UI 056: Is Profanity a Problem?

swearing-294391_640I think words are powerful.  The words we use affect ourselves and others.  This phenomena happens all the time.  Whether spoken or written, words carry tremendous meaning, and those meanings have profound impact on the human mind and soul.

When my wife expresses her love for me, and uses words that cause me to feel loved, admired, and appreciated my whole being is lifted and elevated.   It is as though those words renew my soul for further action and striving.

On the other hand, loved ones can use words that can cause us to feel worthless and pathetic.

Words can hurt, and words can heal.

In the Torah, the last book is named Devarim… which in Hebrew means “words” – the second word of the first verse in the fifth book “These are the WORDS” “Eilah HaDevarim“.  But Devarim can mean something else in Hebrew –  BEES (devorim).  Yes, like bees that collect pollen and make honey.  Why?  How are “bees” and “words” related?  Well, just as I mentioned bees can produce wonderfully delicious honey and they also have magnificently organized colonies “adas devorim” (bees nest) – Judges 14:8 – (adas is usually translated as “nest” and has the same root as eidah the Hebrew word for a “congregation” or “community”).  There are many wonderful qualities to bees, just as there are many wonderful qualities to words.  And also just like words, bees can hurt.  They sting, and when they attack they swarm.  Bees can use their organizational skills to swarm and destroy a large animal.  Words can also be used to sting or even destroy if used effectively. (Thanks to R’ Lapin for first making me aware of this midrash).honey-bees-326337_640

I have already done a podcast and some writing on Lashon Hara “Evil Speech”  (Episode 45: The First Step to Doing Good).  So please listen to that podcast as I discuss the perils of gossip, ad hominem rhetoric, and other harmful speech.  I have received some great feedback from folks who have really took that ultimate issue to heart and began applying to their daily life.  Thanks for your feedback, and making the world a better place.

But no, Lashon Hara in that regard is not the subject today rather I just want to focus solely on profanity because I was:

1.  Shaken by the Los Angeles Mayor’s use of it deliberately and publicly on a live broadcast after the Kings Stanley cup victory.

2.  Even further shaken by some of the heat Dennis Prager received on air for his making note of the Mayor’s language and denouncing it publicly.

I, like you perhaps,  basically expect profanity in most PG and up rated movies.  I expect it in rap music.  I expect it in certain establishments or arenas (like a pub or sports stadium).  And i think that is sad and disappointing.

It was only a few decades ago that profanity was considered “profane”.  That is to say: vulgar and obscene, and not for use in public or in the proximity of children.  Profane language was understood to be irreverent and indicative of poor manners and inappropriate social skills.  Foul language actually brought about an automatic nonverbal expression of disgust upon many listeners, as if they had just smelled something foul.  Of course people my guess is that people were more religious and less secular then.  The ubiquity and normalcy of profanity is necessary a consequence of secularism.  If there is no God, then there is no concept of holy.  And if there is nothing is holy, then nothing is profane.  I understand why it happened, and why individuals engage in profanity (I was typical atheistic offender), but now I don’t agree with it and I’d like to help other overcome it.  Today it seems as though profane or vulgar language (e.g. sexual terms, bathroom terms, or blasphemous terms) are so normative that now it takes a bit of courage to stand up against.  And I am thoroughly against…

I am curious.   For those who think profane, vulgar, or obscene language is a good thing to answer a question… What good does it do?

Or if you are unsure answer this: Is a society better or worse for no longer recognizing there is appropriate and inappropriate language?

If you answer is liberty driven, meaning you think it’s great people are free to express themselves in any manner, then: Is there anything someone can do or say to express themselves publicly that you find inappropriate and should not be allowed?

The argument Dennis Prager made on his show to one caller was something like this (paraphrased and condensed, not verbatim ~ the whole exchange is on the podcast.  For more subscribe to pragertopia.):

Caller:  Dennis you are religious hypocrite and should forgive and tolerate this language.

Dennis:  Is there any language the Mayor could have said that you would have found inappropriate?

Caller: No.  The mayor was excited and expressing himself.

Dennis: So if the man went up on stage naked, you would be okay with that?

Caller: No.  But now you are taking it too far.

Dennis: No.  I find obscene language too far, and you find nudity to far.  We agree that in public expression there are lines that should not be crossed, but ours are set at different points.

