About cussing I’m ambivalent. By no means is my verbal communication always pure and elevated. Yes, it does include a lot of big words, but it includes four-letter words as well. My parents tried to moderate their language around us, although my father, a retired Air Force noncommissioned officer, wasn’t quite as successful as my mother. If there was a school where kids didn’t cuss out of the teachers’ earshot, I didn’t attend it. To make a long story short, I was using “Marine language” years before I enlisted in the Corps.
From Cussing to Not Cussing (Well, Not Very Much)
Cussing was funny at first, especially in contexts where it was still taboo. (I’ll never forget the moment I read in a Hardy Boys novel a line in which the ringleader used a dated slang word for detective that, until then, I’d only heard associated with boy parts.) Like nudity in films, it appealed to my immature rebelliousness and hormone-driven prurience. But as I grew older, I began to realize that reliance on crude words showed a lack of imagination and clear thought. It grew boring; about the same time, nudity and sex scenes grew passé.
The English language has over one million words, I thought, many of which are euphonious and evocative. Why limit yourself to the words you can’t say on broadcast television?
I don’t remember when I started, but by 1990 I’d cleaned up my cussing to the point where, when I did let an expletive fly, it startled people. Eventually, I lost interest in many of the movies and comedians I had found hilarious as a young man. When I finally saw Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, I couldn’t laugh even at the jokes and sight gags I thought were funny. Nowadays, the main objects of my profanity are my computer and rude drivers. In public, it’s my bowling ball.
But if I’m suddenly hurt — say, if I stub my toe on the bathroom vanity — you bet your sweet bippy my yelp of pain will be four-lettered. So I could empathize with Simcha Fisher, whom the Catholic Language Police recently chastised for tweeting some vulgarities while she was in an emergency room “in pain and afraid for my life.” (The hospital released her a couple of days later.) I wish I could quote her reply in full. Needless to say, it wasn’t charitable. However, considering the thoughtlessness the CLP displayed in choosing that moment to get all judge-y on her, it was just and appropriate.
Cussing and Social Context
What would Jesus have done in such a situation? I don’t know if Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek koine had cussing as we know it. But I know Jesus could get very graphic in making his point, as in the “Bread of Life” discourse, and was capable of calling his chief disciple (who, let’s be honest, wasn’t the sharpest knife in the block) a “satan.” The language that’s appropriate in a situation depends a lot on social context, which the evangelists assumed was generally known to their readers. We can’t get from English translations alone whether Jesus ever cussed.
You tell me, though: Do you really think the carpenter’s son who whipped the moneychangers from the Temple, who cursed the scribes and Pharisees, would never have used a few choice scatologisms? Shrug.
Yes, context matters, a fact that hasn’t quite registered with all the denizens of Hollyweird. Michelle William’s attributing her success to an abortion — and the Golden Globes’ audience’s applause — didn’t need cussing to be obscene. Accepting a tribute to your skill at your craft is an opportunity to display humility and gratitude. Using that opportunity to score culture-war points is neither humble nor grateful. And even given my agreement with Ricky Gervais concerning Apple’s sweatshops, his diatribes were uncalled-for. Comedy based on self-righteous abuse must be an acquired taste, like performance art or scotch.
Some Belated Distinctions
You’ll notice I say “cussing” rather than cursing. Although the former is derived from the latter, I use it to make a necessary distinction lost in the ambiguity of swearing and cursing. To swear is to take an oath, to literally set at risk your immortal soul as a guarantor of the truth you’re about to speak or the action you intend to perform. As such, you should not swear (or even promise) idly or deceptively. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).
Likewise, to curse is to condemn or call down the wrath of God. Again, this is nothing you should do idly or flippantly. Even to curse someone’s animal or possession can be a mortal sin if the harm wished to it would harm the owner, while to curse any of God’s creatures is a kind of blasphemy against the Creator. To wish someone ill, particularly to wish their soul’s damnation, is a grave failure of charity. (For a fuller discussion, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 76; John Fisher, “Cursing”, Catholic Encyclopedia.)
When cussing invokes the holy, I try to rationalize it. After all, there is a class of prayer known as aspirations or ejaculations (you there, in the back, stop sniggering). However, the rationalization fails; my real intention is imprecative, not supplicative. Over the years, I’ve become much more conscious and cautious of irreverence, though I’m not sure it’s irreverent to wonder whether God has a mysterious sense of humor. (“There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth” [Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 167-8].)
Cussing and Class
When members of the social-media chatterati load down their social and political commentary with cussing, I roll my eyes. “Ooh, we’re being edgy and honest and real! We’re ‘transgressing boundaries’!” It’s pretentious, like an upper-middle-class kid from Suburbia affecting the dress, manners, and speech of a gangsta from the ’hood. Not all such use of vulgarity is intended to wish others ill or heap abuse on people who disagree. But in adopting the ugly language of the streets, they’re adopting the bitter, self-pitying contempt of the have-nots for the haves. They deliberately offend because they aren’t really seeking our approval.
However, for those who are easily offended, here’s some food for thought:
Keeping your audience in mind means speaking to them in their language. If someone’s down in the gutter, you have to get down in the gutter yourself to get them out … or at least to find out why they choose to stay. We call the Church a “hospital for sinners”; a doctor who passes out at the sight of blood or a nurse who suffers dry heaves at the smell of body waste is bound to be ineffective. Same thing with people who clutch their pearls at the sight or sound of cussing.
Indeed, vulgar is rooted in a Latin word for “common” or “low-class.” It still retains some elitist disdain for the hoi polloi, the uneducated masses — the kind of people from whom Jesus and the apostles came and among whom they worked. It’s very hard to talk to people while you’re looking down on them. Obscenity isn’t in words themselves, but rather in the content they convey. Some of the worst, most evil thoughts and ideas ever produced in mankind’s history were spoken or written in the elevated language of the well-born and well-educated. Don’t take class too seriously.
The real problem we face, as Arthur C. Brooks argued in the New York Times, is a “culture of contempt” brought on by “motive attribution asymmetry” — tribalized black-and-white thinking researchers have compared with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Essentially, the two extremes of the culture war have convinced themselves that the other side is evil, stupid, and/or crazy, and therefore not worth talking or listening to — “they” are worthless. Our language is becoming uglier even when expressed in civil terms because our attitude toward each other is becoming obscene.
By no means do I doubt the good intentions of the Catholic Language Police. But if we are to turn this ugliness around with the gospel message, we have to wade into the filth, or at least suffer it to wash over us. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, we must go down these mean streets without becoming mean ourselves, remaining common yet unusual. Prissiness on these streets is a liability, not an asset or a tool. Avoid cussing if you can, but don’t look down on those who don’t. They may be on our side.