Profanity is an odd thing when you think about it. The word “shit” has a power to it that “defecate” does not have. Why?
Part of it is history and class. Shit started as a low-class crude saxon word, defecate a refined high-class latin word. But somehow those connotations of class and sophistication had morphed into something more basic. How and why are things that I don’t understand.
I don’t think R. Eric Tippin, columinst at Relevent Magazine understands either, but he feels the need to opine on whether or not using such verboten words is really a big deal. The problem is that he doesn’t provide any way of understanding what profanity is.
Tippin calls profanity “unholy speech.” Perhaps there are invisible markers around the text that I can’t see, unwashed heathen that I am, but I don’t know what makes one word pure and another impure.
Tippin acknowledges that “profane-ness” shifts with time and place, so at least he acknowledges that this lexical impurity is a cultural construction. But he just moves on from there, as if profanity were so obviously impure that it needs no explanation.
There is no deeper level here. Convention is morality. How language is perceived by the community is the soul of the matter. I suspect this is where you inevitably end up when you consider your entire life to be a witness to Jesus.
At this point, it becomes impossible not to quote Tony Campolo:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
As an interesting side-point, there’s our neighbor E. Stephen Beurnett at Christ and Popculture, considering whether or not Christian fiction should be “grittier.” He points out that many Evangelicals already feel that their popular fiction is sufficiently gritty:
First, many readers think tamed-down, swear-word-free crime fiction is the “unsafe” stuff. They love reading about a severely decomposed body floating in a cabin’s Jacuzzi (an actual scene from Brandilyn Collins’s Violet Dawn). To them, that’s thrilling. It’s gritty. It’s edgy.
Yeah, that’s the America I know. You can show a shooting spree on a prime time show, but you can’t use one of the seven words. I can’t really blame Evangelicals for being part of the culture.
Burnett goes on to simply ask, why? Why introduce profanity into the literature? To which I guess I’m responding, why not? Is this aversion to profanity anything more than a tribal marker for the Evangelical sub-culture? If not, and given the fact that the sub-culture seems to be splintering, shouldn’t some authors within Christian publishing be allowed to try expanding their vocabulary?