A Philosophy of Profanity

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!

9 thoughts on “A Philosophy of Profanity”

  1. Funny, I hade some of the same thoughts about this story when I saw it on Fox News. Brave kid to take this on, but isn’t it still cursing even if you use “pickles”? I think that is an example he used. It is more about the inflection and intent than the actual word.

  2. Hey Kevin,

    Thanks for the discussion. I wouldn’t spend such time except I think you are influential and thoughtful person who is apt to think a second time.

    I agree that there is a taboo around certain words which neglects the deeper issue of harmful speech.

    However there seems to be a difference between calling someone a jerk and “good for nothing (raca)” and this is probably not the only example. The consequence of speaking out in anger does differ depending on vocab.

    An this little club is significant. Far from a trite activity, this kid’s club is giving some props to the minority crowd when it comes to profanity usage.

    My real issue with this post is not the conclusions but how they are justified.

    ### Argument 1: Profanity is a cultural taboo (from parents!) and should not be taken seriously

    Our generation is generally allergic to wisdom. This is a good example.

    “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.”

    Far from being “no source,” this is an excellent source for one who is willing to learn from the mistakes of others. This is wisdom. Unfortunately “knowledge,” the need to experience it myself, has superseded wisdom and brought about this egocentric position.

    Culture, families, and traditions have significant value and experience in what they can teach those willing to listen. This smacks of the common arrogance and ultimately misfortune of our generation in not being able to learn from the mistakes of others.

    ### Argument 2: It is the “spirit of the law” that matters, not the specifics like words or deeds

    You summarized 1 Cor 8 as follows:

    “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.”

    In my reading, this is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of the text. The main issue in this text is the “other man” that may be harmed by eating, not the issue of whether eating food sacrificed to idols is permissible. I think Paul sums up the primary issue of service to the other in his conclusion which he would encourage all to follow. “I will never again eat [any] meat if it would cause my brother to stumble.”

    The conclusion you allude was Paul’s is what I believe is a case of reading into the text. The question of “what’s the big deal with meat?” seems pedantic in our time to all but the vegan and vegetarian among us. However, given the mindset of Paul, or Sha’ul the Pharisee (a very positive title btw) in the Second Temple Period, the answer is A LOT!

    The God of Israel cares (not cared!) a great deal about specifics like what words you say, what garments you wash, and what you eat. History tells us this as it was what Adam ate that brought the exile from Eden.

    If Paul were to assert this position, it would negate his yielding to James and agreeing to the letter sent to the believers (Acts 15:19) which specifically lists “abstaining from things contaminated by idols” as one of its requirements. It would negate his fundamental belief in the Shema (Deut 6) which prohibited any Jew or follower of the God of Israel from eating food sacrificed to idols as this was seen as an act of worship to the idol. There are many other examples that, IMHO, show this reading of Paul places significant discontinuity with his other writings and the Jewish tradition he, the other apostles, and Jesus honored as our example to follow – moreso for Jews but still partially for non-Jews.

    So, back to your argument that it is not the specifics that matter but the intentions. I think they both matter as the specifics reveal the intentions, only moreso. For example, how much more effort does it take to fully understand the food desires of your wife in their specifics and provide them in all their detail than to intend great things but deliver a mediocre and mostly inedible dish?

    You are right that God prohibits the use of His name in vain.

    He also explicitly prohibits calling someone “good for nothing.” He condemns hatred as well but calling someone another name in the same anger is not prohibited in the same way. There must be something to the actual words at times.

    Glad to spend a few minutes thinking through this with you. :D


  3. Hey Jon,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You say a lot there, so I’ll try to address just a couple things briefly. I’m not trying to harp on what the kid is doing and suggest that everyone should go around swearing. Like I said above, there are good reasons not to swear. I just find this sort of effort misleading, or at best misdirecting.

    #a How does the consequence for speaking out in anger differ on vocab? Culturally it might, because we give certain words more power, but theologically?

    #1 You make a good point that we need to respect our elders and wisdom comes from those who have gone before. But they don’t address the real issue I’m raising–how do they define profanity? My issue with profanity is that it’s a cultural issue that changes with the times. It strikes me as rebellious in the way that long hair was in the 1960s. If it is wisdom that profanity is wrong, then it seems to me there should be a consistency to it that doesn’t change from culture to culture. That’s what I have a hard time with.

    If there is any kind of consistency, I think it’s more of the general rules the Bible talks about, of being gracious and loving. In that case the wisdom should be focusing on that, not the list of “bad” words. (The Bible gives plenty of specific rules–if specific words are bad, why not be clear about that?)

