Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Profanity Insanity

1996.  Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem.  I'm in for baby #2 when an Israeli midwife asks me in Hebrew:
"G'veret... lama hanashim hadatiyot ainam m'kallelot k'shehaim yoldot?" 
Which means: Lady, why don't you religious girls curse when you're giving birth?

Which is a question you'll only hear in a delivery room in Israel!!

But it did get my wood burning.  People curse for a variety of reasons.  For shock value.  To express frustration or anger.  Out of habit.  But there are a wide variety of words that can shock and express frustration that are not considered profane.  When pushed, tired, overwhelmed, or mad, your brain will reach for the most satisfying bad word it can find and offer it up to your mouth.  Whatever comes out of your mouth will depend on what is stocked in your brain.

If you're not reading it, saying it, listening to it, or thinking it, it's not in your inventory, and your brain will come up with the most satisfying word that IS there (like "idiot," "stupid").

The other thing is: self-control is a huge part of being religious.  Think before you eat.  Think before you act.  And yes, think before you speak.  Is it nice?  Is it true?  Is it kosher?  So even the act that seems impulsive of having your brain spontaneously reach for a nice juicy word, is often going to be deferred by that process.

There are lots of reasons why profanity is bad for your soul, and bad for the souls of your listeners.  I don't think anyone would argue that it advances one's spirituality.  And many people that swear sometimes find that they slip or goof in uncomfortable situations, or in front of their kids (just taught junior a great new vocab word there).

What I don't really understand is why people curse when they're NOT pushed, not overwhelmed, not trying to insult someone in the worst way they know how.  Just in calm, casual conversation.  What is that about?  And, if you've gotten used to profanity, do you just get jaded?  Like, do you find yourself reaching for even more incendiary speech when you really need to make a point?  Then what?

Thoughts?
30 comments

30 comments:

  1. Oh I am SO the wrong person to comment on this. I have the mouth of a sailor. I also may have been known to take someone else's God's name in vain. My kids have staged an intervention (!!) and I'm working on making amends and finding other, nicer verbal ways to express my frustration :-)

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  2. As someone who used to speak like a sailor, I would say that the three main reasons that I, or my peers, would use profanity in a casual way, was 1) almost everyone around us, including our "role models," were speaking or writing that way 2) the culture we were imbibing, be it music, video, television or the written word, was chock full of it 3) it presented a sort of "I don't care about social niceties and convention" facade, which, as part of a counterculture subculture, was very important to us at the time.

    I have a friend who used to work in Hollywood, and she told me that no one would take you seriously unless you used profanity in your daily speech. So there's that.

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    1. Rivki, it is interesting to note in which professions this type of talk is expected and in which professions it is inappropriate.

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    2. Had to go anon for this comment - I worked for a large law firm in Los Angeles and the team I was on was very much into casual cussing. It started with one very senior associate and because he was doing it, all the junior associates joined in. People I knew well, who never swore in casual conversation, picked it right up because it was expected and almost necessary to be part of the "club." It was very uncomfortable for me because 1) I was the only female on the team and 2) I wasn't willing to pick up the language so I just felt completely out of place. I didn't last long at that job...

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    3. Not surprising... amazing how people are such followers sometimes...

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  3. Should be workingApril 17, 2012 at 8:25 PM

    I guess I would distinguish profanity from vulgarity, or put otherwise REALLY bad words vs. 'naughty' words. Really bad words would, for me, include slurs and words that imply hatred, and I don't use them. I will admit to using 'naughty' words, i.e. vulgar terms, where there are more polite ones, but this is very contextual. I wouldn't do it in a professional situation, I might use naughty words with friends to make a story funnier or for rhetorical effect. Somehow curses that invoke God are not what come to mind when I'm frustrated, so that sense of 'profane' doesn't apply in my case. Or does saying, "Oh, God!" at bad, or good, or surprising, news count as cursing?

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    1. :) no but it is kinda taking God's name in vain.

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    2. I like your differentiation between bad and "naughty" words.

      When you said "to make a story funnier" it made me think of Arrested Development - have you ever watched that show? All of the swearing is bleeped and the bleeping is SO bleepin' funny. Same with Modern Family. I think swearing is so overdone nowadays that either using a substitute word or bleeping it is actually much funnier than the swear word. Just my opinion, of course!

