Public Swearing

Public Swearing February 5, 2017

Swearing - Jay_&_Trey_Cartoon_Swearing enwikipediaLike a dust storm blowing across the prairies, swearing has entered the common parlance in America.

Or, maybe it’s truer to say swearing has been part of ordinary speech for quite a while now, but of late, the veil of pretense about not swearing has been ripped away.

The Veil. That’s the buzzer that bleeps out the swears that celebrities use on talk shows, while a little blur appears on their mouths. They are all smiling and laughing, even about the bleeping. Their swearing is casual, and humorous, and part of having a good time together.

Another part of the Veil is ratings. Movies – and TV programs – come with warnings about content, nudity, violence, and swears. Parents can choose to program their TVs so that children cannot watch programs with swearing.

In the early days of TV there would have been no need for any of this. Nobody swore on Lassie, or Father Knows Best. Nor did the comics swear. Jack Benny or even Jackie Gleason, that tough lunch-bucket guy who could express his outrage without swears, knew not-swearing was required.

But, wow! How things have changed!

Donald Trump used swears liberally in his speeches. The Federalist clocked him in a year ago, dropping 7 F-bombs in 74 seconds. And in article in Time in June, 2016, Melissa Mohr wrote no one comes close to Donald Trump. The country is “going to hell”; he doesn’t “give a damn” about various things; he’s going to “bomb the sh-t out of ISIS”; he might talk to the Chinese about trade by starting off, “listen, you motherf-ckers.”

Actually, Presidents are known to have sworn right on back through George Washington, so this is nothing new really, except – they never did it in public speeches.

Melissa Mohr went on in her article, to say that “ Trump’s swearing is actually a canny rhetorical strategy, whether he realizes it or not.

Studies have shown that people who swear are more likely to be believed.  .  .  .  In 2005, Dutch psychologists  found that .  .  .  .  when study participants read political blog posts with and without obscenities, they had more favorable impressions of—and would be more likely to vote for—the cursing candidates.”

Mohr noted that Bernie Sanders authenticated himself with a bit of swearing. But for Hillary Clinton the standards were much stricter in public speaking, so she could not. She did, however, make a much-aired ad about Trump’s swearing, showing young children watching TV and listening to his F-bombs. It’s likely that ad didn’t help her, because everyone knows kids don’t listen to politician’s speeches on TV. And, in fact, most people do swear.

Fathers and mothers swear when they hit a wall of frustration. There’s a difference between swearing when you hit your thumb with a hammer, and swearing when you are about to hit someone in the face, and kids understand that difference well.


What do we make of Jesus, who laid out this, in the Sermon on the Mount: Again, you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not swear falsely .  .  .  .  ’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is God’s footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

As with murder and adultery, which Jesus addresses right before this, he is stretching the meaning of the words. The prohibition against murder becomes a warning about anger in general. The prohibition against adultery becomes a restriction on lust, declaring even looking at a woman lustfully to be an offense. (And women do hate being ogled by random men).

And the prohibition against swearing becomes a warning against a swollen ego, a warning that we remember our limits, we who cannot make the earth or ourselves or the other whom we are cursing. Swearing is not, as sometimes is thought, an act of directing malevolent attention from God toward those we hate. We simply do not have the power to control the powers of God, or to inform God’s attention. It is our malevolence we are focussing, our egos which have chosen to hate.

So Jesus’ prohibition is not really against certain words, the bleeped ones, as if they had magical evil powers. His prohibition is against the foul mood from which those words arise, the mood in which you and I accuse one another of evil and malevolence.

We do this all the time. Left or right, we spurn one another and feel righteous in our disgust. Many swears are really not about malevolence, they are just the words you say when you are thwarted from what you want. But some really are curses.

Our need to curse out our enemies flies in the face of Jesus’ insistence that we develop within us an unprovokable center, from which we can even bless our enemies and do good to those who spitefully use us.

Donald Trump did not make America, and so he cannot, in Jesus’ understanding, remake America, either by swears or by saying God Bless America. But – he attended a Prayer Breakfast and talked about his TV ratings, and he lied about those ratings, to glorify himself. Hmmm. If we honor Trump, we are honoring an insignificant, because ego-centric, power.

Madonna dropped a lot of F-bombs at the Women’s Rally in DC. Perhaps she dented the restrictions on women’s public speech. It could be fair. Or it could have been Madonna’s ego at loose there.

But more than erasing certain words from our speech, we need to stop nursing our angers, which are the manifestation of our fears, as if they were our more authentic selves. We can’t program TV so kids will be free from our angers. And we bleep the wrong words, words that do not convey our real angers. The real swear words are: Dagos, faggots, the N word, Jew-dog. Trump works to make Moslems a new curse-word.

Why erase our anger and our angry words from our speech? Because it’s clear already that the bullies aren’t heroic, and cannot save us. They’re scared.

And we’re all endangered by their anger.
Image: Jay and Trey: Cartoon Swearing.

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