It all started in the religion lesson. The whole class was sitting on floor mat waiting for Sister Mary Frances to select that week’s religious story. I was sitting next to some kid whose name I have forgotten. Though I can’t recall the kid’s name, I distinctly remember not liking him. He had an annoying voice, always had food stuck between his teeth, and smelled of cheese.
Anyway, while Sister Mary Frances perused the bookshelf before her, good old Cheese-Smell next to me was entertaining himself by pounding another kid on the thigh with his fist. The other kid quietly told Cheese-Smell to knock it off a few times, but all he got in return was grin speckled with what appeared to the remnants of a chocolate chip cookie. After the fifth punch, the kid gave Cheesy a firm shove and ceremoniously told him where to go in the bluntest and crudest way possible. The book Sister Mary had pulled from the shelf slipped through her fingers and thudded to floor. She turned around and looked at the kid who had sworn as if he were some brimstone demon that had just emerged from the fiery depths of hell.
Sister Mary exploded into a sudden blur of movement after that. Before anyone could even blink, she had the offender firmly by the ear and was dragging him from the classroom, much to the delight of Cheese-Smell whose Chips Ahoy grin now spanned the width of his face, as endless and mocking as a desert horizon. Three microseconds later the whole class had piled into the boy's room and was standing next to the sink breathlessly awaiting Sister Mary Frances's next move.
“I’ll teach you about using such filthy words!” the nun seethed into the foul-mouthed kid's ear. “A good washing-out of the mouth with soap should do the trick!”
She darted her eyes about looking for a bar of soap but found only the liquid soap dispenser screwed to the tiled wall. Next thing I knew, Sister Mary was ramming the poor kid's head against the tiles and ordering him to open his mouth. Rather than resist, the kid opened his mouth and allowed the good Sister to pump the dispenser a few times and scrub the remnants of offense from the inside of his mouth with her bony fingers.
Sister Mary Frances’s soapy exorcism did not traumatize me or the offender, but I have held mixed and conflicting feelings and beliefs about profanity ever since that day. On one hand, I know foul language is base, vulgar, and unnecessary, and I go out of my way to use it sparingly because I do not wish to be boorish and uncouth. I know language is a big part of consciousness and base language tend to keep one locked in base consciousness. On the other hand, I don’t really think swearing is such a terrible sin, and I see no problem in indulging in a little earthy language once in a while if the circumstances warrant it.
At its most fundamental level, I know using foul language is wrong. At the very least, it’s suboptimal. Readers of this blog have surely noticed that I seldom employ profanity in my posts. I apply the same behavior in my day-to-day life as well. I do this mostly in the name of common decency, politeness, and courtesy. Refraining from profanity in public is also my way of demonstrating my self-control. The world is crude and vulgar enough on its own without me adding to it unnecessarily. Besides, I am forty-seven years old, and I have always been put off by the site of other mature men, or women for that matter, pointlessly cussing up a storm in public. I find all of that rather obscene – it's like watching and listening to mischievous adolescents trapped in middle-aged bodies.
Nevertheless, I don’t have a problem with profanity when it appears in films, books, or real life as long as it seems appropriate to the subject matter. This does not imply that I condone glorified profanity for its own sake, but there are certain genres in art and situations in real life where I feel vulgar language is not only acceptable, but perhaps even necessary.
Take films, for example. I doubt the characters in a gangster film like Goodfellas would be believable if they didn’t speak the way gangsters speak. In fact, I have always found films in which the profanity has been censored or dubbed out to be far more offensive than the original profanity-laden versions. For instance, I once watched a version of The Usual Suspects that had all the swearing dubbed over to make it fit for primetime television. In the famous police line-up scene, the crooks in this dubbed version all step forward and repeat the line, “Give me the keys, you fuzzy socksucker!”
Fuzzy socksucker? Now I implore you, which is more obscene, the original – which I am sure you can infer – or its dubbed replacement? I mean, what kind of sick individual sucks fuzzy socks for crying out loud? I faced this challenge when I wrote my novel, too. Should I let my characters swear in the book? I decided I should if the scene in question called for it. Doing otherwise would render the narrative ridiculous and unbelievable.
I feel the same way about goody-goody types who scream words like “Fudge!” after they have banged their thumbs with hammers or have dropped thirty-pound cement blocks on their toes. Maybe these people believe not swearing makes them more divine and maybe it does, but I suspect something almost inhuman in such stern, puritanical behavior. Nonetheless, I understand some people are just not wired for cursing. I have been married to my wife for nearly twenty years, and in that time I cannot recall a single trace of foul language coming from her mouth. This is not because she is a saint or because she consciously restrains herself. She simply seems incapable of swearing. It doesn’t seem to be in her DNA.
Unfortunately, the profanity strand is quite thick in my DNA. Though I use foul language infrequently, there are times and places when I let loose a little, so to speak. I have a weak spot for ribald humor (mostly of the Shakespearean variety) and often enjoy banter during which indelicate matters are discussed in an off-color, yet good-natured and funny manner. I also tend to assign rather colourful names to people who attempt to kill me or damage my car while I am driving. In addition, I never yell fudge after I whack my thumb with a hammer. And though it happens very rarely, I am not overly squeamish about telling off people who are rude, disrespectful, or cruel.
I repent the foul language in most of the cases cited above, but I feel the deepest pang of conscience when I include the Lord’s name in the obscenity. On those occasions, I know I have trespassed on the sacred. Though I engage in this kind of cursing less frequently than I used to, it still slips out occasionally. Whenever it does, I take immediate notice of it and vow to do better in the future.
Overall, I regard profanity as a suboptimal form of communication, yet I recognize that there exist times when cursing remains, paradoxically enough, the most optimal form of communication. To me, profanity boils down to a matter of time and place. Some situations and circumstances seem to warrant it, but even then, I know it is not the best option. Regardless, I personally do not think profanity is a horrible, unforgivable sin. We shouldn't overindulge in it because that could be habit-forming and keep us locked in a lower level of consciousness; however, obsessing over profanity seems unhealthy and counterproductive to me.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. If so, I welcome your views regarding the subject. If you believe I am totally off-base, you could always find Sister Mary Frances and have her pay me a visit to give my tongue a good scrubbing. Who knows? Perhaps it would cure me for good.
Oh . . . one last thing. Though I generally disapprove of cursing and make a conscious effort to reduce foul language in my day-to-day life, I would have no issue telling Cheese-Smell-Chips-Ahoy-Smile where to go were he ever crossed my path again . . . and I would do it with a clear conscience to boot!