Cussing, Social Class, and the Culture of Contempt

indignation, cussing, contempt

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.

Conclusion

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.

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6 thoughts on “Cussing, Social Class, and the Culture of Contempt”

  1. I was troubled by article. I’ve has long struggled with using “inappropriate words” when upset –a habit acquired not in a Marine barracks, but ages ago in the women’s dorm of a Catholic college. Cussing does not incline me to peace, charity, forgiveness. On the contrary, it makes me angrier. It easily becomes a habit.
    One Lent, I read The Seven Deadly Sins. Author Kevin Yost talked about the rooting out the “death dealing daughters” of the capital sin of wrath – including thoughtless, vulgar words – so that you can fight, rather than feed, the anger. My experience has been that using coarse language often stokes my anger and impatience, robs me of peace, and insults or scandalizes my listener (especially if the listener is a grandchild.) I need all the help I can get to channel the energy from “being steamed” into patience, meekness, forgiveness, whatever.
    Basically, I naturally tend toward anger. I find that vulgar language does not relieve my anger, but feeds it.

    1. I get you, Marija. I, too, have a tendency towards anger and impatience, which I mistrust and try to control. But it can also express itself in sarcasm, which can be abusive even when spoken or written in clean language. In fact, my first reply to Jennifer (below) gives a prime example of my lack of charity, a deficit that I’ll probably be working on for the rest of my life. If that’s where cussing leads you, then, by all means, avoid it as an occasion of sin. The essay is more about other people’s cussing than your own.

  2. It isn’t “prissiness” to not wish to be audibly assaulted by the F-word, or the host of other vulgarities that people spew with the regularity of prepositions these days. It’s crass and yes, offensive. Sorry, but I won’t listen to it.

    I don’t believe for one moment that Christ would have used such language. There’s a big difference between using the word “Satan” to describe Peter in that particular moment and letting the Aramaic equivalent of F-bombs fly. Jesus got His point across with dramatic terms when necessary, but He was not crass or uncivilized.

    Coarseness in our speech, as common as it is now, reflects very badly on our society. Even children are learning to spit out filthy speech as though it makes them tough and savvy. They learn to repeat what they hear. That’s the fault of the adults. Time to raise the bar significantly. Christians ought to lead the way.

    1. In other words, you’re going to react the way certain people expect you to and spend time on lecturing them that you could more profitably spend on reaching out to them. Good luck with that.

    2. In thinking about it, my initial reply was churlish, for which I apologize. I do understand how you can feel assaulted by foul language. However, some people use foul language to deliberately provoke such a reaction. By getting angry and offended, you give them what they want — usually, a reason to ignore and think worse of you — rather than giving them something to set them off-center and start thinking differently. Other people mean no harm. But while some of them will accept a remonstrance in good spirits and apologize, others will be turned off by a lecture and shut you out.

      The key here is to roll with the punches; that is, to get beyond your initial reaction and discern the intent behind the language. What is the conversation about, and what are you trying to achieve with it? If the vulgarities are incidental, you may be able to tell the person, “I’m sorry, but I find such language offensive,” and get an apology. But if you’re trying to correct or persuade someone, you risk digging a rabbit hole that undermines whatever you hope to achieve by the discussion. By remaining calm and continuing to use clean language yourself, you can de-escalate the situation and keep it on track. Perhaps, later on, the person you’re talking to will apologize for their language without prompting.

  3. Darn it, Anthony, you’ve made me too self-conscious about letting fly with f-bombs and scatological expletives. I’ll say this: in our Men’s group 12 Step group meetings, there’s a lot more of those than when (by accident) a woman comes to the meeting. Unfortunately that sexual distinction has not been preserved among my five children…it’s more the reverse. I wonder about the difference in cussing between Boomers (I’m pre-boomer), Generation X, and Millenials.

    PS–fine article!

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