The ingratitude of cussing
Last semester I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” in the Globe Theater in London. As the mutilated Lavinia walked onstage, her tongue severed, a chill crept across the entire audience, threatening to extinguish the candles lit throughout the theater.
What would it be like to never speak again? Through Lavinia, Shakespeare still continues to confront audiences with this question. When was the last time you and I expressed gratitude for the gift of speech? When was the last time we examined the ways in which we squander our gift of words?
What a gift it is to utter the words, “I love you,” to articulate the weight of our sufferings with another person and allow him or her to bear our burden alongside us. Whether you are Julie Andrews or an overly confident singer at TGIT, nobody has the same voice that you do. It is utterly unique to your person.
The power of language already separated man from other animals, but through the Incarnation, the gift of language is elevated all the more. By uniting Himself with humanity, the Word reveals the dignity of human words.
However, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that speech is a gift, not a right. In a world that prizes freedom and autonomy above all else, the concept of decorum or ethics in speech sounds oppressive and archaic.
Furthermore, if the universe is meaningless and formless, words are arbitrary with no real meaning. Why would it matter whether a person cusses?
Before answering this question, a few distinctions should be made. The first is that not all sins of speech are created equal. There is arguably much greater damage caused by gossip than by dropping the F-bomb. Although we ought to prudently exercise fraternal correction in one another’s speech, we also must be aware of any logs in our own eyes and make sure that all correction stems from authentic charity.
Another distinction exists between vulgarity and taking God’s name in vain. These should be considered separately, especially because the latter is a violation of the second commandment. In a post-Christian world that attaches no meaning to the words “God” or “Jesus,” one of the simplest but realest acts of faith is the refusal to swear in God’s name.
The obligation to approach God’s name with reverence is natural to all monotheistic religions. But what’s so bad about cussing? After all, humans seem to have an innate need to express their intense reactions of shock, anger, or happiness; a four-letter word often does the trick.
But human persons are made of so much more than their instincts. You have a choice as to how to react when you stub your toe or receive good news, even if that nearly instantaneous choice is the result of habit rather than rumination.
The words you say mean so much more than a cat’s yowl. Swear words have their effect because they signify something beyond the words themselves.
Even though its meaning is often disregarded, at its core, the F-word is a degradation of a profound gift. If we want our culture to reclaim a respect and awe of human sexuality, the respect must begin in our everyday language.
This is not to say that we should censor all swearing in art and life. One of the best examples of an effective use of vulgarity is in “The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene.
In Greene’s novel, the self-loathing Sarah Miles refers to herself repeatedly as “a b*tch- and a fake,” asking God how He can find anything to love in her. But as her faith deepens, Sarah’s tone changes. In her final paragraph in the book, she remains dramatic and conflicted, but refrains from cussing as she writes, “I’m a phoney and a fake.”
Greene doesn’t shy away from vulgar language to illustrate the state of Sarah’s soul. But by exchanging vulgarity for tamer language near the end of the book, he subtly points to the effects of grace on an anguished soul.
Similarly, there is the powerful anecdote from Flannery O’Connor’s life when she declares that if the Eucharist is “just a symbol, to hell with it.” Her language appropriately illustrates the gravity of the Catholic belief in the True Presence.
But although there are situations in which vulgarity is appropriate, those situations are far rarer than we seem to think they are. Our call is to employ the gift of our speech in a way that neither minimizes human suffering, nor degrades human dignity.
We never know whether the words we speak will be the last ones people hear from our lips. May our language express authentic gratitude for the gift of our tongues.