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    3. See, that's sort of what I meant when I talked about what's next, after being jaded. Interesting.

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    4. Should be workingApril 18, 2012 at 1:18 PM

      Yeah, um, on the 'name in vain', now it is embarrassing to me that I asked that question because I do know that. But then, is that different than 'cursing'?

      For me it is more important that my kids understand the subtle differences in contexts and spheres of life, and so learn to understand when different kinds of speaking are appropriate. Like screeching with excitement or disappointment is fine on the soccer field playing around with friends, but in the classroom obviously is not. Likewise using certain 'naughty' words in smaller circles of friends is ultimately not a big deal for me, but they must use appropriate vocabularies and ways of speaking in other contexts. But I have a feeling that a more literal Torah-observant view would be focused instead on yes-or-no approaches to using certain words, whereas for me context is more important.

      Learning self-restraint in speech is not at all just religious, for instance it's part of the secular American preschools we've experienced--exactly the procedure [usually in retrospect for the 4-yr-olds] of considering whether saying something is nice, true, and appropriate for the situation. (It's not the case in other countries that this is part of preschool curricula, as I learned when we lived abroad last year.)

      Separate question: Do Orthodox families get more mileage out of the commandment to honor your father and mother? My kids are scrupulously polite and absolutely lovely, I am told by other parents, at their friends' houses, but at home we get plenty of backtalk, door-slamming and rudeness. It drives me crazy, and we obviously work on curbing this behavior, but the fact that ALL other parents think my kids are so polite and well-behaved makes me think I shouldn't freak out too much on how they sometimes act at home. Is it different in your homes, and do you invoke the commandment to get it to be so?

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    5. "Learning self-restraint in speech is not at all just religious, for instance it's part of the secular American preschools"

      What about after preschool? The vast majority of public school kids (age 10) are allowed to watch movies loaded with expletives. How are they to stop there? Of course it will creep into their vocabularies.

      "Do Orthodox families get more mileage out of the commandment to honor your father and mother?"

      I hate to make it sound like I am living in Leave it to Beaver but yes. Don't get me wrong - my kids fight with each other like mad, and definitely express frustration or passive-aggressive annoyance to us. But there are very clear rules about honoring one's parents and there are certain things that are considered "normal" in your average American home that my kids would never do: yell at us, say "I hate you," say "NO," call us names, outright refuse a request...um I won't rule out door-slamming :)

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  4. ^---- I could have written the above comment. LOL!
    I think how I grew up and the circles I ran in cursing wasn't seen as "cursing" so much as slang. Unattractive, perhaps... but not defaming. If one wanted to "curse" someone that would have been made known my context and tone. I realize in orthodox circles it's not the typical to use the common English "curse" words, but many then again I think people can sometimes be very cutting in a way I'm not used to. As in they dont mind coming up to you and telling you just what they think. So I guess some things are religious and some are cultural. Though I admit that neither cursing nor telling someone just what you think of them are particularly spiritual qualities. I ALWAYS feel bad when I curse in front of the kids and I would never want them to pick up my ugly habit!

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    1. I didn't mean "cursing" in terms of "may you turn into a snake" but rather vulgar speech (I define that rather broadly - let's just say any word you wouldn't want your 9-year-old using). And yeah - the Torah prohibition of "onaas d'varim" - hurting with words - is definitely applicable here. Both are wrong. Just because one is more socially accepted in some circles than four-letter words doesn't mean a whit.

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    2. I understand what you meant lol. I didn't think that you meant as in casting a spell. ;)

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    3. Just got some Harry Potter on the brain!

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    4. Should be workingApril 19, 2012 at 7:25 PM

      Ahem, another pop-culture reference that I know less about than Ruchi . . .

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    5. I know very little so I make the most of what I know :) My kids actually insisted I read HP. After the first two, I couldn't continue.

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  5. I don't think censoring your speech is exclusive to any one religion or denomination or even to religious people overall. "Whatever comes out of your mouth will depend on what is stocked in your brain" only pertains to people who really don't attend to context or propriety or social rules.

    As you know, the Torah has specific korbanos designated for the post natal mother, specifically to remedy any curses or oaths made while in labor. So I think saying things one might regret while in labor is considered quite normal by halachic standards.

