August 29, 2004

A Philosophical Argument Against Profanity

For some time now, the issue of profanity has troubled me. For years, society has told me that it’s wrong to utter certain words, but I’ve never understood why. And like many people, I don’t like to do something just because someone tells me I shouldn’t; rather, I want to know why I shouldn’t. Well, I’ve come to this tentative conclusion: one’s language is profane when it: (1) trivializes that which is sacred, (2) denigrates that which is good, or (3) encourages its speaker and/or hearer to have impure thoughts.

1) Language is profane when it trivializes that which is sacred. Why is it wrong to yell "Goddammit!" when you’re angry or to say "By God!" when you’re amazed? The answer is because when we do so, we are speaking about that which is sacred as though it were trivial. We are using the name of God in the same way we would use such expressions as "Ouch!" or "Wow!" And this, I think, is wrong.

2) Language is profane when it denigrates that which is good. For example, it’s wrong to use such words as "dick," "cunt," and "tits" because these words belittle the human body. The human body is a wonderful, beautiful creation, but the aforementioned terms have impure and crude connotative meanings. Therefore, using these terms cheapens and demeans that which is worthy of reverence.

3) Language is profane when it encourages its speaker and/or hearer to have impure thoughts. A good example of this is the f-word. Although it has many different meanings, its primary meaning, both denotatively and connotatively, is that of impure sexual intercourse. Now there are times when it’s appropriate to think and talk about sexual immorality—e.g., for purposes of education and moral instruction. However, it’s wrong to think and talk about it more than necessary. And when we use the f-word, this is exactly what we’re doing.

Even if I just use the f-word for emphasis (e.g., "I’ve had an f-ing bad week"), I run the risk of directing the thoughts of myself and my hearers to impurity. Perhaps I don’t always consciously get sexual images in my head when I say or hear the word, but it’s possible that exposure to the word often encourages such thoughts to unconsciously enter my mind.

Now before leaving this discussion about profanity, there are two important comments I’d like to make. First, profanity is relative. For example, saying "nigger" in some communities is profane because in such communities it degrades black people. However, certain black communities use this word in non-derogatory ways—strange as it may seem to some of us white folks, "nigger" is virtually "synonymous" with "brother" in such circles. So given the relativity of profanity, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s always wrong to use certain words. Depending on the speaker and the discourse community he or she is in, a word can be appropriate in one context even though it might not be in another.

Second, I don’t understand why people think "shit" is a bad word and "poop" and "feces" are not. First, using the word shit is not trivializing that which is sacred—unless, of course, you subscribe to some weird theology that worships feces. Second, it’s not denigrating that which is good—it’s not like feces is a beautiful thing and I’m cheapening it by calling it shit. Third, I don’t think it encourages those who say or hear it to have impure thoughts any more than saying "poop" or "feces." I personally don’t say the word around most people because I know it would offend them and that’s reason enough not to say it. But between you and me, I think shit is an unfairly maligned word.

Post-Blog Commentary with Jim and Leslie
JIM: So Leslie, what are your initial thoughts of Don’s blog?

LESLIE: Well, Jim, to be honest with you, I’m a bit disappointed. First of all, Don brought a ton of presuppositions into the blog and never once acknowledged them.

J: Such as?

L: Such as his views of sexuality. It’s obvious that he takes a very pre-Enlightenment view of sexuality, which obviously influences his disapproval of the f-word. But why not acknowledge these presuppositions? Why not come out and tell us his assumptions before going into his argument?

J: Well we all make presuppositions. Even right now, your insistence that he should have spelled out his presuppositions is presupposing that people should spell out their presuppositions. But let’s not dwell on this point. What are some other thoughts you have about his presentation?

L: I must say, I’m unconvinced by his argument against the f-word.

J: Okay, but let’s start with points one and two. Did you think they were fairly well-supported?

L: Well, sure. Especially point number two. Don proved himself to be a true friend of feminism with his condemnation of those who use crude terms to describe the female body. But let’s talk about point number three, which was, in my opinion, his weakest argument.

J: Okay.

L: Does Don really expect us to believe that people get images of "sexually impure" acts in their heads whenever someone says the f-word? Here, let me try it on you, Jim… So, Jim, it was an f-ing beautiful day today, wasn’t it? Okay, now what came to your mind when I asked you that question? Did you picture two unmarried people having sex?

J: No.

L: That proves my point. It’s clear that Don is making a huge leap with his third point.

J: Well, obviously you didn’t listen to his argument. I mean, he clearly addressed your objections. And I think he’s right. Historically the f-word has been used to describe less than moral behavior—even by non-Christian standards. And when we use that word, we are, even if only in subtle ways, directing our conversation and unconscious thoughts toward such behavior. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s there nonetheless.

L: Well, that’s disputable. What’d you think of his view of shit?

J: I thought he went overboard there. I mean, historically, that word has been used by unintelligent, immature people, people in rebellion against society. Therefore, when you use the word, you are endorsing such rebellious attitudes and making yourself more likely to adopt them yourelf.

L: I couldn’t disagree more. I thought this part of the argument made a lot of sense. Americans have such an irrational hatred of that word, and I thought Don, through both humor and logic, cut through all this crap.

J: Don’t you mean "shit"?
L: Right.

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