    #2 I’m clearly not a Bible scholar. I agree with you that Paul’s point is service to fellow Christians, not the meat issue. But what I find so difficult about Paul’s position is that if we’re always avoiding something so as not to harm the less mature believer, we’re giving power to their false ideas and encouraging incorrect theology. Paul doesn’t address this (that I’m aware of), but it seems to me there has to be a limit to it. (Would Paul have been so carefree if the Corinthian church has started a No Idol Meat club?)

    My point in bringing up that passage is to give some balance. While I don’t have a problem with profanity, I’m going to respect people who do. That’s the lesson from this passage I was trying to get at.

    I guess what bugs me the most about this effort is that it’s majoring on the minors. It’s like measuring skirts to make sure they’re one inch below the knee. All the while it misses the heart. Sure, Hatch didn’t use the f-word, but flip, dang and pickles all come from the same motivation and intent.

  4. Yes, you’re right that the real thing is to get at the thoughts behind profanity rather than the words, per se.

    On the other hand, if someone shouts, “Oh, pickles!” I don’t have to explain to my 10-year-old son what that means and why he said it.

    Nor do I get embarrassed if my 1-year-old daughter chooses “pickles” as the word from my vocabulary to pick up and repeat while we’re out in public.

  5. Actually, profanity shows a lack of ingenuity and intelligence.

    People who cant formulate thoughtful discussions or arguements toss out profanity as end-alls. How can you possibly argue with “f__ that” or “go to hell” or “G__ D___.”

    I applaud this kid!

  6. I find the whole idea of that club to be un-frakking-believable. ;-)

    I grew up in an environment where people used those verses to show that they had the right to be offended by just about anything, and that the people who were doing the offending thing (drinking, dancing, smoking, swearing, wearing a skirt above ankle length or wearing jeans to church, watching movies, watching TV, listening to music that had drums, etc. etc. etc.) were sinning because the people engaged in those activities were causing people who weren’t doing those things to stumble.

    Many of the people who had problems with these activities were cherry picking the things that they had no problem refraining from doing and then using that to create a feeling of superiority about themselves. I knew a Christian man who made a big deal out of the fact that he had never said a swear word his entire life. Meanwhile, he was embezzling money from his company. One of my closest friends in high school and college became very critical of how people in his church were, in his opinion, dressing too casually. Meanwhile, he was molesting his child. My grandfather was proud he never drank – he didn’t need alcohol to put him in the mood to beat his wife and kids.

    Those are extreme examples, but they point to the fact that the people who abuse this verse usually miss the point that Paul describes the people who have problems eating the meat as “weaker” than the people who don’t. I think that’s significant.

    David, I agree profanity might show a lack of ingenuity and possibly even vocabulary, but you honestly think you can’t be smart and use profanity? I find that un-frakking-believable, too.

  7. Good points, dave. In general this club bugs me because it’s not what Christianity is about (for the record, I don’t know if the kid is a Christian or not, but at this point I’m long beyond him). This is more about legalism than anything.

    If it is significant that Paul describes the non-meat folks as weaker, the difficult thing is what does that then mean? Like I said above, Paul doesn’t tell us anything about helping those immature folks to mature, though I’d think at some point that needs to be part of the equation.

    And to David, are you suggesting that it’s more intelligent to say ‘oh pickles’ instead of ‘oh hell’? ;-)

  8. This is a conversation I remember having a lot in my college Communications classes (and I am sure every class before and after me had the same conversation).

    I think that, throughout history, there has been an often crossed line between cultural sensitivities, and downright sin. (When I was in Africa, where the temp broke 100 every day, my wife couldn’t wear shorts. Not a sin, but certainly viewed as one!)

    Saying Sh&% verses Crap is entirely cultural. For whatever reason, one comes across as being less accepted (does one sound more educated than the other?)

    I think it is a principle I need to teach my children, so they can function well in our culture. But I am also teaching my children not to lie. I am sure they do not see a distinction between those two trainings (one as a cultural issue, the other as an obedience issue).

    I suppose there are a few instances where I avoid specific terms as an outpouring of my faith and worldview (I would never propose that a person be “damned”). But for the most part, the cuss is something I avoid (and teach my children to avoid) because of where I have been placed in the world.

  9. @Carl, I’m guessing you’re from the USA? Over here in the UK crap is only very slightly milder than “sh&%” (I’m guessing that rhymes with it) and is definitely not a word your kids would use at school. It surprises me a little everytime I hear it on The Simpsons (at tea time) as it’s probably the only time you’ll here that on terrestrial TV before about 8pm here.

    I’m with David here I think. I’ve always (since before I came to Christ) thought that profane words are just filler for those with a poor vocabulary.

    Personally I don’t find words offensive but I often find the sentiment behind them is.

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