Note: The following is an excerpt from a study of mine currently under peer review
"The whole problem with this idea of obscenity and indecency, and all of these things--bad language and whatever--it's all caused by one basic thing, and that is: religious superstition…that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body."
--George Carlin (Interview with Associated Press, 2004)
The Puzzle of Profanity
There is little scientific consensus as to why profanities tend to cluster around specific themes. For example, in popular culture the paradigmatic inventory of profanity is George Carlin’s famous list of “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Commenting on Carlin’s list, the psychologist Steven Pinker (2007, p. 326-327) has noted the following:
The seven words you can never say on television refer to sexuality and excretion: they are names for feces, urine, intercourse, the vagina, breasts, a person who engages in fellatio, and a person who acts out an Oedipal desire.But it’s not only sexuality and excretion that are implicated in profanity. Pinker goes on:
But the capital crime in the Ten Commandments comes from a different subject, theology, and the taboo words in many languages refer to perdition, deities, messiahs, and their associated relics and body parts. Another semantic field that spawns taboo words across the world’s languages is death and disease, and still another is disfavored classes of people such as infidels, enemies, and subordinate ethnic groups. But what could these concepts—from mammaries to messiahs to maladies to minorities—possibly have in common?(An online version of Pinker's book chapter can be found here.)
Pinker suggests that these semantic clusters can be united by noting that profanity generally creates a strong negative emotion. More specifically, many profanities appear to be associated with the psychology of disgust and contamination. Urine, feces, blood, and other bodily effluvia are routinely referenced in obscene speech as well as being reliable disgust elicitors. But the profanity/disgust link is incomplete as it fails to capture facets of religious cursing (e.g., damn, hell), references to sexual intercourse (e.g., the f-word), or references to body parts (e.g., breasts, genitalia). What can link these sources of profanity?
Profanity and Disgust: A Terror-Management View
Terror Management Theory (TMT) is fast becoming one of the most influential theoretical and empirical paradigms in social psychology. Rooted in existential psychology, primarily the work of Ernest Becker (1973), TMT attempts to understand the psychological mechanics involved in how persons cope with existential “terrors,” most notably the fear of death.
One facet of TMT research has been to examine how various facets of everyday existence can become existentially problematic, particularly when functioning as death reminders. We are unsettled upon being reminded of our death and, thus, tend to repress or avoid aspects of life that make death salient. Much of this research has focused on how the body functions as a mortality reminder. The vulnerability of our bodies highlights the existential predicament that we will one day die and decay. Further, the gritty physicality of the body (e.g., blood, sweat, odors, waste) highlights our animal nature which functions as an existential affront to our aspirations of being transcendent spiritual creatures. Based upon these insights, an impressive body of empirical work has strongly linked body ambivalence to death concerns. Much of this research is summarized by Goldenberg, Pyszcynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (2000) who conclude: “[T]he body is a problem because it makes evident our similarity to other animals; this similarity is a threat because it reminds us that we are eventually going to die.”
The TMT research mentioned above is consistent with a theory posited by Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (2000) regarding the association between disgust and death. Specifically, beyond the aversions associated with oral incorporation (called “core disgust”), the following stimuli are known as reliable disgust elicitors: Body products (e.g., feces, vomit), animals (e.g., insects, rats), sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality), contact with the dead or corpses, violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity), poor hygiene, interpersonal contamination (e.g., contact with unsavory persons), and moral offenses. After separating out disgust associated with social contact or moral offenses (called “sociomoral disgust”), Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley have grouped the remaining disgust domains under the category “animal-reminder disgust.” Rozin et al. argue that the coherent theme of the “animal-reminder” domain is that each stimulus highlights the physical vulnerability of the human body which, in turn, functions as a death/mortality reminder.