Dennis is correct.  Prager’s question is not a reductio ad absurdum argument.  Rather it truly illustrates the point that most people have standards they have set for public behavior, and one of our problems stem from the fact that our society has lost it’s civil agreement on where that line is now.  Regardless, almost everyone will agree that at a certain point someone’s words or actions can be harmful to themselves and/or others and should therefore be discouraged and disavowed.  We must determine where that line should be drawn… otherwise we will have no idea what should be avoided.

The rabbis say:

The first step to doing good is to avoid evil.

But if our people do not realize something they’re doing is wrong, how could they avoid it and begin doing what is right?

And Psalm 34 teaches:

11Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. 12Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 14Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

So again, the questions are: Do you know what is good or bad speech?  What good does your language do?  If you are using language that does no good, then it may simply be benign… but profanity, it could be argued, is labeled as such for a reason.  Profane language is vulgar and obscene and potentially harmful.

Maybe you disagree.  Maybe you think it does no harm.  So then would you speak with profanity when addressing a judge in a court of law?  Or would you use vulgar language to express yourself on a job interview?  If you were trying to gain the admiration of someone on the first date, would you do so by using foul language? Of course not.  So then how can you say profanity does no harm.  If you say it in the private, then harm to others is averted (temporarily), but I would argue that it still pollutes you, your thinking, and your experiences.

If you use vulgar language (even alone) then it affects your state of mind and alters your reality.  For instance, I could be alone in my car and furious about someone driving rudely.  I have a choice:

I could scream to myself in the car about this “F___g A_____le M____r F_____r!”  Which will only get me further riled up about the situation and when I replay it my mind that scream and that language will be color of the memory (hence it is “colorful” language.)

Or I could angrily say this person is “Rude and inconsiderate and probably narcissistic”.  At which point, I typically start to realize that the rude driver is also another human and not all that unlike myself at times… and besides I’m sure I’ve cut someone off before and did not even realize it.

So which language (which only I could hear) will bring about a better state of mind?  Which one will remember the situation more vividly and emotionally?  Which results in mental images that will be brighter, louder, and more disturbing?  Which language will escalate were it to happen again?

Let’s face, the words we use to describe ourselves and our world have an element of self-fulfillment.  The way you describe yourself, your experiences, and the world around you determine and predict your likelihood of success and happiness.


I can only think of two ways obscene language can do possibly good, but the risks are great in both cases for making things worse:

1. When used to strike fear in your enemy or assailant (i.e. You see a man attempting to mug someone and use foul language to get his (as well as others) attention and/or to scare him off.)

2. When used with delicate precision to shift a persons mental state (e.g. Like an Ericksonian technique used often by Tony Robbins to “scratch the record” being played in a listeners mind)

Now both of these situations require caution and should not be used as guidelines for every day life.  Don’t go around thinking everyone is a threat and barking vulgarities at them.  IF you do see something be careful like a mugging, be aware that your language may actually cause the situation to escalate.  And definitely if you are not trained, experienced, and KNOW ( I mean know – not feel, guess, or hope) that your use of profanity will shift your listeners mind in a helpful direction, then do not do it!  You will likely lose your audience, and he will lose respect for you.

If you were to think of profane language as though it were another taboo action, then perhaps you would no longer be cavalier about it.  Maybe it would help to think of using obscene language as if it were smoking crack.  My guess is that you would not find it okay to smoke crack in public.  Hopefully you also realize it is not wise or beneficial to smoke crack in private.  Why?  Forget legalities.  Why would you not do it, nor would you want to witness anyone doing it?  First of all you would lose respect for that person.  They are not acting in any way that is descent nor are they acting with dignity.  We all know (the crack smoker included) that smoking crack is terrible for a person.  And this is also why you would never do it in private.  Folks lose their lives to this drug.  Sane and intelligent people lose their minds to a drug.  Human beings lose their soul to this drug and become only a shell of their former self.

The same can be said of profanity, though albeit in a more subtle and socially acceptable way.

Can you go for 24 hours without saying one word of profanity?  Can you go a week?  If not, then you have a problem.  Just as an alcoholic cannot help himself from taking a drink, so to with those who have lost control of their speech.  I used the same argument when speaking about lashon hara (as learned from R’ Telushkin).

If you have lost control and use vulgar language even when you are trying not to, then I can almost guarantee you think using profane words as well.  The words have corrupted your mind like a drug.  And once they have done that, then your speech is impeded.  How many times have you had to stop yourself from using obscene language?  Well, for those to whom you were speak to at those times… they likely noticed.

