Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On foul language

Wikipedia defines foul language as "Profanity is a word choice or usage which its audience considers to be offensive" (The Profanity page is a redirect from Foul Language.). My first reaction was to think that it was a very lax and ambiguous definition, making profanity dependent upon the values and reaction of the audience. Thinking about it some more, I realized that it may not be that far from the truth. There are, however, two questions that I would raise.

The first question that needs to be asked is "Who is our audience?" We acknowledge in our moments of spiritual reflection the existence of a reality which extends beyond the limits of our senses. In my previous post I talked about demonic possession. Within our faith we acknowledge the existence of angels and demons, and, most importantly that of an omnipresent God. Do we consider the God and the angels as part of our audience? Hebrews 4:12,13 says "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." God is there, by our side and nothing we do, say, or think is hidden from Him. He is in our audience at all times. Do we remember?

The other question regards the term offensive. It is here that I have some difficulties with the Wikipedia definition. What is offensive is relative to people. Some have become desensitized to language, violence, immorality, and many other things. Others either have never become desensitized, or they have come back to realizing the problems that exist in each of these areas. So it seems to me that we need another standard by which to judge the foulness of language, one which is not based on the instability of human sensibilities. As far as I can tell, the only true criterion we have to satisfy that condition is that of divine love. Christ said "Love your neighbor as yourself." It is with this in mind that I see foul language and profanity not merely encompassing the obvious (messages of hatred, "four-letter" words, etc.), but in fact everything that is said with a lack of love for the other.

I mentioned in my previous post that I had an aversion to foul language and that it had a negative effect on me. I can say the same thing about anger, lack of compassion, and other passions. They affect me personally even when they are not directed at me. I can get through them, but I can see the disturbance that they cause in my soul, so I cannot help but have this sense that they are related. St. John Chrysostom's assertion that "foul speech defiles and invites devils" makes sense to me in the context that, when we say things without love for our neighbor, we close ourselves off from God (even momentarily) and open ourselves up to attacks against which we would otherwise have been ready to defend.


Blogger olympiada said...

Thank you for the definition Virgil. You are so much farther along than me. You are preparing to become a priest. How is it going?

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Jim N. said...


I'm personally appreciative of this post. Thanks for your reflections.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous vandrona said...

Olympiada - I don't know how far along I am. I have plenty of moments when I say things I should not and then, looking back it hurts to see how mistaken I have been. It's just that I take the time sometimes to look at myself and I try to be as honest as I can in seeing my shortcomings. That also gives me a chance to see how things (including my actions) should be.

in Christ,

10:16 AM  
Blogger Lissa said...

I have been meaning to make a comment on this for a long time, but I never sat down to write one before. I, too, have some disagreements with the Wikipedia definition.

I like your point about God being in our audience at all times, as that is quite true even when we forget it. Otherwise the same language that would almost universally be considered foul would be acceptable, say, among a group of high school guys that choose to use strong language with each other casually. You addressed this situation nicely.

However, there is also the other extreme, where people choose to be offended by words that are intended kindly and are indeed normally acceptable. Take this cross-cultural example from the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. In Japanese, if you wish to offer to show someone your own garden, what you say translates essentially as "Would you like to glance at my lousy garden?" If you wish to request to see someone else's garden, however, the translation is closer to "May I observe your gorgeous garden?" Yet another word choice is expected in the case that you are speaking of the temple gardens: "May I hang my eyes on your most exquisite gardens?" If you use the second phrasing when inquiring about the temple gardens then you are being impolite, despite the fact that it sounds very considerate to the English learner of Japanese. Certainly the different words are something that people must learn if they learn Japanese, but if they make a mistake then I do not think it should be considered profanity just because the audience might be offended. Impolite in the Japanese context, sure, but not profane.

Your conclusion is perhaps a bit more broad than how I would have defined foul language. I have certainly been hurt by people's words even when they did not use "curse words," yet I would not accuse them of using profanity just because they were speaking with a lack of love for me. (Not that attacking someone with "appropriate words" is nice, just that it is different from foul language.)

3:00 PM  

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