Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thoughts on Swearing

These last few weeks I have not felt too thoughtful as to produce a blog worthy of sharing and so I will share something I wrote about a year ago.  Enjoy.

Forward: This essay was originally written for a different audience but this version has been formatted for a more general audience.  It is still written with a Mormon audience in mind since it was originally written for someone with that background.  I originally wrote this to a friend to give a clarified statement as to my view on swearing.  So here is my attempt at making my official statement on swearing.  In order to give my official statement a few things need to be clarified.  The following topics will include:

·         What Swearing Is
·         The Social influences of Swearing
·          The LDS Viewpoint
·          What the Scriptures Say
·          Address an Argument I have heard

Hopefully after expounding upon these topics one will understand why I consider swearing as something completely subjective to the culture and time in which one lives, with the exception words or phrases relating to God and sacred things.  Swearing is only wrong if the speaker and audience consider it a swear word, to be profanity, or disgraceful. In general though, one should use speech that is edifying and representative of the ideals they value.

What is Swearing?

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word swear as “to use profane or obscene language.”  Profane is defined as “to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or contempt” and “to debase by a wrong, unworthy, or vulgar use.”

Wikipedia defines profanity to mean “a word, expression, gesture, or other social behavior which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect.”  So we see from this definition that social conceptions determine what is rude, vulgar, and etc. 

According to a 2006 study the most common used swear words were the F, S, H, D, and B words with other variations (the abbreviations of these words are used to for the purpose of protecting those eyes who find them offensive).  Also the word “suck” was one of the most common swear words which I find interesting since most people I know would not consider it to be a “swear” word and I know many in the LDS community who use it often. 

Others feel that the words fart, piss, crap, butt, and etc. would be swear words too but many in society would disagree.  Also words such as nigger, douche bag, slut, faggot, and etc. would be considered offensive but yet they wouldn’t be considered “swear” words.  There are many words that are just as offensive as the typical swear words but people use them because they are not considered to be one of the classic swear words. 

Are the F, S, H, D, and B inherently bad?  Is it an inherent sin to say them or even write them?  They are just abstract sounds that convey certain abstract meanings to the hearers.  I don’t think there is anything inherently evil about the use of these words, but the social influences of today make them obscene to use in many public venues.

The Social Influences of Swearing

The notion that social customs influence the definition of swearing is obvious in the fact that many words are considered profane in one culture and time and not in another.  For example, bloody is deemed a swear word in England but it is not in the U.S.  Also my mother felt perfectly fine back in the 60’s attending BYU to say “that party was bitching.”  This phrase, however, would no longer be accepted in today’s culture at BYU.  

So with the constant change in what society deems as profane, rude, or vulgar it can be difficult to determine what specific words are “swear” words.  Also some words that are currently deemed by society as “swear” words seem to be phasing out.  The wide use of the word “damn” in society and the lack of censorship is starting to make this word less of a swear word.  Now this may seem to represent how evil influences are debasing the values of society, but if that word loses the offensive connotation it once had then is that word still a “swear” word?Are we really conforming to the evils of society by using a swear word even in that word no longer carries the same meaning?

The LDS Viewpoint

                It’s interesting to note that under the Wikipedia page for “profanity” there is a specific section as to the LDS viewpoint of swearing.  Quoting from the Gospel Topics Library found on it says, “Profane, vulgar, or crude language or gestures, as well as immoral jokes, are offensive to the Lord and to others.”  

So even with the LDS definition we shouldn’t use language that would be offensive to the Lord or others.  Language that is offensive to the Lord would include using the name of Deity in vain, (See 3rd commandment).  Also speaking badly of sacred things would be offensive to the Lord.  But as to what is offensive to others is completely subjective as to what the others find offensive.  

Now I am sure some have heard of J. Golden Kimball and I feel I must at least reference him.  J. Golden Kimball, a seventy of the church, was known for his “colorful” speech.   When asked about his language he responded, “Hell, they can't excommunicate me. I repent too damned fast.”  To Elder Kimball these words were not offensive to him and had become a part of his vernacular.  Some members probably found his language offensive and he probably should have done a better job about using language that would not be offensive to them.