There are slight pauses where I catch people trying to correct their word choice mid sentence.  They are so accustomed to thinking in vulgarities to describe their experiences or thoughts that they find it difficult to express themselves fluently.  Our brains work at a certain speed and pace, and when it is joggled to catch, eliminate, and substitute certain words that are routine – it breaks the pace of your thinking and speech.  Often times people hear this as insincerity, deceit, or unclear thinking.  None of these traits you want associated with yourself should you be on a date, job interview, or sales meeting.

For folks who think they are successfully filtering out their vulgarities, and especially for those who have no filter what so ever, I would argue their entire human experience is peppered with obscenities and vulgarities.  This is not a path to a deep and meaningful life.  Like the crack addict, the profanity addict loses their ability to think with clarity and depth, articulate their thoughts fluently to others, and inevitably will they will likely feel a loss of dignity.

I could go on, but hopefully you are convinced at this point to no longer engage in profane language.

So lets look at solutions:

1.  Become Aware.

  • Just like in the Twelve Step programs you must recognize you have a problem.
  • When do you use profane language?
  • What vulgar words do you use?
  • Why did you use them?
    • How has it limited you to this point?
    • How has it harmed you up to this point?
    • Who else has been harmed?

So after you make your list of words, the context of their use, and why you should not use them:

2. Create Compelling Alternatives

  • Next to each vulgar expression write at least two new expression you can use as substitutes.
  • Practice.  Really, put yourself in the situation… and rehearse.  Yes it will feel awkward, because it is new.  If you were to rehearse using your boring old vulgar and obnoxious vocabulary you wouldn’t find it nearly as awkward – evidence you need rehearsal time.

Yes you may be at a loss on how to express yourself without profanity.  That’s okay, we already know you have a problem. So do the best you can with the limited lexicon you have and:

3. Research and Development

  • Research, learn, and adopt new words.  You will find there is an ocean of undiscovered words waiting for you to reel them in and utilize them.
  • HOW?  Here’s how you expand your vocabulary:
    • Read.  Read often.  Only read quality literature.  And routinely Read ALOUD.
      • You don’t need to read aloud all the time.  But at least 3 times a week set aside some time 10, 20, or 30 minutes to simply read some great classic literature aloud.
    • Suggested writings and authors:
      • The Bible or at least Psalms (No profane words in Hebrew)
      • Shakespeare
      • Dickens
      • Dostoevsky
      • Poe
      • Melville’s “Moby Dick”
      • and I love the creativity and insight of Mark Twain.
    • Read and learn how to pepper your language and create drama without the use of profanity by reading classic literature.

Now that you are actively guarding your speech (shmiras halashon),  you must also learn to actively guard what you hear (shmiras oznayim).

4.  Guard Your Ears

  • Just as I said in episode 45, if you hear gossip you should redirect or leave the conversation.  Same is true for when you hear profanity.
  • Prepare and rehearse what you will say in redirecting or exiting such situations.
  • Avoid music, movies, or even literature which that has profanityhear-71330_640

5.  Just Start

  • To make any change, any improvement you must simply start.  Many people quit before they ever even start.  Don’t be that person.
  • If you wanted to improve your body and make it strong and healthier you would likely start with diet and exercise.
    • Now, in theory after a few months of diet and exercise you would think you would be dying to just be lazy and binge eat.  But anyone who has committed to a program knows the opposite is true.
    • Its hard in the beginning, but once you get started… Build up some inertia… And begin to realize the benefits of your follow through… You not only lose many of those old desire – YOU HAVE AN AVERSION TO THEM!
    • Guarding what goes in you mouth is very similar to guarding what comes out of it.

  • Be patient, and merciful, and honest with yourself.  Stick with it and you will improve.

Just as diet and exercise can make your body healthier and stronger, so to ridding your linguistic diet of profanity and gossip and exercising your mind and vocabulary you will build a better, healthier, and stronger character.

Your ability to speak is a gift.  Nothing else on Earth can do what we do.  Nothing else can create the pain or the pleasure we can through simple utterances.  Realize your gifts and do your best with them to make them a source of goodness, decency, and dignity – for yourself and others.


Did you enjoy this article?
Share the Knowledge
Get free updates

Speak Your Mind