Are bad words bad?
I have been thinking about this question lately. I started a new job a few weeks ago. My teammates use the f-word liberally, which is a change from my last job. Also, my dear friend Zach has debated whether the name for his new blog (welcome to blogging, Zach!) is too colorful after he realized it made it harder for his parents to enjoy it.
I discovered profanity with the rest of my peers in sixth grade, though my first use of it was actually in the home. In a conversation one evening about bad words my uncle, who along with my dad would swear as a matter of course but rarely with vulgarity, asserted that I was a "good boy" and thus did not curse. Surging with the beginnings of adolescence, I tremulously replied "Hell no!"
That year I remember many profanity-laced arguments in the back of the school bus, and from that conversation on I did not hold back when I was alone with my dad. However it was not long before he was unnerved by my sudden coarseness, and he asked me to stop. This request of course shed light on his own practice around me, and prompted a resolve for reform on his part as well.
I found myself in a similar position when I worked as a camp counselor the summer after my freshman year of college. I felt it was of crucial importance that I was the same person in front of my charges that I was after they had gone to bed. Otherwise my persona in front of them was a lie, as was all of my teaching to them, and I had betrayed my boyhood self as well.
This conviction I felt and still feel very strongly. As a rule of thumb, anything that is shameful to do in front of children or in the knowledge of children is shameful, period. How then could I justify profanity? I could not, and I resolved to stop using it.
There are other arguments against swear words. Paradoxically, while they feel the most natural expressions of emotion, because of their versatility they are among the least expressive words. The f-word can be any part of speech and mean almost anything, and therefore in itself it means very little. If the goals of language are expression and communication, then we are better served by thinking a little harder and finding words that convey our meaning more precisely.
You could also argue that a degradation of speech leads to a degradation of thought which leads to a degradation of character.
All of that said, I do not get too upset when people swear around me. For one, I understand the appeal and trust other adults can weigh the pros and cons of their actions. For two, moralistic insistence on such standards can crowd out much more important subjects. Zach himself remembers far too many conversations in his evangelical upbringing about the matter. I consider it ultimately a minor if still important issue. Though I am concerned as the actions of those around me will inevitably influence me to a degree, often it is just not that big of a deal.
And I still curse. Almost always it is under my breath when no one hears me but God, and it slips out in the face of some undesirable surprise or development. In this as in many areas I am unable to hold myself to a standard that I think is good. To be a hypocrite is human, and I should be understanding with others as well as with myself in this regard.
But even such lapses strengthen my conviction that it is good not to curse. I find that doing so makes insignificant things significant, such as when I make running late in the morning out to be a crisis, and significant things insignificant, such as when something as sacred as sex is made into a joke.
May I have no part of it.