Profanity on primetime TV increased 69% from 2005 to 2010. And that’s just the major networks, never mind cable. I would have to assume that, by 2018, they’ve given up counting.
So it’s not just my advancing age or sensitivity. We really are living in an Age of Profanity.
I asked the resident millennial in our office how her generation views cussing, and she confirmed what I assumed: it’s socially acceptable to them, no problem.
Some commentators actually applaud the breakdown of speech taboos. They say swearing helps mitigate pain, bond individuals together, and teach children to be unashamed of their bodies. I beg to differ, and will show you why.
Used to be, there were some words that were not uttered in public, certainly not on the radio, TV, or newspaper, and not in social situations where you might not know everyone well. Since you had no idea who might be offended by harsh speech, you just didn’t take the chance. To do so would be an offense against charity, in Catholic-speak. In Anyone-speak, it would be boorish to knowingly offend others.
So why do we use such words? If they weren’t offensive at some level, they’d lose their effectiveness. Cuss words have to shock in some way: religious, lavatorial or sexual. The swearing that offends against the beautiful name of God, has mostly lost its power in the secular age when so many people do not consider God at all. Not much shock quotient left in bathroom terms either. But the sexual ones still have some concussive power.
In a way, that’s hopeful. It means that sex still has some power to touch us at a deep level. But based on how often I hear that particular word most aptly described as a “bomb,” sex may be losing its power, too.
What reasons do we have for not cursing, an effort that is sometimes quite taxing? Why bother to teach our kids not to curse?
Here are some good, practical reasons to refrain:
- In a study of middle school children, exposure to profanity was correlated to aggressive behavior and relationship style, which in turn is related to bullying.
- Children interpret cursing as a substitute for, or warning of, physical aggression toward themselves, whether the adult is cursing at them or simply in front of them.
- People who swear frequently also score high in traits like dominance, hostility and aggression.
- Hearing taboo words activates the ancient part of the brain associated with negative emotion, the amygdala, and may cause unwanted, emotionally-charged or negative thoughts… just by hearing.
- Cursing sets off the body’s flight-or-fight response, also called “acute stress response” which increases the release of adrenal hormones, like cortisol. This is an actual physical state of un-health, or dis-ease.
- A study of patients with breast cancer found that they received less care when they swore, even if they weren’t swearing directly at their care providers. It seems that people are unconsciously repelled by swearing, even though it seems to be socially acceptable.
- Swearing scares children.
- It heightens aggression.
- It can harm your physical health.
- It repels other people at an unconscious level.
- You get a less than full-hearted response from other people.
And if that’s not enough, here’s the biggest reason, though I doubt I’ll ever find it in a scientific study: swearing destroys reverence.
Reverence is that flush of wonder and awe we experience in the presence of mystery: the fascination of a child with a busy ant farm or newborn puppies; someone’s first view of Bryce Canyon or Mount Everest; the reason we got up early last week to see the rare “super blue blood moon”.
Reverence makes us aware that some things are beyond us. Reverence is an attitude of receptivity in the presence of mystery.
A man may gaze on his beloved wife, whose body is so much like his own, yet so wonderfully different. He may stand in awe of the mystery that makes her the bearer of new life, or he may stand in a position of domination, and use her.
A woman may gaze at her beloved husband with similar wonder, in awe at his strength and potency. She may stand in reverence of the mystery of the man, or she may disparage the difference which she doesn’t fully comprehend.
St. John Paul calls it “the reciprocal fascination” of masculinity with femininity, and vice versa. The spiritual maturity of this fascination is awe, a response similar to the “fear of the Lord” in Scripture. This is very different from the marriage ethic we see represented commonly in movies or dramas.
In TOBET marriage preparation programs, we often say that the most necessary quality for a good marriage is reverence. You can intuit why.
It is possible to kill reverence in a person, if one is led to believe that everything is, or should be, under your control or for your profit. Wonder could also die a slow death in a person who never experiences beauty in nature, other people or God.
St. John Paul II said, “Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal.” In other words, wonder and mystery are essential to being truly human.
Swearing, by its very nature exposes to harsh light those things that are more appropriately veiled, destroying reverence. In our age, we have tended toward those swear words that denigrate or make common the grand mystery of sex. Perhaps the inescapable ubiquity of sexual cursing tends to make us immune, or blind to the mystery of it.
Now that is a shame, because, without reverence, we are blind to the finest, best gifts of this life: giving and receiving love. We can only use others, not love them. We are left only with things to move about and control like play pieces on a game board.
The next time your tongue threatens to run away with itself, curb it. It’s worth the effort to preserve reverence, by which we preserve our genuine humanity.
Sheryl Collmer, MTS writes for TOBET, which has just published a new book in The Body Matters TOB curriculum for children, entitled, “The Body and Reverence.” Although the book is for third-graders, Sheryl learned a good deal from it. You can, too!
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I have not included these references in the text because they contain harsh language, which is exactly what I am decrying. However, they are listed for anyone who wants to check references or learn more.