Have you noticed that language is getting coarser? We were shopping yesterday in a bookstore (during National Book Day!) and I wandered over to the bestseller shelves. Two of the titles that greeted me were, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and You Are a Badass. At least the former title used an asterisk, but we all know which vowel it was replacing.
Book titles are just symptomatic of the proliferation of profanity in our media. It’s common to see either abbreviations or actual profanity on social media and to come across blog posts liberally laden with profanity. More than that, coarse words for defecation, urination, and sex lace everyday conversation. We use a word for excrement for getting our act together. We routinely use a word for urinating to describe the experience of being angered by something. The f-bomb seems to be an all around adjective as well as a favorite expression of anger. I could go on but you know what I’m talking about.
It’s not like I’ve never used these words. Particularly as a teenager hanging out with my buddies in urban Youngstown, our conversations were richly laced with profanity. For a period of my life, I thought it was kind of cool or edgy. I’d argue that it was only “dirty” because some people said it was. I’d argue that we were getting “real.”
My Christian journey started changing that. It wasn’t so much rules against certain words, as principles that spoke to the power of words in a community, and to shape the community around us. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).
I began to realize words have the power to evoke the best or worst angels of our natures, that our words build up others or undermine them. Words can hurt or heal. Actually, this extends beyond profanity to things like gossip where we feed on the meager fare of tearing someone down when they aren’t present to defend themselves. Cyber-bullying might be an example of the destructive power of our words, amplified by social media.
I won’t say that I completely refrain from these things even to this day. Catch me on a bad day struggling with the plumbing in my house, and it won’t always be pretty. If profanity occurs in a text I am quoting, I won’t delete it. I also realize that in both writing and speaking, there are times that a profanity may be the most apt word, and a euphemism or softer term doesn’t cut it. I can see a case in literature where contexts warrant profanity. The test for me is whether it fits or is gratuitous. The restrained, but appropriate use of a profanity may actually capture attention that a profanity-laced dialogue does not.
That said, I am troubled by the increasing acceptability of profanity in our social and public discourse. I think it reflects an angrier, coarser, bleaker view of life. People might answer that this is the way they see it. Some, I’ve heard it suggested, use this as a “language of resistance” as in “since______ has been elected, everything is all f-ed up.”
I think I would answer that our words not merely reflect reality but help shape it. By words, Genesis tells us that God made the world. Our words can convince us that we live in a stinking latrine or that we are turning manure into gardens that are fertile and fruitful. Our sexual vocabulary can take one of the most beautiful experiences of human intimacy, and reduce it to a tawdry bodily function that sounds like simply another form of relieving ourselves. Or it can elevate the tender, and sometimes clumsy, coming together of two people who really care for each other into enduring love poetry.
I don’t want to argue for any form of censorship or a new prudery. The First Amendment protects even profane speech except when it is with the specific intent to incite unlawful acts. I happen to like the First Amendment, even when I disagree with the people and ideas it protects. But if you care about pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, does this not extend to our use of language and choice of words? Should it not be of concern that the use of profanity in private conversation and increasingly in social media and public discourse is increasingly common not only in the general public, but even in faith communities? We may think we are simply describing the world or “telling it like it is” as we used to say. Do we stop and think that we are not merely evoking memories or a sense of things as they were and are, but also invoking a view of reality as it is and could be? What do our word choices reveal about the vision of reality toward which we are living? As a Christ-follower, how do I speak if I believe I have been called into a beloved community and into a life of infinite wonder and purpose and hope?
It’s not so much that I’m against “bad” words. I think I’ve already suggested that all words, even these have a usage or purpose in some contexts. Rather, I constantly find myself wanting for better words, for clearer thinking, for higher aspirations, to set goals for nobler actions, and graceful expression in spoken and written words. Am I out of touch with reality to want that and pursue it? Must I settle for a coarse world when we have so many hints of a world of goodness, truth and beauty? What do you think?