Warning: If you are sensitive to obscene language you probably want to skip this post. I remember the first radio show I ever DJd for the University of Texas student run station, KVRX, back in January of 2000. I walked into the booth with a stack of CDs (that's right we used to use CDs) and was immediately greeted by a sign very similar to the one you see above. While broadcasting onto live air I was not allowed to say shit, piss, fuck, cunt [a word I had never heard before], cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
Evidently, thanks to George Carlin, those are the 7 words and phrases banned by the FCC.
These are the bad words.
My Dirty Mouth Most of you who know me know that cussing has been a part of my vernacular since I was in middle school. I remember leading a Bible study in the 10th grade, and while walking a bunch of Baptist classmates through the book of James I quoted a friend of mine who called Christians 'fucking hypocrites'. The most memorable part of the Bible study was not my detailed exposition of the scripture or gut-wrenching real life examples. Instead, I still remember everyone's faces immediately following the word 'fucking'. Crickets chirped, pins dropped, and my friends' faces could easily have depicted electrocution or disembowelment.
When confronted the next day by a particpant he told me 'You can't say fuck at a Bible Study!' I asked this friend, one who used the f-bomb regularly in conversation, why it was OK to use the word in every day life but not in a study of the Bible? Why does that word have so much power and why should we have different standards for our language in certain circumstances? (See Note #1)
Generational Differences A family member whom I love very much is of the generation before me (that's my way of saying she's over 60). She confronted me about some of the language I was using on my Facebook page saying '...that word, the F-word, was never used in anything but a very ugly context when I was growing up, so its hard for me to hear it and not be just disgusted...'
One thing that is pretty evident to most anyone who watches TV is that obscenities like damn, hell, shit, and fuck are losing their power as jaw-droppers. These words are everywhere now. Kids grow up with them on social media, and obscenities flow as quickly as we can type. They are becoming more and more common place, and are a part of almost every conversation I've had with anyone under the age of 35. My friends taught their 3 year old to say shit and crack up every time she does. The bleeped out cussing of network TV these days does little to mask the obscenity and simply avoid FCC fines.
There is a generational divide when it comes to language. What happened?
Linguistic Reappropriation: The N Word and The Friendly Middle Finger Speaking anecdotally from my experience, I think that many of the obscenities of the past century have been taken over to be used in positive ways. They have been reappropriated and incorporated into our ever day vocabulary.
You can see this in the awful history of the n-word. In the last few decades it has lost some of its shameful power by being re-used by African-Americans as a term of endearment or friendship. I have walked onto many a basketball court and been greeted by a black friend saying 'what up my n-------?' followed by a handshake or hug. Due to the word's history, I (a skinny white dude of German ancestry) will never use the word in my response, no matter how friendly. I will never be black, but I always hope to be someone's 'n------'.
Similarly, this very morning I saw a friend who I haven't seen in months. He saw me from across a crowd and, with a big grin, he walked towards me with two big middle fingers. We embraced with the man-hug-pat-on-the-back, and talked about his trip. The guy's a lawyer. This is not an uncommon experience, and I would honestly say that only about 5% of the middle-fingers I've received in the last 15 years were malicious, the rest were from friends (often as greetings). The middle finger, too, has been reappropriated by friendship.
Finally, the word fuck has, in my experience, primarily come to be used as an intensifier. 'Let's get out of here...' is made more emphatic by 'Let's get the fuck out of here...' 'Yes' is way cooler and far more determined when stated 'Fuck yeah'. Words like this have become useful in language!
Christians Reappropriate Shit All the Fuckin' Time The very label 'Christian' could very well have been a negative label that was embraced and adopted by the early church. The term 'Methodist' probably has a similar story. The Christian Sabbath of Sunday was the borrowing and re-shaping of the Jewish Friday-Saturday idea. Our holiest holiday, Easter, was a reappropriation of the pagan celebration of the spring equinox. Even the holiday of Christmas was a theological remaking of the Pagan Saturnalia celebration. Christians have a tradition of taking the culture's mores and suggesting their own alternative reason or definition.
The fact that the New Testament was written in Greek instead of Aramaic is in itself significant. Though most all of the earliest Christians spoke Aramaic, the authors sought to reach people who didn't speak like them. Paul expanded the audience of the good news by employing the language of those he sought to reach.
Our Dirty Mouths? We too, as Christians in this modern world, must be able to speak the lingua franca without being scandalized by its vocabulary. When helpful, we can be masters of taking things once crude and making them holy.
Are we really so shocked by the word shit because it originally conjured feces (how did crap escape such a stigma)? Or are we shocked by it because we were told as children that it wasn't appropriate? Is the word fuck so grating to many of us because one of its many uses is the act of procreation, or because of the hard k sound and the paddling we got as children for using it?
I was once told by a friend that he couldn't trust anyone who he couldn't drink and cuss with. "Anyone else" he said, "probably thinks they're too good for me." Every time I see him we get together and drink and cuss. This is pretty extreme, and might not yet be true in your context. As time goes on, however, obscenities will be fewer and less offensive and more helpful in reaching people with a proclivity to cussing (which is increasingly everyone).
I am not arguing that we learn to put people down using explicit language in order to be relevant to others. Things we say in anger, whether obscene or not, will be hurtful. I try to never use the 7 words in an angry moment towards someone. In my book it is ok to tell someone they're "bitching", but never to call anyone a bitch (especially a woman).
The New Obscenity: Meaning It seems to me that our language is approaching the point where it is the meaning behind a word that should be shocking, and not the word itself. You can argue that that's always been true. Calling someone named Richard 'Dick' is a friendly nick name given by friends (hey Dad!). Calling a guy named Richard a dick however, is comparing them to a male sex organ. Not very flattering.
If Americans today spent as much energy being scandalized by the language (and legislation) of racism, bigotry, and divisiveness as we do getting upset about the 7 dirty words, then we'd probably live in a much better society. (See Note #2)
Here's my point: let's hold people accountable to the meaning of their words rather than their vocabulary, and maybe we should start to reconsider what a filthy mouth really sounds like.
- I am not trying to defend the practices of my dirty mouth. Quite to the contrary, as I work with more and more folks who are offended by traditional obscenities (read: people over 55ish), I am trying to use them less. I want to connect to people, not alienate them. As I grow up and mature I realize that my job is to figure out how best to be a Christian and person and whatever context I'm in, and how best to love people where they are.
- A comparison occurs to me: the content of a person's character vs. the color of their skin.