The F-Word: Sex, Death, and the Body
Although it may seem obvious that corpses, gore, or physical deformity function as death reminders, it might be less clear as to why sexual intercourse, one of the most pleasurable of human experiences, is the referent for one of the strongest profanities—the f-word—in the English language. One theory, obvious when considered in conjunction with the anger with which the f-word is often used, is that references to sex function as forms of verbal sexual assault (e.g., see Neu’s, 2007, analysis of the f-word). But this theory is limited in explaining the use of the f-word in contexts where aggression isn’t implicated. For example, sexual partners might say “Let’s f***” in contrast to “Let’s make love”. Although the referent is the same in each sentence the connotation is very different, and not necessarily negatively so
Is it possible that the f-word functions as a death reminder? A recent study by Goldenburg, Pyszcynski, McCoy, Greenburg, and Solomon (1999) is very suggestive here. Specifically, in the Goldenburg et al. study participants high in neuroticism were separated into one of two imagery groups. One group was asked to imagine the spiritual/romantic aspects of sexual intercourse (e.g., being loved by the partner, connecting spiritually with the partner). In contrast, the second group was asked to imagine the physical/bodily aspects of the sexual encounter (e.g., tasting bodily fluids, skin rubbing). After the imagery exercise the two groups were asked to engage in a word-fragment completion task where the word-fragments (e.g., sk_ll, coff _ _) could be completed in either a death (e.g., skull, coffin) or non-death (e.g., skill, coffee) related manner. The results indicated that thinking about the physical/bodily aspects of sex created greater death thought accessibility (i.e., those in the physical imagery condition were significantly more likely to complete the words as skull or coffin than as skill or coffee).
Given this death/sex link, Goldenburg et al. suggest that sex is psychologically complicated for humans. On the one hand, as we have been discussing, sex can be a disgusting reminder of our bodily functions and dependencies. And yet, sex is also experienced as a spiritually transcendent act, where “two fleshes become one.” In short, the physical aspects of sex are latent mortality reminders while the relational and emotional aspects of sex transport the act into the spiritual and sacred realm of human experience.
It appears, then, that the f-word exploits the fissure that exists between the physical and the spiritual aspects of sex. Properly understood, sex is a dual act, a union of both the physical and the spiritual. Stripped of its spiritual significance and meaning, sex is reduced to its animal function. This is the f-word’s power. It strips sex of its spiritual significance, reducing the act to physical manipulations. It short, the f-word functions, literally, as a profanity. Something that is considered to be sacred is stripped of its spiritual content and rendered profane
(However, as noted above, this “profaning of sex” can be playful exploited by sexual partners who use the f-word. Saying “Let’s f***” in contrast to “Let’s make love” is a request for a sexual encounter that is more physical than sentimental. That is, consistent with the theory above, the f-word is picking out the body, as opposed to the spirit, as the locus of pleasure. But it should also be noted that, for the healthy couple, this request is playful in that it picks out the body against the backdrop and context of the deeper and more fundamental spiritual relationship.)
Profanity as Gnostic Affront
How does profanity relate to the psychology of religious belief? If profanity functions as a body/death reminder then attitudes about profanity may vary within and between Christian populations. Specifically, attitudes about profanity would depend upon how the body is psychologically and theologically experienced within a particular faith community.
