out about meat that had been offered to idols and thought a Christian should never touch such meat. Others knew that the idols didn’t exist and it was just meat—what’s the big deal? Paul agreed, saying that it’s just meat. But he cautioned Christians to be sensitive to their fellow believers who were concerned about the meat. Paul said it’s better to never eat meat again than to cause a brother or sister to stumble.
It’s a curious little lesson that I think can be difficult to interpret (growing up that same rationale was used to explain why we couldn’t have drums in church), but I think it applies here. The difficulty, I think , is that at some point education seems warranted—at some point you have to mature and get over it. Unfortunately Paul doesn’t talk about that.
So I wouldn’t go around dropping f-bombs in front of Hatch, but I think he’s crusading against a non-issue. A damn, hell, ass non-issue!