Within Mormon culture we use our own vernacular so as to not swear.  These are simple variations of swear words and are not unique to LDS.  These words include but are not limited to dang, darn, F, fudge, freak, fetch, heck, shoot, bi-atch, BS, gosh, and etc.  So how are we to interpret the appropriateness of these words that are used only to replace swear words?  Are they just as bad as the words they are substituting?

Elder L. Tom Perry said this about substitute words “. . . if you slip and say a swear word or a substitute word, mentally reconstruct the sentence without the vulgarity or substitute word and repeat the new sentence aloud.”   Also the New Era in March 2001 offers this interpretation of Elder Perry’s comments, “Many people try to substitute other words for swear words, but Elder L. Tom Perry warns that so many times those substitute words are so similar to the swear words or vulgar phrases that everyone knows what you meant to say and your vocabulary hasn’t really changed.”

A quote from Dallin H. Oaks from the May 1986 Ensign had this to say about the social influences of profanity. “For many in our day, the profane has become commonplace and the vulgar has become acceptable. Surely this is one fulfillment of the Book of Mormon prophecy that in the last days ‘there shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth.’”  Elder Oaks seems to make the argument that what is profane is not determined by society which completely undermines the argument I just made earlier.  It seems to me though that Elder Oaks is referring to the profane use of the name of God and of sacred things.  Most of the talk is about using the name of God in vain.  He later says, “Profanity is profoundly offensive to those who worship the God whose name is desecrated.”  Elder Oaks though does make his case for profanity not involving the use of God’s name.
The Book of Mormon teaches us that when we are brought before the judgment bar of God “our words will condemn us … and our thoughts will also condemn us.” (Alma 12:14.) Let us recognize profanity and vulgarity for what they are; they are sins that separate us from God and cripple our spiritual defenses by causing the Holy Ghost to withdraw from us.
We should abstain and we should teach our children to abstain from all such expressions.
What the Scriptures Say

The scriptures speak a lot about profaning the name of the Lord but I am going to focus more on the scriptures that don’t specifically speak about that.  It has been argued that the canonical scriptures explicitly forbid or warn us not to swear.  These are the scriptures I have found that could connote this inference.

Matt 12:36 “But I say unto you, That every idleword that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”  This scripture doesn’t specifically mention swearing but it essentially cautions us to use our words wisely.

Matt 15:11” Not that which goeth into the mouthdefileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”  That which cometh out can refer to our word choice and the way we treat the name of God.

James 5:12“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any otheroath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”  This scripture is interesting because almost all references in the scripture using any variation of the word swear is more referring to an oath.  This scripture does use the word oath too which makes me believe that this is what it is referring to rather than using a swear word.

Matt 26:74“Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.”This is the story of Peter at the time of when Christ was on trial.  As to what it means when it says he cursed and swore is a little ambiguous.  Peter swore he knew not Christ but he didn’t use a swear word.  Curse though has some interesting meanings.  In most references in the scriptures it essentially says, “and God cursed the land” or something to that effect.  I feel that cursing represents the doing or wishing of ill or misfortune upon another. 

1 Peter 3:10“For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:” Again simply put, use good language.

James 5:6  ”And the tongueis a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.”

According to the scriptures it is blatantly clear that we should not use the name of God in vain but the scriptures don’t say that we shouldn’t swear.  It only tells us to refrain our lips and mouth from speaking evil or guile.  As to what is evil and guile in society is very subjective to the members of that society.  There is no mention of specific words we should not say because there is no universal and eternal list of words.

