Musings on the Scandal of the Body, Part 1: Why We Curse

As a psychologist I tend to muse, theologically, about the stuff of life. One facet of human existence that I've been intrigued with has been cursing and profanity.

Specifically, why is profanity so scatological and sexual? Obviously, the sensory aversions we have toward human waste may be the simple associative reason for scatological references. But this analysis doesn't help us understand why sexuality is so often implicated in profanity. So, to my mind, there seems to be more going on. I've posted about this topic before and was prompted to revisit this topic by a recent book published by Steven Pinker.

Pinker, psychology professor from Harvard, is one of the most influential psychologists working today. Pinker's books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Words, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate are all worth reading (for theologians I highly recommend The Blank Slate). Recently, Pinker released a new book, The Stuff of Thought. In The Stuff of Thought Pinker has a chapter on the psychology of profanity and cursing. That chapter was recently published as an article for New Republic. Pinker's New Republic article can be found here. It is a great read.

Although Pinker's article is a fascinating survey of the cognitive science of profanity he fails to crack the mystery of why profanity is so scatological and sexual. Many of those deep questions remain.

My contribution has been to suggest that part of the mystery surrounding profanity can be revealed if we examine it from an existential perspective.

Specifically, as I've written about before, psychologists have amassed evidence that the body is a mortality reminder. That is, the body, with its waste, smells, ooziness, and vulnerability, makes our animalness salient. We find this degrading and fearful. Man wants to be an angel. Profanity cuts through those illusions. This is the source of the offense.

To profane something is to strip off the spiritual overlay, to make something sacred base and common. Profanity desacralizes human beings. For example, to call a woman a f****** b**** is to take someone made in the Imago Dei, to be encountered as a mysterium tremendum, and reduce her to a barnyard animal in heat. This is the offense of profanity, its desacralizing maneuver.

But profanity not just degrading. In my analysis, the degradation is filled with existential significance. To be reduced to an animal creates an existential dread: Am I ONLY an animal? If so, do I have a soul? And if I don't, what happens to me at death? In short, profanity is a death reminder and this, too, is an offense.

Profanity is a theological act. In its offense we find body and soul, the animal and the divine, and death and resurrection dancing in a dialectic.

Theology can be found in the most unlikely of places.

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11 thoughts on “Musings on the Scandal of the Body, Part 1: Why We Curse”

  1. About a year or two ago I wrote an article for The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on the parallel function of the grotesque and the sacred - how both have a sense of danger and dread and reveal our finitude in the process. They are also ambiguous and dangerous (to borrow from Mary Douglas on the issue). I related this to the religious imagery in the music of Nine Inch Nails.

    Your observation on profanity reminds me of this. By revealing our limits it is offensive because it disorders our boundaries of purity - it makes waste and the boundary of the human flesh somewhat obsolete. Literally what is inside is equated with what is outside. It is the disruption of these norms and the assumed order of purity that is offensive and not the words themselves.

    Interesting and thought provoking.

  2. Great blog, and interesting thoughts on profanity. I've always been a little confused by it. Why do we yell "fuck!" and not "sex!" ;)

  3. Richard,

    This post is enough to make a preacher cuss.

    My grandmother used to say that inadequate vocabulary and poor upbringing was the source of profane language. Five generations later, my grandson, when he was three, rebuked me for saying Hell: "Opa, if you say that word, you'll go there!" Sounded like my grandmother.

    Despite Rachel's cogent observation, I wonder if the use of profanity is more a male thing than a female--both biologically and culturally. Outlandish, outrageous language is outsider language: language by someone without land and beyond rage, beyond accepted anger boundaries, language used by someone who is an outlaw, i.e. some outside of or without law. My take is that in the modern world both verbal blessing and cursing is far more superficial than in the ancient world where honor and shame, clean and unclean, and holy and unholy are far sharper and thicker and more profound.

    Blessings (non-superficial),

    George C.

  4. George,
    That is interesting. As Pinker notes, oaths had more significance in the past, during the enchanted age. But in this hollowed out era of scientific disenchantment perhaps our profanity and cursing are just as hollowed out and empty. That, contrary to my ending in this post, what was once theological is now paleotheological.

  5. I found your site via LavalSubjects— great stuff. You reminded me of two of my favourite quotes. Firstly, Donna Haraway’s: ‘Blasphemy is not apostasy’ and the notion that blasphemy could be understood as a ‘theological act’; operate as a ‘trace’ of faith. The other is Walter Bruggemann’s: ‘the royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experience of suffering to death.’

    Admittedly, the second is a bit of a downer and not half as poetic as your phrase: ‘mortality reminder’, but I think its talking about the same thing. Never invite Xians to a party, they’ll hang out in the kitchen and get really morbid! Anyway, nice one.

    Out of interest, have you come across Bakhtin and his stuff on carnival?

  6. Nic, I actually discuss Bakhtin in relation to Mary Douglas' understanding of dirt in the piece I reference as well - among just about every other notion of the grotesque and profane I could get my hands on at the time.

  7. Cool, I'll give it a read. I know a few people in the UK who'd be well interested. Mr Brewin and Doc Rollins et al…

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