Profanity is everywhere. It’s a rare day when you can go out in public for any length of time without hearing some form of it from fellow pedestrians or blasting from a passing car. Even in restaurants and stores, we frequently hear fellow patrons casually tossing out profanity with complete indifference to their surroundings. Public profanity is so common now that the censorship on mainstream television seems increasingly quixotic. Broadcast TV — once viewed as the source of vulgarity — is now one of the only places where profane language is still partially prohibited.
Now, you may ask what the harm is in this; they’re just words, after all. But at the same time, most of us sense that there is something wrong with it. We know, even if we can’t say why, that constant casual profanity is not healthy nor desirable. It’s a bad habit.
So why should we stop?
In the first place, because there can be a legitimate use for profanity. It’s a way to pack extra felt emotional force into a statement — whether for effect or to let off extreme stress (hence the famous swearing of sailors and soldiers). The trouble is, overexposure to profanity deadens the impact and consequently renders it useless. At the same time, normal speech becomes less effective and makes less of an impact. Like addicts, we become dulled to ordinary sensations and require higher and higher doses to register any effect at all. Casual profanity, therefore, becomes less and less effective while at the same time forcing us to use it more and more to try to make our words carry weight.
Which brings us to another issue. Profanity is meant to shock the listener, but in normal conversation, this is simply rude — akin to constantly shouting at the other person. Common courtesy dictates that in ordinary conversation we should try to make the other person feel reasonably comfortable, while profanity is meant to discomfort the other person. The two are contradictory. The only way a person would feel comfortable speaking with someone who swears constantly is if they had already become so desensitized as to render the profanity meaningless.
Finally, there is a somewhat more abstract problem. It is that what we do (including what we say) affects how we think. Philosophers have been aware of this for ages and neuroscientists are beginning to learn it as well; each time we do something it reinforces a pathway in our brain, making us more ready to do that same thing a second time, and so on. Effectively, our brains are re-wiring themselves all the time.
These connections do not just affect one area, but the whole. As we act a certain way, we begin to think accordingly, and vice-versa. So, the more vulgar our speech, the more vulgar our thoughts, and consequently the more vulgar our behavior and attitude in general. The fact that we’ve grown more free with profanity as our culture has grown more divided and unstable is not a coincidence.
That’s not to say there’s a one-to-one corollary (i.e., more profanity equals more instability); it’s just to say the same thought process and attitude that leads to one also encourages the other.
We were told it all in Scripture: “From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34) and “whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever, holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
In summary, casual profanity is rude, it is psychologically and spiritually unhealthy, and it even ruins the usefulness of swearing itself. For all these reasons, we ought to try to break the habit if we can.
The trouble, of course, is that it is so easy for a word to slip out once the habit of its use is formed, especially in the heat of the moment when most profanity is used. And once it’s been released, it can’t be called back. As Winston Churchill said, we are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.
There are a couple of ways to break oneself of the habit of swearing. The first is simply to practice not saying anything. This is a fairly easy skill to develop: during every day conversation, simply make yourself pause every now and again before you speak (whether you wish to swear or not). When you feel the urge to say something, stop and count to five before you open your mouth. This will help to bring your tongue under your control (which is a useful habit for more than just avoiding ugly words).
Another way, which I have found very useful, is this; whenever you let slip a swear word, counter it with a prayer. That is, if you’re driving and someone cuts you off and you let out three F-bombs, then recite three Our Fathers once you have regained mastery of yourself. This will reinforce your resolution to stop swearing, as well as consecrating your tongue to Jesus, and you will be surprised at how quickly the habit of swearing will drop from you.
Christ warns us that we will have to render an account for every careless word we speak. So let us guard our tongues and attempt to rise above the vulgarity that surrounds us.
Why it’s not ‘harmless’ to let your child use crude language