Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dirty Words, Dirty Mouths

In one of the most famous and hilarious routines in American comedy, George Carlin claimed that there are such things as bad thoughts and such things as bad intentions, but no such things as bad words. Much of the humor in Carlin's routine lies in his dismantling of the hypocrisy of media censors who are happy to portray all sorts of vice, violence and horror so long as certain syllables do not come from the television speakers. His judgment of hypocrisy is correct, as are most judgments of hypocrisy. But I argue here that Carlin is wrong in his judgment that there are no bad words.

James is insistent upon the primacy of speech for the Christian. "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless," he writes. So pure speech is important. In Ephesians, Paul prohibits "obscenity, foolish talk (and) coarse joking" among believers. So we now have some idea of what doesn't constitute pure speech. Now, it is extremely foolish to think that avoiding swear words is the extent of keeping a rein on one's tongue. We have all known horrid gossips, braggarts, liars, hypocrites and false teachers who carefully avoid uncouth words.

There is a sophomoric argument (one that I used to advocate) that says that yes, there is such a thing as sinful speech - it is of the kind just described. But a word is just an conglomeration of sounds arbitrary infused with meaning, arbitrarily designated by humans as foul, and so its utterance is not really wrong. The argument is obviously absurd; all words are collections of sounds arbitrarily given meaning by humans, and sentences are collections of words, and their meanings arise from arbitrary human rules of grammar and semantics. So, if the argument holds for words, it must hold for sentences too. But clearly, as most proponents of the argument would admit, there are certain sentences that it is wrong to utter, so there is no reason why it cannot also be wrong to utter certain words in certain contexts.

To spin the argument in a positive direction, we must agree with Paul that there is such thing as obscenity and foolish talk. Now, there are certain words that, because of meaning, phonetics, history and cultural judgment, jettison our statements and conversations into the realm of obscenity and foolish talk.* And so it is generally not appropriate to use these words.

I do believe that there are times that call for coarse conversation. There are times of extreme frustration, sadness and moral outrage that, in my opinion, call for extreme language. I had intended to include a list of examples of appropriate swearing, but that would be all that readers would remember from the post. Ask me my opinion of Joel Osteen some time.

Finally, as you may have guessed, I condemn myself as much as anyone with this post. My language is clean only in comparison to that of mainstream hip-hop. This is, however, a very easy issue to be very self-righteous about, and I think that many people who live and work among Christians don't realize how very easily and unconsciously bad language becomes a habit. Despite my foul mouth, my understanding of the issue has changed dramatically in past years, and my language is much cleaner than it once was and that, I think, is a very big step.

*This is true whether or not those in our company are offended by foul language. It coarsens conversation in any company - that's why bad language holds such fascination even in places where everyone uses it.

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