Thursday, September 30, 2010

Faith Works 10-2

Faith Works 10-2-10

Jeff Gill


Do You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?




It humanizes them.


That's the publicist answer, usually, if someone actually has the nerve to ask about a celebrity and cursing. When you're in a setting that is surrounded by cameras and microphones, with a sense that there's little said that isn't scripted (as in written in a script by writers on staff), it's hard to think a curse word is entirely an accidental phenomenon.


I exempt Joe Biden in this category, a very unscripted politician.


Last week Brandy and Maks on "Dancing With The Stars" were getting interviewed after their routine. Brandy has been a sweet young innocent for about fifteen years now, and apparently is trying to transition to hot new rap star, so she gets regularly "bleeped" in the taped segment. 8:00 pm hour, opening of the show, and the Lovely Wife and I look at each other with a mix of irritation and frustration.


Then the Lad says "Why is she doing that?"


Why, indeed?


We have tried to raise our son not in a bubble, but with a clear sense that obscenity is bad, rude, and a sign of sloppy thinking mixed with careless behavior, akin to running across traffic without even looking. The idea that it's a moral failure is more (to us, at least) an index of the problem, not the source of it. Clean up your act, and your language will follow.


But he's also learned that it's a more serious matter to casually flop a mention of God into your speech. Back when "Trading Spaces" was a Saturday night regular in our house, the "reveal" moment could on one level be neatly divided into two categories. There were the "Oh, my gosh!" reactions, and another that phonologically was very closely related.


Usually, you could tell who would say which, but sometimes you'd get surprised, either way. I'd say "Oh, my gosh" was maybe one in three or four at best. The Lad started learning that referring to God in that way was not the end of the world, or an occasion for cringing horror, just a raised eyebrow of "was that really necessary?" He figured out almost on his own that if you're going to talk about God, you really shouldn't do it casually, but respectfully, as you should in talking about any person.


The Old Testament includes in the Ten Commandments the idea that "taking the Lord's name in vain" is wrong, and we teach that in our house. Swearing may or may not include that proscription (I recall a bumper sticker years ago that said "That's not Jesus' middle name" and almost driving off the road I laughed so hard), but they relate.


On the other hand, there's a fair amount of class and culture caught up in what makes for polite language versus curse words. When the French Normans invaded and conquered the Anglo-Saxon English, we began a social stratification that is still evident in our speech: you may urinate and defecate and even copulate while consigning someone to perdition, and still be accepted in polite (Norman) society. Use the Anglo-Saxon versions of any of those, and you will . . .


Well, there's the problem. Are we actually better off for having smashed those social boundaries? I'm sure it will help Brandy in her career re-invention as a not-so-young, not-so-innocent women in hip hop. In general, not so much. The F-bomb has become conversational punctuation among both genders and down to lower grades of school, to the point where it's the odd sidewalk where you don't hear it.


What I think is worth teaching, alongside a decent respect for those names that are held dear by some, of us is what my former junior high English and Latin teacher said early in 7th grade to all us young, um, creatures. "It's not so much that swearing is wrong, ladies and gentlemen, it's that curse words are a sign that you just couldn't think of anything else to say. Put some effort and thought into it if you want to let someone know you're unhappy with them."


I thought of her when that commercial ran with old Marine sergeant Lee Ermey as a not-so-good therapist: not a swear word in it, but the impact was all the clearer.


Not to mention more precise!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; cuss him out at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.