Sunday, August 09, 2015

Swearing As A Moral Issue

This morning the Deseret News, one of Salt Lake's two primary newspapers, ran an opinion piece about the Book of Mormon musical. Being what and where it is, this musical is getting a little more press attention than is typically the case.

The piece hit a nerve with me and prompted me to write about an idea that has been spinning in my head for a while. The title of the article was "Profanity laced productions demonstrate society's moral decline."

If you spend any time with believers, particular of the more conservative stripe, they will let you know that they don't like swearing. If you spend time with such people regularly, they will let you know about their distaste for swearing... regularly.

In fact, similar to the title on the article, they will often articulate something beyond mere distaste. A moral element will become attached. Swearing is not just distasteful, it is immoral.

This is a common religious drum to beat and yet, even while I was still a believer, something struck me as disingenuous about all of the purity proclamations regarding words. How could a word be so encrusted with... evil?

I remember the first time I realized that there might be something amiss about all of the preening that goes on in religious circles concerning swear words. I was 16 and spending a number of weeks backpacking in Israel. A Bedouin chief was giving a friend of mine and I a tour through the Negev desert on camel back. The chief spoke at least 7 languages that I knew of.

My camel and I were alongside the chief when nature called. I said to him, "Hey, can we stop? I gotta go." He looked at me quizzically. "I have to go to the bathroom," I amended. He cocked his head a little more to the side, trying to interpret my meaning.

"He has to take a shit!" my friend called from behind us.

The chieftain's eyes lit with understanding and he smiled. "Oh yes! Sheet! We stop!"

I reflected later that, contrary to what my religious community taught me, my friend had done nothing immoral, neither had the chief. "Shit" was just a word.... nothing more. Any negative values were our associations, but there was nothing inherently moral or immoral about the word.

So then, why does the issue of swearing garner such attention and bluster among religious folks? Why do they try to make it a MORAL issue?

My family and I recently made the trip back to Michigan to visit all of our relatives. Most of these folks are Christian but in the past few years I find myself in Christian circles less and less. One thing that really stood out to me was how much the issue of swearing came up. I was constantly being informed that they don't swear, they don't like entertainment that swears, and they don't like to socialize with people that swear. Spend anytime with a religious conservative, and they will let you know that they don't swear.


My theory is that one can get a lot of piety points on this issue with very little cost. In fact, no cost. If you are going to resist poverty, or not gossip, or love your enemy... there is going to be some work involved. It will cost you. To make a fuss about swearing costs nothing, and yet it lets the religious person get a sense that they have made a moral step up.

Moving out of faith has shown me that this maneuver is a farce. Religion encourages the believer to develop many contrived moral positions. As an atheist, I have come to realize that true moral foundations are built on harm and help. Does an action harm others? Does an action help others? Swearing affects neither of these questions. It is a question of mores' not of morals.

Yet, the writer of the Deseret News opinion piece has convinced himself that he is making a moral statement when he announces his aversion to swearing. He isn't. He is just taking his place alongside scores of religious figures, both present and historical, who have learned to speak fluent religion on a topic that changes nothing.

Or, as St. Paul observed, he has learned to bang the gong and clang the cymbal.


Unknown said...

I began my career as a full-time swearer at a young age so I've wondered the same thing for many, many years: why are some words "bad" and others with the same meaning OK? In my world travels I came to realize that some cultures have no swears; although they have the words they don't have the concept. Why do we? I think you hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

An aversion to swearing isn't exactly learned. I can remember my father swearing when I was 3 years old, and it left me with a bad feeling. I've hated swearing ever since. Every word has connotations. This is like saying that insults don't hurt people. When do people swear most? When they're angry. So swear words are angry. 'Thou shalt not take the Lord God's name in vain' is one of the ten commandments because swearing inherently makes people feel bad. You could argue that we say 'God' and why shouldn't it be a swear word all of the time, and again it comes back to the feeling behind the word. Do you say it gently? Or do you use it cruelly? I've never heard a swear word used kindly in my entire life, and every time my dad swears it makes my heart beat a little faster in fear. Swearing is about respect-- or a lack of. If you wouldn't use a 'harmless' word like 'nigger' around a black person, don't use a swear word around me. Do you respect me enough as a person to cut a few words out of your vocabulary for me? I have friends who swear but won't swear around me. And I have former friends who used to not swear and now they do, and they tried swearing around me. if they can't respect me, we can't be friends. I don't think I'm a 'step up' from them morally, I just don't want to have a panic attack over a stupid word when there are literally hundreds of others they could have used instead.

Andrew said...

Anon - Your comment is bathed in your perspective. You have negative associations with certain words, and you assign to that an absolute reality based on your perspective.

People do not swear most when angry. People swear for comedic effect. People swear for the accuracy of an idea. People swear out of habit. It is most likely that in your circles, the only time people use certain words is when they are angry - thus your predilection for negative association.

It is a false equivalency to compare using the word shit and using the word nigger.

You are welcome to feel about words however you want of course. But moral reasoning's are a non-starter.

Anonymous said...

Andrew- Are your comments not 'bathed in your perspective'? Does everyone go through the same experience of needing to pee or poop in the desert while on camelback in a foreign country?

Yes, people swear for comedic effect. People swear out of habit. People swear because they enjoy the vulgarity. The majority of people who swear, swear most often when angry. And people who only swear a little bit, swear most when they're angry. I would bet a great deal of money that frequency of swearing is strongly correlated with increased rates of aggression. Correlation does not prove causation, I know, but these correlations do lend some legitimacy to my perspective. I also believe that a negative association with swear words is held by a majority of people. I do think that if a psychological experiment was set up to rate self-perception of mood before and after listening to a jazzy pop song, or a jazzy pop song with swear words, that on average moods would be higher among individuals listening to a jazzy pop song without swear words.

A false equivalency? Perhaps, but let's not bring up the fallacies too much because a) that in and of itself is a fallacy and b) your opinion blogs are riddled with plenty of them.

I never claimed a moral reasoning to how I feel about swearing. But I would claim a behavioral basis.

I sincerely hope that if you're atheist, you at least believe in the universe, or in something greater than humankind. Psychology studies show that people who believe in something greater have higher rates of happiness. I wish you the best, Andrew. Religion is not as disgusting as you may think.

With love,

The Anon Theist

Andrew said...

Sure, everyone has a perspective - the question is, are we aware that it is our perspective or do we end up projecting that beyond ourselves. My issue wasn't that you have that perspective (you a negative association with swearing due to your experience) but rather that you universalized your experience to everyone else ("swear words are angry").

I think it is a shame that some folks miss out on great stories, art, music, etc. because they have been taught to have such a negative reaction to swearing. If they choose to limit themselves, that is their prerogative... However, I will continue to refute stances on swearing that try to draw a moral connection.

Since my blogs are "riddled" with false equivalencies, perhaps you could give an example.

I do not believe in anything more than this life... and have never been happier. :)

I do not find religion disgusting, I find it problematic. I know plenty of religious people who lead charitable lives (some even swear like sailors) but I suspect their lives would be just as charitable without their religion. Where I find fault with religion is when it takes otherwise good people and imparts to them bad behaviors due to bad dogma or bad scripture.

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