Lately, it seems Americans have become unshockable. The word that starts with “mother”—or more precisely “mutha”—delivers about as much sting as “darn.” Walk through an American city, and you’ll hear the once-unutterable obscenity bandied about on the street, across social, generational, racial, and ethnic lines. What the bleep gives? And does bad language make us bad people?
If so, it looks like we may be turning into a nation of evil-doers. According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted in March 2006, two-thirds of respondents believe that there’s more swearing now than 20 years ago. Seventy-four percent said they experience the use of profanity in public frequently or occasionally. And 64 percent said they use the F-word anywhere from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent).
The question of whether coarse language degrades our social fabric has become a staple of culture-wars debates. And social critics on both the left and the right blame pop culture for all the trash talking. But popular demand, in the form of online user-generated videos and blogs, pushed the epithet marrying “mother” to the medieval term for sexual congress into this summer’s most parodied action movie, “Snakes on a Plane.”
After one blogger created a mock movie trailer in which actor Samuel L. Jackson tells his fellow passengers, “I’ve had it with these snakes on this plane!” the blogosphere was abuzz with the more obscene version of the phrase, perhaps in an homage to Jackson’s fondness for the word in his earlier film, “Pulp Fiction.” Eager to give fans what they want, the folks at New Line Cinema worked the obscenity-laced scene into the finished product.
It could be that the “Snakes” phenomenon finally has defanged the taboo around the term, and we’ve simply reached another milestone in a long history of linguistic envelope-pushing in movies and pop music. Or is it something more--a signal that Americans no longer see swearing as transgressive?
According to Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist and author of books on swearing, including “Cursing in America” and “Why We Curse,” trashy talking is a basic human impulse. “This language fulfills emotional needs on two levels: my need, as a speaker, to cope with some emotion, like fear or surprise, and it conveys that feeling very effectively to someone else.” In fact, says Jay, it can be a social safety valve: “It allows us to express our emotions without physicality….Once you can tell people ‘I hate you,’ you no longer have to put yourself in jeopardy to prove it.”
Despite what the AP-Ipsos survey suggests about curse-creep, Jay’s research shows that the use of obscenity and profanity has remained “very stable” over the past 20 years. In his latest field study, conducted in 2006, Jay’s research assistants listened to people talking in public around the country and computed that of 3,000 instances of swearing, the f-word remains the most commonly used curse—followed, in descending order, by, s--t, Oh my God (mainly used by women); hell; Jesus/Jesus Christ; damn; ass, suck, God damn, b---h.
“M-----f----r is down at about 17,” Jay says.
“In the Christian community, such language is completely unacceptable,” says Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. “While the obscenity you refer to is not sacrilegious in the normal sense, it is a clear violation of one of the Ten Commandments: Honor thy father and mother. I would not see this as something that gives you a one-way ticket to hell, but as the Bible says, what comes out the mouth reflects what's in the heart, and such language shows that a person is not spiritually well.”
While Rob Brendle, associate pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, believes that cursing is a sin, he explains that “It’s not a particular word; it’s the ideas, the symbols they stand for. It’s coarse, it doesn’t uplift people.” Still, Brendle says, Christians don’t view behavior, however sinful, as the measure of the soul. “If there’s anything that Jesus made clear in his teaching,” he says, “is that it’s very difficult to assess the authenticity of someone else’s faith. But we know that people are not going to hell for using the f-word.”
In Judaism, says Reform Rabbi James Rudin, author of “The Baptizing of America,” “you’re not allowed to use God’s name in vain, but cursing is not a sin.” Yet he stresses that the constant use of swear-words has desensitized us to the power of language.
Because words have transcendent power, says Beliefnet’s Virtual Talmud blogger Rabbi Joshua Waxman, leader of the Or Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation in Ft. Washington, Pa., “it’s sad when a cascade of words numbs us to the effect of their meaning rather than the opposite, which is the purpose of prayer.”
In the view of Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a Roman Catholic priest and former editor of the Jesuit magazine “America,” “Bad language used for shock value is childish and in bad taste but not very sinful. Bad language that demeans people and incites violence is another question.”
And that moral dimension is what concerns Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “In the Jewish tradition, we have the concept of ‘nivul peh’, the soiling of the gift of speech,” he explains. “If I walk into my home and I say to my child, ‘F--- you, why didn’t you get an A?’ it’s an example of nivul peh.” Judaism teaches that “behavior is sinful. Words are not sinful. Sinful would mean in some way I have missed the mark in how to treat someone.”
Jay, who was raised as an evangelical and has studied the punishments religious parents mete out to kids who curse, offers a basic behavioral prescription. “I point to three ideas: Reason, respect, responsibility. If you’re going to use this language, be mindful of where you are. Be prepared to take responsibility for it. This really starts with the family: What are the rules in your house? It’s a parent’s responsibility to convey their values about this. It’s part of our religious doctrine, as far back as Deuteronomy.”
Nevertheless, the old curses carry less sting now than the next generation of smears, Jay suggests. In the post-9/11 era, race, ethnicity, and religion, rather than sexuality and bodily functions, are the source of today’s put-downs, revealing the most explosive points of social tension. Hence, “jihadi,” “Islamofascist,” “crusader,” “Zionist,” “fundamentalist,” and “evangelical” are among the unkindest cuts.
Rabbi Kula, author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” believes there’s a timeless spiritual solution to modern language pollution—one that can bridge the liberal/conservative divide. “If you are a liberal who says ‘it’s only words,’ you need to ask yourself: What is the relationship between language and the world we create? It’s a fundamental spiritual question, because every spiritual tradition from the beginning of time understood that there was a basic relationship between language and reality.
“The people on the right, who go into a heavy, moralistic trip when they hear dirty language, need to ask, ‘Why, when there is so much obscenity in action, freak out so much about language?’ They need a deconstruction of the taboo.” For all of us, says Kula, “what is needed is to create meaning, cohesion, and love with language.”