Why would this be the case? As an answer we can note that, from the earliest days of the church, beginning with the Gnostic heresies, many Christian communities have struggled with the body as a locus of theological reflection. As Philip Lee (1987, p. 49) has noted in his historical survey of Gnostic influences upon Christianity, “From Simeon Stylites to St. Francis of Assisi to certain aspects of Calvinism, the aversion to this world with a desire to escape it has been one of the most prominent strands in the fabric of Christianity.” Furthermore, this aversion has “led to some unfortunate attitudes toward the flesh, human nature, and sexuality” within contemporary Christianity. This suspicion of the body has deep roots in American evangelicalism. Take, for example, this assessment of Jonathan Edwards, a leader of early American Protestantism:
The insides of the body of man is full of filthiness, contains his bowels that are full of dung, which represents the corruption and filthiness that the heart of man is naturally full of.A similar sentiment comes from the Puritan leader Cotton Mather. Mather’s lament about the depravity of the body is triggered by his encounter with a dog while urinating:
I was once emptying the Cistern of Nature, and making Water at the Wall. At the same Time, there came a Dog, who did so too, before me. Thought I; “What mean and vile Things are the Children of Men, in this mortal State! How much do our natural Necessities abase us and place us in some regard, on the Level with the very Dogs!”…Accordingly, I resolved, that it should be my ordinary Practice, whenever I step to answer the one or other Necessity of Nature, to make it an Opportunity of shaping in my Mind some noble, divine Thought.Mather’s reflection is a near perfect illustration of the animal-reminder facet of disgust. Mather finds urination, one of many “natural Necessities,” to be dog-like and, as such, an affront to human dignity. In addition, throughout Christian history the church has expressed ambivalence concerning human sexuality. Celibacy, complete non-participation in sex, has throughout church history been expressed as a spiritual ideal.
Given Gnostic sensibilities concerning the body, sensibilities still evident in many sectors of Christianity, it seems reasonable to posit that profanity may function as a kind of Gnostic affront to certain Christian believers. Specifically, if a rejection/suspicion of the body (a Gnostic stance) is rooted in death anxiety then profanity, as an animal/body reminder, would be particularly offensive to these believers. By contrast, Christians less suspicious and more welcoming of the body (contra Gnosticism) would be predicted to be less reactive to profanity, less offended or bothered by it.
From a definitional standpoint, profanity and vulgarity share semantic core. Specifically, something is profaned when its sacred or holy character is defiled and debased rendering it “common.” In a similar way, vulgarity refers to “crude language.” But we should be quick to note that the origin of the word vulgar is rooted in the attempts of social elites to distinguishing their speech and habits from the lower, poorer classes. As with profanity, vulgarity is speech that takes something that is lofty and civilized and renders it as debased and common. Profanity and vulgarity are “gutter,” “bathroom,” or “barnyard” speech. It is “low” speech. And given the common metaphorical maps of High = Good and Low = Bad (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), vulgar and profane speech is understood to be immoral, sinful, improper, filthy, and dirty.
The guiding theory of this research was that the physical body becomes implicated in the high/low good/bad mapping of profanity and vulgarity. As observed in the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” profanity appears to semantically cluster around the body (e.g., body parts, sexual behaviors, body effluvia). If so, why are these body references considered to be “unclean,” “dirty” or “sinful”? This association (the body = offensive and sinful) has puzzled students of taboo language. One possible answer to this puzzle comes from the literatures of Terror Management Theory and disgust psychology. Summarizing, there is good empirical evidence that body references are disgusting and offensive because they function as death/mortality reminders. Consequently, as a verbal reminder of death, profanity functions as a psychological assault.
But where does religious belief and theology fit into this analysis? As we have observed, profanity and vulgarity presume a background assumption that something holy, spiritual, or elevated is being debased, brought “low,” and contaminated. A simple death reminder does not entail this contamination of the spiritual by the physical. What is necessary for this notion is a theological background where human existence is divided into the spiritual and the physical. Further, there must be an assumption, most salient in the Gnostic and neo-Platonic influences within Christianity, that the spiritual realm is holy and pure and that the body is dirty and a locus of contamination. With these backdrop assumptions in place it becomes clear how profanity acts as a Gnostic affront. By making salient the oozy and disgusting aspects of our bodies, profanity highlights our animal nature mocking any Gnostic pretensions that humans might escape, avoid, or minimize their physical existence. Profanity is a shock to a creature aspiring to be like the angels.
The study goes on to present some empirical research I just completed that supports the theory presented above. Also, my Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation study that was the antecedent for the profanity research has just appeared in press. You can find it here:
Beck, R. (2009). Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation: Terror Management Theory, death, and the body of Jesus. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36, 303-312.