 Another Argument Made

One of the arguments I have heard made is that Christ would not swear and therefore we shouldn’t.  A friend of mine though made the point that we have so few accounts of Christ that it is hard to tell exactly what he would do.  This is true but has been pointed out to me before is that we can come to know Christ personally through revelation to know what he would say.The only problem I have with this is that there are so many people who claim to know Christ personally and yet they have different interpretations of who He is and what He would do.   A personal relationship with Christ and how one feels He would act may be sufficient for one to personally justify not swearing but others have different experiences and feelings that would say otherwise.  So as to what Christ would say, it is subjective to the feelings of each person who claims to have a personal relationship with him. 

Also going back to what profanity is defined as in Wikipedia, “a word, expression, gesture, or other social behavior which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect.”   Now would Christ do or say something insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or disrespectful?  Christ was not the most popular character because he did and said things that were not accepted by society.  Openly rebuking people, eating with harlots, claiming he was God, denouncing the authority of others, casting out people and overthrowing tables in the temple, and etc. are some examples of how He was doing and saying things that were socially unacceptable, insulting, rude, and disrespectful.  Was this profanity?  Did it have the same effect as swearing? 

 I must mention though that I do not feel that the argument above about Christ being profane is a strong or sound argument.  Even if the logic of this argument were sound many still would not accept it out of principle.  But if we do hold to the premises of the argument we can draw the conclusion that Christ was profane.  That is not a conclusion one would want to accept especially since it would kill the argument that Christ would never swear.  Even if Christ was considered profane for his day, why should we care what society thought of him?  Wasn’t He only doing that which was right?  Can it be that doing the right thing could be considered profane, rude, disrespectful, or vulgar to the society around us?  Yet at the same time why should we feel like we have to defend Christ from doing things that others found offensive or profane? 

A detailed focus on words that we shouldn’t use might be missing the target when we should really be focusing on what words and phrases we should be using.   Focusing on how swearing is bad is like focusing on the Law of Moses.  Christ came and gave us the higher law.  He doesn’t command us to not use certain four letter words but he commands us to use clean and uplifting language.  Clean and uplifting language is for the most part universal but there is still some subjectivity to it.

The simple statement that swearing is bad and one should not do it seems to be polarizing the topic and making it simpler than it really is.  Many times it seems that people talk about there being a wrong and a right when in reality there is a lot of middle ground and a lot more to understand.  We can’t just rely on believing swearing and many other topics are black and white, when in reality there is a lot of gray area.  This is part of the reason I took the time to write an essay just to simply state my viewpoint on swearing.

In my case as a member of the LDS faith, I am taught to love God first and part of that would be to use language He would find acceptable, which means not taking His name in vain or speaking blasphemy.   I am then taught to secondly love my neighbors.  I should be looking to use words that are uplifting rather than looking to avoid certain words. 

People want to impress certain types of people and for the most part they try and use phrases and words that make them more acceptable around those people.  If one wants to fit in with those who use “swear” words then they use those words to be accepted.  If one wants to be more accepted of God they use words that God would find appealing.  If one wants to be more accepted by their boss then they use words that impress that boss.  If one wants to represent the Church of Christ then they must try their best to use language that best represents the values of that organization. 

Also people change their nature and the words they use based upon the people they are surrounding.  I talk differently to my boss than I do to my roommate.  I choose different rhetoric and act differently.  Is that a double standard? 

To be honest I am not entirely sure what I am trying to get at here.  I do feel that swearing is something that is subjective to society and therefore society is the author of what is a “swear” word is or not, with the exception of blasphemy.   As a believer of Christ I want to best represent Him as possible, and therefore use vocabulary that the society I am in deems uplifting, respectful, and courteous.  Do I always do this?  No, but I should at least be trying to become a better person in word and deed. 

 I do not feel that this is the best treatise about this subject or my best work.  There are many more topics and questions to be answered but those can be treated later.  Hopefully this makes sense to those who read this and has provoked some thoughts, ideas, or insights that deepen one’s understanding of this subject.   

1 comment:

  1. "A detailed focus on words that we shouldn’t use might be missing the target"

    I just love this whole article/thought process, but particularly this phrase! ^^^