    In addition, I'm having trouble with these general expectations of laboring mothers. If there's one group of people who should be excused for what comes out of their mouths, I would hope it would be laboring women. - MP

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    1. M, I agree with your first point. What was interesting to me (since I hadn't really thought to much about it prior) was that the irreligious Israeli midwife was noticing a trend that she wanted to understand. No expectations per se, just an existing pattern.

      I disagree with your second point. Even people who attend to context, etc will slip sometimes. How many secrets have been slipped and leaked, in families, professions, government? If it's in the brain, there's a very real risk it will slip out.

      Re: the karbanos, as far as I know that is for an "oath" that she won't have any more children due to the pain. You could certainly speculate that the idea could be broadened, but that would just be speculation. In any case, whether it's "normal" or not notwithstanding, my point remains that if it's not in the brain, it's not on the lips. Again: no expectations, just a reality.

      And: epidurals!! Yay.

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    2. I don't know if I agree with the point that if it's not in your mind, it won't ever come out. I never swear, and especially never use the F-word. People in my family don't either and since I am a mom of young kids, most people I associate with never swear. BUT...

      When I was in the transition stage of labor with my second son (no drugs), I had to get in the car and be driven to our birth center. Sitting up was the most painful position for me and I was completely out of my mind with pain. It was not rational, but I wanted my husband to pull the car over and he wouldn't do it (rightly). Finally I just let loose with the F-word - not at him, but just "this hurts so f'ing bad, I am DONE!" The drive to the birth center was maybe 3 minutes (it's around the corner) and I had the baby barely 20 minutes after getting there.

      In orthodoxy would that really be considered as a sin? Is there really no "pass" for laboring women for these kinds of things? I think if women made the rules there would be! ;-)

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    3. Should be workingApril 18, 2012 at 1:25 PM

      All right, very naive question here. Does Judaism even recognize the 'f' word as a curse? It's not about God directly. I suppose you could say it's disrespectful, in its 'meaning', to one of God's gift to human beings, namely procreation and sexual love. But is it then the word that is the problem or the attitude of disrespect?

      My husband is not a native English speaker, and in teaching a class once, when he hadn't been in the USA very long, and somehow had to talk about excrement (it was part of a theory of nature or something, no kidding, I can't remember exactly how it came up) he realized as he got to the sentence that he didn't know the 'proper' word for that, so he apologized and then used the vulgar word to say what he had to say. But the word itself in that context is not meant with disrespect, it's just the only word he knew. So is there really a BAD power in words themselves, or is it instead just in the attitude with which we use them, or with some words it seems impossible to use them without incorporating the disrespect or disgust or denigration that they seem to include (this is the reason that slurs are to me the biggest 'curses', because the slur evokes the whole history of hatred)?

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    4. As a doula I must confess--the client i had that cursed the most was an Orthdox Jew. (This was before I was observant) and I just stood their shocked. For some reason I thought they didn't know "bad' words. But boy did she know a lot. lol

      And to my further honest it made me like her. Cursing is very gutteral, much like natural birth. it just brings up all the ugly and beautiful all at once, and sans bashing someone personally or attacking someone, I think cursing/yelling/screaming/moaning/complaining isn't just normal, it's healthy! Letting go of control in labour is how it works. If you can't feel free to go a little crazy you're not going to have more pain. That isn't to say that all women will curse! Some will just say or think or do unusual (for them) things. You never know who you will become. Filled with passion, quiet and determined. Neither one is wrong or right in my opinion. A lot more than just birthing a bay is going on during labour. You're also birthing you're emotions, fears, anxieties, past experiences of both hurt and joy... it's a HUGE transition. How could it be anything by guttural and messy?
      Just my personal observations of being with many women before during and after the labouring process. You know what the funniest/coolest part is? Many women are completely unaware of their behaviour during labour afterwards. They wont remember having said things, done things or even much of anything but this dream-like state.
      So when my clients curse I don't think "yikes' or "that's naughty", I just think their are going through a lot of emotional stuff and it isn't really any of my business.

