Bombs Bursting In Air: The Growing Problem of Profanity
The other day, while Hurricane Dorian remained offshore and its trajectory remained yet uncertain, I took my kids to see what we knew would be unusually large waves. We were standing under the pavilion taking it in when a man standing next to us turned to me to comment on how extraordinary the waves were. Instead of employing any one of the many appropriate adjectives to describe them, he felt comfortable and maybe even compelled to use an extreme profanity to capture their ferocity. Putting aside the fact that he had no reason to believe I myself was comfortable with that language, he was either oblivious or maybe indifferent to the fact that I was standing with young children. My twelve-year-old looked up at me and said, ”Why did he need to curse?” I didn’t have a good answer.
There is an enormous amount of energy and advocacy surrounding issues of climate change, our environment, and our responsibility to safeguard it. Those are important conversations that deserve attention and analysis. But, there is a different environment that is being contaminated that should also concern us and another change to our collective climate that I believe also deserves our attention.
In 1952, an episode of I Love Lucy was deemed “controversial” television because it centered around Lucy telling her husband that she was expecting. The CBS executives thought using the word “pregnant” was too risqué and so they had her simply tell him they were “having a baby.”
In 1961, comedian Lenny Bruce faced his first charge for obscenity after swearing in a stand-up comedy set. After being released and arrested several more times, he was finally detained, charged, and found guilty of obscenity in 1964.
While some relics of this era still exist (in Virginia, “Profane swearing“ is a Class 4 misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine), the world has radically changed and, with it, the environment we live in. Obscenity has gone from a crime to a legitimate form of communication.
The FCC still defines profanity as language that’s so “grossly offensive” to “members of the public” that it becomes a “nuisance.” The problem is who defines “grossly offensive,” who are the “members of the public,” and what qualifies as a “nuisance”? The goalposts on all three are moving rapidly and not towards traditional or modest definitions.
Remember when people in positions of leadership and distinction were held even more accountable for carrying themselves with dignity and class? GovPredict, a political analytics firm, tracked an unsurprising yet shocking trend regarding politicians and social media. In 2014, there were 83 instances of lawmakers using profane words online. In 2017, this grew to a whopping 1,571 instances and in 2018 there were 2,409 instances. So far 2019 has put all those years to shame. According to the firm, politicians have been swearing up a storm and using words that used to make us blush at campaign stops, in press conferences, at debates and on their social media.
The profanity epidemic starts at the top with our current President regularly using vulgarity. But many of those who seek to defeat him, while claiming to be more “presidential” are no better in this area, comfortably dropping obscenities in public spaces.
The result is our environment is contaminated; our climate is compromised. It is no longer safe to watch an interview with an elected leader or watch a debate in front of children. We can’t take for granted that public places will be profanity free. And the media has drastically lowered its standards. CBS, the same network that once refused to air the word “pregnant,” recently featured a show whose title was a cleaned-up swear word. Popular radio stations regularly play songs with words that as recently as 10 or 15 years ago would never have cleared censors.
Why is it so bad? What is wrong with cursing? Doesn’t it reflect passion, feeling, emotion? Isn’t cursing a healthy way to find release, to respond to pain or frustration? Shouldn’t we believe the research that says cursing has positive benefits?
The answer is no. Giving in to the urge to use a profanity is to forfeit our very humanity and indulge an animal impulse. Our sacred Torah tells us the ability to speak, the art of communication, is what differentiates man from animal. When we elevate it, we are acting more God-like, and when we lower ourselves to use vulgarity or obscenity we are expressing the animal part of ourselves.
In “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves,” Professor Benjamin K. Bergen shares the research behind cursing. For example, he describes how some stroke victims can still swear fluently even if their other language abilities are severely impaired. Advanced language comes from the more sophisticated parts of the brain while swearing taps into much more primal neural hardware in the basal ganglia. Similarly, Tourette’s syndrome, which involves dysfunction of the basal ganglia, can cause an overwhelming urge to swear. The animal part of us wants to curse. When we hold back, we are expressing our very humanity.
That is why our rabbis (Shabbos 33a) were so opposed to what they call nivul peh, vulgarity of the mouth. When we express self-control and discipline, we are imitating Hashem and we thereby exhibit dignity and class. When we fail and give in to a natural urge to curse or swear, it is demeaning, we are diminishing ourselves.
Fighting this urge is not always easy, particularly when something upsets us, frustrates us or we are physically hurt. In today’s age, it can be particularly challenging when much of our communicating takes place through typing or texting, where we may allow ourselves to use words digitally we wouldn’t use verbally. Yet, the capacity to preserve dignified language even in those moments and those mediums is in some ways the very measure of our humanity and Godliness.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:7) understands the “evil matter” in the passuk “When you go out to war guard yourself from every evil matter,” as referring to cursing or using nivul peh.
The Maharal explains that nivul peh, engaging in obscenity, is so severe, even more so than other forms of negative speech like gossip, because it is used even when nobody is around; it is articulated even when there is no audience to hear. Compromising oneself when there is no benefit is in fact the most degrading and therefore the most severe.
Using or listening to vulgarity is taking a pure, beautiful gift, the power of communication, and contaminating and spoiling it. Whenever I hear someone curse to try to make a point, I can’t help but think if they were more intelligent they would find a more effective way to communicate that point without needing to distract with the shock value of using an obscenity. I am always less impressed, not more, less focused on what they are saying and more focused on why they said it like that. I am less persuaded, not more. Most of all, I am disappointed that they have chosen to transmit their contamination to me, to compromise my environment and to harm the climate that we share.
We can only protect our spiritual environment if we each take responsibility and do our part. Whether online or offline, the words we say and how we say them reflect the essence of who we are and who we aspire to be. If we make the “members of our public” judge all obscenity and vulgarity a “nuisance” and “grossly offensive,” we can demand clean speech that won’t leave emissions that negatively impact our environment for our generation and generations to come.