Thoughts on Profanity

I just read a book that I really, really enjoyed.  It’s called The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright, and it’s a memoir about how her five years as a missionary in Costa Rica made her realize that missionaries, a lot of times, don’t do very much good in the communities that they try to serve.  (It’s about a lot of other things, too.  You can get the book or read Jamie’s blog if you want.  Also this post is not sponsored; I just really like Jamie and her work.)

Here’s the thing that bothers me, though.  See, Jamie swears a lot.  That’s who she is and how she talks, and she never directs cuss words towards people.  She just swears in conversation, and she has a lot of great things to say about Christians and missions and the church.  But when I was browsing through reviews for her book, I saw a lot of people who dismissed the book and her opinion because of the swearing alone.

This isn’t new, and it especially isn’t new in the Christian community.  But I think it’s a huge problem.  If you dismiss someone’s opinion because you think their reasoning is all wrong, go for it!  If you ignore a suggestion because you truly think it’s a bad idea, that’s fine!  What’s not fine is to completely dismiss someone’s opinion simply because they use a few words you don’t like.

I just want to be clear — by profanity, I don’t mean racial slurs, homophobic slurs, or slurs of any kind.  I am not okay with people perpetuating harmful stereotypes or hate towards individuals or groups of people.  Insulting people is not cool.  But profanity as a linguistic tool is perfectly fine.

Because here’s the thing about profanity.  It’s meant to elicit and portray strong emotions.  We use profanity when we’re in pain, or heartbroken, or furious.  But some people also use it in regular conversation because that’s just how they talk.  If you hear it a lot, you are more likely to use it, and it just becomes another way to express yourself on the daily.  It becomes part of your personality.  And using profanity casually does not negate your opinion.

Let me say it again: using profanity casually does not negate a person’s opinion.

I understand that some people really won’t read Jamie’s book because they are uncomfortable with the language.  And (I will grudgingly note) it is nice that some reviewers pointed out the swearing for those who really, really don’t want to read those words.

But profanity-phobia, especially in the church, is an issue.  Obviously, those of us who swear should be respectful of those of us who dislike it. That’s common courtesy.  But those of us who dislike it shouldn’t dismiss an entire person or their viewpoint just because they use some words we don’t like, especially if we call ourselves Christians.

If you’re going to dismiss someone’s opinion completely, make sure it’s for a better reason than “they say fuck too much.”

16 comments

  1. My opinion of swear words is just that they are words like any other words. Yes, there are situations where you shouldn’t use them but that’s again like any other word. It’s fine not liking them, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion after all, you can choose to use them or not but I just don’t understand why some people (typically very religious people) are so afraid of swear words and afraid is the right word to use there. To me it seems that they’re giving the words power over them. Yet they also treat swear words as a shorthand way of knowing what to dismiss. It’s a strange relationship to have with a word.

  2. This is a really interesting post.

    I wouldn’t be put off by a sweary book, I find it makes the emotions of the write more direct and obvious. I swear more in real life than I do when I write things down (I squeal and get excited more too!) But I do find if I swear when I’m writing it *looks* stronger than I actually feel.

    p.s. Having said that, I grew up hearing people use the c-word waaay more than I have ever heard in North America. I have a feeling if that word has extra strong super powers on this side of the world!

    • Glad you enjoyed! Yeah, it can definitely be an intentional tool to show emotion, especially in writing where you have to go through edits typically. I do think the c-word is definitely one of the harsher ones here and I think I might actually classify that one as an insult since it’s more derogatory than expressive. I might have to go see if I can find any linguists who have touched on that. Interesting.

    • Yeah, It’s a funny one. When I’ve heard it, friends the c-word to talk about friends “he’s a good c*” I don’t know many women that use it like that, but I think the lads use it without thinking or considering that it would shock people.

      They also use it to insult people, so it’s definitely that too!

  3. This is really weird because I was thinking about writing a profanity post myself. When I was a young adult, I’d let fly an f-bomb every now and then. As you said, it’s a powerful word and it can have powerful impact. I’ve heard my father use it twice (ever) and I can still remember exactly why he said it. Powerful!

    On a rare occasion, I’ll swear in a blog post for impact.

    In my new job, I come in contact with swearing a lot. I understand this from our clients, it’s common-place in the lives they lead. What surprises me is when I hear it from my coworkers (daily). I don’t think of myself as prudish, but I really think f-bombs don’t belong in every day conversation.

    As a parent, I refrain from speaking this way ever, because I don’t want my kids to get the impression that it’s all right. As you’ve already pointed out, people have strong biases against those who swear. One of my mom’s favorite phrases was “people who swear don’t have the vocabulary to say what they really mean.” Not sure if I 100% agree with this, but flippant swearing leaves me somewhat disgusted.

    • I wonder if this will change as your children grow up? The only time I remember my dad swearing as a child was when the car engine blew up(!) But I have heard him curse a little more now we’re all grown up!

    • Yes write it! I’d love to read your perspective. And I do get that too. Profanity is definitely inappropriate in most workplaces and it makes sense to teach kids not to use it for sure. It’s crude. And I don’t agree with your mom on that either. It’s not the nicest thing to hear, it’s true, but as a linguistic tool it is legit!

  4. As someone who says fuck too much, I appreciate those who don’t dismiss me & what I’m saying because I dropped an f-bomb or three. I see this a lot in 12 step meetings: people who got clean, found jesus, and now dismiss anything I share because I speak my truth and my truth is peppered with strong words that fit the awful pain that brought me to a 12 step meeting to begin with.
    I have, as a result of getting clean, come to understand that the f-bomb loses its power (over me and others) if I use it constantly. I now try and use it judiciously rather than offensively. I just feel that, if I censor my message, I’m shortchanging the power of the 12 step program.

    Unrelated: my fave episode of “What Not To Wear” was when a young, female, Episcopal priest got nominated by her parents. When she got ambushed and found out her parents thought she needed a makeover, she laughingly asked them “what the hell?” It was a priceless moment in unscripted reality teevee history, IMO.
    Also unrelated: my mom can’t watch movies with profanity with anyone else. She has to watch them when nobody else is around. I think, secretly, she sometimes wants to drop an f-bomb or three but doesn’t want anybody to know that LOL

    • Yeah it definitely shouldn’t be that way. No one forces us to cuss if we feel like we shouldn’t but we shouldn’t stop taking other people who do seriously. That is such a good TV moment!

  5. I’m a swearer in person, in conversation . . . but generally in my writing, I’m not. I don’t know whether it’s an age thing, but I’m put off by most swearing in blogs etc. I do occasionally think that if it fits in the theme of the person’s post and I’m ok with that.
    A big however, if I’m reading a novel, it doesn’t bother me at all.
    And another contradiction: I loved ‘They all Love Jack’ by Bruce Robinson (about Jack the Ripper) and it’s hugely sweary. In fact, I laughed at all the swearing, I think that was because when a book is researched as thoroughly and as academically as this, it is not expected. Robinson narrated the audio book and he was outraged and so angry at the terrible lives the victims led and the suspected Masonic cover-up his rage radiated through the recording and it was just ‘right’.

    • Yeah, I can understand that. I think that’s why it’s so difficult; because it really isn’t professional and it is inappropriate in some places. About They All Love Jack — I love that! That’s a good use of profanity too, I think. The shock factor makes you pay attention and conveys the emotion well and also gives a little relief from a serious subject. It’s just so interesting as a linguistic thing.

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