Last week I was asked again to speak in the Crackers chapel on campus. To review, in the Crackers chapel you are to argue both sides of a controversial topic. You start by arguing for one side and then, halfway through, you switch and argue the other side. And the chapel ends on that open-ended note.
For this chapel I was asked to argue the question "Can Christians cuss?"
The "No, Christians shouldn't cuss" was pretty easy to do. I cited texts like Ephesians 4.29 and Ephesians 5.4.
Apparently, the church at Ephesus was a bunch of potty mouths...
The "Yes, Christians can cuss" was a bit more complex. Basically, it all boils down to context. I couldn't and wouldn't argue that Christians have a blank check to cuss, dropping the f-word anywhere and everywhere we want. So I had to describe certain situations where it would okay to use profanity.
The point I ended with had to do with our commitment to truth and how that might relate to a particular aspect of profanity. Specifically, profanity is intimately associated with our emotions. For example, if you hear the words "making love" it's likely, if you are under a brainscan, that only your frontal cortex would process this phrase. But if you heard the f-word it's likely that your Limbic system--where emotions are processed--would also light up. This is the psychological, almost visceral jolt--the Limbic system firing--you feel when someone drops the f-bomb.
This is one reason we don't like to be inundated by profanity. Profanity crosses a neuropsychological boundary, acting at a distance to jolt our emotions. So it feels like a violation.
And yet, it's this aspect of profanity, its ability to evoke some of the deepest emotions within us, that makes it an important player in our commitment to truthfulness.
Sometimes the truth is messy, harsh, profane and vulgar. Consequently, if we sanitize our speech and art we are handicapped in being honest witnesses. For example, a Rated PG movie about the Holocaust isn't going to be truthful. To tell the truth we're going to need to go to some pretty dark places.
I made a similar argument about profanity. Sometimes, I said, profanity is the only way to express the truth. Usually because the truth involves expressing deep, rarely expressed emotions. Emotions of pain, violation, outrage, despair, or rage. On these occasions speech is going to look a bit messy. I'm reminded of an argument Steven Pinker made along these lines:
[W]riters must sometimes let [their characters] swear in order to render human passion compellingly. In the film adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story, a sweet Polish peasant girl has hidden a Jewish man in a hayloft during the Nazi occupation and becomes his doting wife when the war is over. When she confronts him over an affair he has been having, he loses control and slaps her in the face. Fighting back tears of rage, she looks him in the eye and says slowly, "I saved your life. I took the last bite of food out of my mouth and gave it to you in the hayloft. I carried out your shit!" No other word could convey the depth of her fury at his ingratitude.In a similar way I'd argue that there are times when we, ourselves, are in situations like this. And like Pinker, I'd argue that no other words can capture the depth, breadth, and height of our emotions. At least not truthfully.
And so I ended the chapel on a paradoxical note. The f-word, I said, is holy. If used casually and flippantly we will cheapen the word, render it profane. Words like the f-word should be used rarely, and only when speaking to the deepest aspects of human experience.
Use the f-word, sure, but only on holy ground.