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The other day, in a public place with many children present, I heard a man utter some of the foulest profanities I’d heard in quite a while.

The quality of freedom and of its expression—indeed, the very capacity to maintain freedom in a society—undoubtedly depends on the knowledge and training of individuals and on their ability to cope with the challenges of life with equanimity. Having a civil society, in other words, depends on the individual people in that society knowing how to be civil.

The Baha’i teachings say:

Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer to the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93.

The foul-mouthed man I heard—and all those children heard, too—was definitely not being guarded in his speech.

Some people think of using profanity as the ultimate freedom of expression—yet profanity is socially offensive language. Does profanity produce any social good?

Profanity is a subset of a language’s lexicon generally considered to be strongly impolite, rude or offensive. It can debase someone or something, or show intense emotion. Linguistically, in its older, more literal sense, profanity refers to a lack of respect for things held to be sacred, which implies anything inspiring or deserving of reverence.

Do we really need profanity?

Supposedly these profane words add emphasis, but when used to describe people or their actions the words are typically degrading, not only to the hearer but to the speaker. Often they are used to describe someone who doesn’t give us our way, with little consideration of their own constraints. Use of such words to describe someone robs them of their humanity, objectifies them, and relegates them to the status of “thing” instead of living human being with thoughts and feelings like ourselves.

Certain culturally derogative words do the same thing, especially when used by one race to describe another. We learn these words and expressions growing up, hearing and seeing them used in everyday conversation. That’s why modeling is so important for parents and adults in front of children. If we hear our children use such words, it’s our obligation to let them know how offensive they are. Neither should we accept such language ourselves.

My experience is that profanity is used so often among some adults that it has lost its original impact and shock value. I often overhear conversations where certain profane words are interjected as punctuation, in almost every other word. The words are used automatically, without thinking, without consideration, no differently then adding “the” or “and” to a sentence. What then is the speaker trying to emphasize, and doesn’t he understand that his constant verbal stream of foul language debases his own speech?

Bottom line: I believe, as one who once cursed in my teens and young adulthood, using such words is self-degrading. It showed an uncaring attitude on my part, revealed that I wasn’t consciously or courteously thinking about the feelings of others, and lowered my own standing when others heard me use such words.

We don’t need to degrade ourselves or each other. In fact, we should be lifting up each other with courteous words.

Baha’u’llah felt strongly about courtesy:

O people of God! I admonish you to observe courtesy, for above all else it is the prince of virtues. Well is it with him who is illumined with the light of courtesy and is attired with the vesture of uprightness. Whoso is endued with courtesy hath indeed attained a sublime station. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 88.

Being courteous and not using profanity shows our consideration for every person, and the nobility of their own souls.

Persevere, therefore, with diligence and steadfastness along this path of endeavour. As you do so, strive to perceive the nobility in every human being—rich or poor, man or woman, old or young, city dweller or villager, worker or employer, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The Universal House of Justice, 28 July 2008.

I think of the messengers of God, Abdu’l-Baha and others as good examples of making their strong points in considerate language, courteous at all times. Their strongest words, used for emphasis, may be the expressions “God forbid,” or “Heaven forbid.”

I can think of no stronger words to describe how we should feel about using profanity.

6 Comments

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  • Charles Boyle
    Aug 28, 2018
    Profanity is shorthand, I suggest, to indicating that you are no longer willing to entertain any further discussion on a topic. As such it can have no place in open-ended constructive discourse except that it can punctuate a point, if only by its shock value, and of course over-use voids whatever value it may have. When I encounter someone using profanity in a public place as you describe, I will often intervene and ask them as a favour, to moderate their language which is non-confrontational, and appeals to their sense of responsibility. If they ask me what ...I will do if they don't, I can simply say "nothing, I was asking this as a favour." Often this stops them in mid-stream.
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    • rodney Richards
      Aug 29, 2018
      Charles, thank you for your excellent suggestion and example to all of us, for as is well-known, silence is assent or agreement.
  • Judy Bonamici Cools
    Aug 23, 2018
    Thank you for this, Rodney. I would add that such language is also at times a psychological explosion of frustration on the part of the speaker. They don't generally conceptualize the literal meaning of those words strung together, they just burst out with them rather than channel their emotions into physical expression. I'm not saying it's good or bad, just that it happens. Regarding the other comment of how everyday mild words could be used to hurt: this was the subject of a portion of a fireside given by Peter Khan in the 1970's -- and ...his opinion was clearly "yes." Mild words, even KIND sounding words could be used to hurt someone, to backbite, to inflict harm. We are responsible for our speech as well as its intent.
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    • rodney Richards
      Aug 29, 2018
      I agree Judy, and its a matter of training and often what words we pick up from younger years. Perhaps, as many do, we can substitute non-expletive words that also demonstrate our emotions, or anger, and be less offensive.
  • rodney Richards
    Aug 23, 2018
    Good points Sebastion. Yes, even mild words can be used hurtfully. "A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men," would seem to be the Baha'i principle involved, as well as showing courtesy. A kindly tongue also implies tone, a key ingredient of speech. The goal is to not cause hurt to any soul, although to be fair, we may say a thing in the most kindly tongue and it could still be taken as offensive. Perhaps it's being aware enough to think before we speak, look before we walk.
  • Sebastian Senna
    Aug 22, 2018
    Interesting take. I wonder if one should contemplate the intention and circumstances of such speech in determining if it's truly bad or good. I can imagine that words that did not suffer the privilege of being arbitrarily chosen as "socially offensive" could just as easily be used with more malice and bad-faith than those which did. I imagine that the emphasis in positive expression one could show with such colorful language could easily be construed as better for a society than to use words that are considered socioculturally neutral in a malignant manner meant to disparage someone or something all ...the same.
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