When it comes to my English-speaking Mormon friends, few things amaze me more than their aversion to the use of profanity. Some will spend hours patiently defending systemic racial discrimination or a father’s attempt to slit his son’s throat in God’s name, but will recoil at the use of a common word for excrement. For years I posted diatribes and rational critiques against god, religion and the Church, but the ones that really seemed to ruffle feathers were the ones that included carefully placed vulgarities. In fact, cussing can scare even prophets from serving those in trouble, as President Kimball relates:
At the beach one day a group of young boys had driven their car too far out in the sand, and it was imbedded [sic] deeply. All their combined strength seemed insufficient to dislodge it. I offered to assist them, but the vile language they were using repelled me away from them. Teenagers were using the holy names of their Creator as though he were their creation. I shrank from the blasphemy and left them.
I have to admit that I grew up with an ambivalent relationship with profanity. My parents swore like they drank–in moderation, generally with friends. As I grew older and my friends started swearing more, I generally only swore if the punch line of a dirty joke depended on it. My conversion and baptism washed the rest of the filth out of me, I guess.
One thing I never understood, however, even in my most prudish, conservative years, was the need to regulate others’ choice of words. I was never offended by anyone else’s profanity–in fact, I was often flattered that people were comfortable enough with me to speak (sometimes apologetically) in their personal idiom. I remember, as a prospective missionary, walking the railroad tracks behind a high school athletic meet with my friend Chris. We met this hobo, and Chris turned on swearing like it was a foreign language he spoke fluently, and they hit it off. I was impressed. We were taught that Jesus speaks to each in his own tongue, and I can imagine Chris trying to give that vagrant a Book of Mormon in terms that truly communicated: “Dude, you have to fucking read this shit, man, ’cause it a prophet fucking wrote it by the power of God Al-fucking-mighty.”
My attitude towards swearing has obviously changed over the years. I think church rhetoric was partly responsible. I’d hear things like “A speaker who mouths profanity or vulgarity to punctuate or emphasize speech confesses inadequacy in his or her own language skills. Properly used, modern languages require no such artificial boosters” and think about Ulysses by James Joyce, or poetry by e. e. cummings or the brilliant script to Shawshank Redemption. Or I’d read something to the effect of “Members of the Church, young or old, should never allow profane or vulgar words to pass their lips. The language we use projects the images of our hearts, and our hearts should be pure,” and I’d think of some of the whited sepulchres of members who I knew, who trapped the vulnerable in raw business deals, and some of my swearing friends who made great sacrifices for friends and family. I realized that a) profanity was subjective (and a way of imposing standards of cultural superiority), and b) said more about cultural, generational and religious background than it did about the speaker’s intelligence, maturity or moral standing. Judging people’s character by the use of vulgarity is not only culturally elitist and sometimes racist, it’s just plain naive. Behold, this car’s paint job is pretty; ergo, it runs well.
More recently, I realize there’s a lot of power in these words. I love the English language, and both the sacred and the profane are among my playthings. Not only do they have power because they are forbidden, but I’ve discovered that they are a positive delight to use. Many are short, loaded with meaning, and are capable of exploding out of the mouth. For me, the sensation of forming the words “damn,” “shit” or “fuck” and giving birth to them is often a pleasant one.
If you disagree or are offended by these words (and you’ve made it this far), I’d love to hear from you (hopefully in rational terms). I suspect that you will have biases connected to your generation or your religion–in the interest of science, please disclose these. I’d love to find an atheist youth from the inner city who takes offense at the use of profanity.
Finally, in honor of these wonderful words, I’m considering running a series of posts on the best ones–perhaps some variant of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (including piss, shit, cunt, fuck), plus a few Biblically-derived ones (Jesus H. Christ, hell). If you’re interested in writing a guest post that focuses on one of these words, please let me know, via email or the comments. These posts can be personal reflections, etymological essays, poems, etc. Eve Ensler’s “Cunt” performance in the Vagina Monologues comes to mind as perfect inspiration.
I get dibs on “fucking.”