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    5. I have to say that I strongly disagree with your statement that "Letting go of control in labour is how it works!" I've been through six labors and the ones where I was the most in control were the least painful and most fulfilling. I had a nurse tell me, after I delivered my sixth, how impressed she was that I didn't curse or even scream at all! I went completely inside myself, breathed and thought about how fortunate I was to be having a normal, healthy baby. It was an amazing experience for me.

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    6. Becca, firstly I don't believe that men or women make the rules. I believe God makes the rules, and he made both men and women and has both male and female qualities.

      Also, God himself follows the rules. In the Torah, God never the uses the word "treif" which is a negative word. He says "the animal that are not kosher" - a lesson to even use more extra words (which the Torah generally doesn't do) in order to retain "clean speech."

      So it's not a "sin" per se - it's more like a character trait.

      And anyone who reads publications with expletives or watches TV/movies/listens to the radio (basically most humans alive today) are going to have profane speech in the brain. The degree to which that will slip out depends on the exposure, the intensity of the provocation, the "normalcy" of that kind of speech in your social world, and the strength of the self-control mechanism within that person.

      For you, it took a huge provocation to let whatever small amount was in, out. Does that make sense?

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    7. SBW, I think there are definitely certain words that have come to be regarded as profane, even though some didn't start out that way. Yes, the Torah says not to covet your neighbor's jackass, but there is no self-respecting translation around today that is still using that translation because the urban dictionary has lent a whole 'nother thing to that word.

      The "F" word was never neutral, even when used literally, so has vulgarity built right in. Same with nearly every word I can think of. "Hell" completely depends on usage. I use it when describing the afterlife, but never in casual conversation.

      I don't thing the "badness" of the word depends on whether in invokes God. I think it's about using your mouth in a vulgar or low way, when your mouth can be used for beauty and building and spirituality.

      At this point any word that has any degree of connotation involved, I just avoid. But you're right, as in the hell example, that context is telling.

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    8. Ruchi: yes, I think that is a very good explanation of your beliefs in this area, thank you for taking the time. =)

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  6. Should be workingApril 18, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    Just want to add a little more to my question about whether the problem is the disrespectful attitude vs. the word itself. When my son was a baby, sometimes when it was diaper-change time I would cuddle him and say adoringly and with kisses, "Oh, now you are a smelly, smelly little baby! You very smelly little thing!" And I meant it full of mommy-love and not insultingly, obviously. So I guess I mean this is an example of how what one says is not only a function of the words, but the context and how they are meant (granted the latter can be hard to gauge in a lot of adult, real-world cases).

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    1. Well. Smelly is not, in and of itself, so bad. My older kids used to call my baby a "fatso" (which she was) and now that's she's older and talking a bit, I told them to stop, because it's an insulting word. Agree with you that it's a lot of context and hard to gauge. Good example.

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  7. As a an angry, rebellious teenager, I too had the mouth of a sailor. When I returned to Orthodoxy, it seemed obvious to me that cursing would no longer be a part of my vocabulary. It was just a given that that kind of restraint was a requirment and I always assumed that others saw it the same way. Fast forward many years and I have discovered that this, unfortunately, is not the case. My own husband, who is an amazing and actually very disciplined person in so many ways, curses a lot. I made it clear early on that I didn't want to hear that language (because then I start thinking it, even if I don't say it) and he tries to respect that. He certainly wouldn't curse in front of our kids. I think it mostly comes out in his work setting...he's in the food industry and claims it's the only way people listen.

    I once heard Dennis Prager talking about cursing in movies and he seemed to feel that it was okay for kids to hear as long as it was in a context where that speech would be appropriate. His example was a soldier getting shot. I disagree with his premise that that would be what would naturally come out of any single person's mouth because if a person doesn't know those words, they won't use them no matter what the circumstance. But even more than that, I can use myself as a proof that a person can control themselves even under extreme conditions and even if they know those words. I've had four epidural-free labors and I did not utter a single vulgarity during any of them.

    I think in this day and age people curse unprovoked partly because they don't want to feel restrained and partly because it's just become so accepted and "cool". Just my thoughts.

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    1. DP: wow. I do disagree with him there.

      "But even more than that, I can use myself as a proof that a person can control themselves even under extreme conditions and even if they know those words. I've had four epidural-free labors and I did not utter a single vulgarity during any of them."

      Wow. I love that.

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