“You can’t run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.”
My father is an Army veteran, a former auto-body worker, and a retired policeman who for many years worked undercover in vice and narcotics. Needless to say, associating with his friends and colleagues and loitering around the body shop while growing up instilled in me some “colorful” language habits. My vocabulary may be, in certain respects, more expansive than most.
As a teenager, I fell in love with football and played throughout high school. While my expanded vocabulary resulted in discipline in every other area of public education for me and my teammates, profanity was often uttered on the football field and in the locker room by students and coaches alike. Football was a rough sport, with rough men in charge who used rough language.
Among my offensive-line coach’s eccentricities was his habit of dipping snuff by placing it in his upper lip. Another was his chosen method of attempting to refrain from profanity. For a time he decided that his foul language set a poor example for us boys, so he determined to stop. But, instead of using other words or sounds, he would silently mouth the offensive word in the middle of an otherwise audible statement. This led to amusing spectacles. Once, when he became incensed, his whistle dropped from his snuff-stained teeth, and he screamed, “I said to get your [momentary silence while he mouthed the King James word for a donkey] down that [momentary silence while he mouthed a multisyllabic adjective not fit for print] line!”
While still in college, I followed in my father’s footsteps and began my own career as a policeman. Police and military are also known for their culture of rough men and their expanded vocabulary. Throughout my young adulthood my use of profanity was fairly persistent, although, to my credit, I (normally) used a great deal of discretion about time and place. I was mostly successful in resisting the urge in front of ladies and in company with strangers. I labored to keep my speech clean on formal occasions such as weddings and funerals, and in public speaking.
It was in my mid-to-late 30’s that I began examining my life and behavior with more scrutiny. By that time, I was a member of a church and faithful in my attendance. I was married with children. I came to regret my negligent efforts at sanctification, and I began assessing my lifestyle and my Christian faith. Among other things, I paid more attention to my language. I was concerned not only about the effect my profanity had on me and my family, but about how it might affect my Christian testimony.
For better or worse, we are influenced, to some extent, by our culture and our subcultures. Old habits are hard to break.
This brings me to what I consider to be the heart of the matter. Is profanity sinful? Many of my brethren would tell you it is. First, it is important to define the term. What is “profane”? What is “obscene”? Certainly, there are degrees of subjectivity on this, and our acceptance of profanity has changed over time. We Americans see things in print and on screen that we did not before the 1960’s, when the infamous Hays Code, which regulated decency in films, was ignored and finally dropped.
For the 1939 production of Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selz nick wanted to keep Rhett Butler’s immortal final line just as Margaret Mitchell penned it. In trying to get around the Hays Code, Selz nick solicited alternate suggestions from his office personnel. Had he not, in the end, stuck to his guns, the result might have been, well, ludicrous:
Scarlet (pleading): “Oh, Rhett, where shall I go? What shall I do?”
Rhett: “Frankly my dear, my indifference is boundless.” Or: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a straw.”
In defending Mitchell’s original line, Selznick told the regulators, “It is my contention that this word as used in the picture is not an oath or a curse. The worst that could be said of it is that it’s a vulgarism.”
Can anyone seriously contend that anything other than a “curse” word would have better suited the occasion? “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” was voted the number-one movie line of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005.
We have certainly come a long way since 1939. Could anyone imagine, say, President Eisenhower publicly referring to “shithole” countries? Nowadays, few wince at F-bombs piling one on top of another in film and television. Perhaps one criterion we should adopt when judging any word’s usefulness is its frequency. If Rhett had gone about “damning” things throughout the film, its effect at the end would surely have been greatly diminished.
To curse or not to curse? I must confess that the cable version of Smoky and the Bandit, wherein Jackie Gleason’s voice is overdubbed for what seems like half the movie, leaves me highly annoyed. When so many lines are changed, the character himself is altered.
What if George C. Scott, portraying George Patton in 1970, had opened the movie addressing his troops with this fire-breathing rhetoric: “You know, by golly, I actually pity the poor dirty birds we’re going against, by golly, I really do. We’re not just going to shoot the numbskulls, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks! We’re going to murder those lousy Hun poo-poo heads by the bushel!”
Patton himself had to be one of the most renowned and prolific swearers of the 20th century. Profanity permeated his speeches to his men, especially when he intended to encourage them while verbally eviscerating the enemy. Patton’s insatiable hunger for victory, his volcanic disposition, and his enormous ego might have been not only what made him an outstanding soldier and officer, but also what led to his undoing. The man who so emphasized discipline in his troops often lost control of his self-discipline. The British soldier/historian Liddell Hart said that “Patton’s bloodthirsty way of talking . . . was taken too literally by the American troops,” and led to atrocities committed by soldiers under his command.
So, was Patton’s frequent use of profanity merely indicative of his desire to motivate his troops? Or was it instead characteristic of a man who often failed at self-control? Was it both?
I challenge even the most prudish among us to listen to the speech made by Al Pacino as Lt. Col. Frank Slade in defense of young Charlie Simms in Scent of a Woman and come away feeling that the same impact could have been made without the profanity Slade unleashed on the stiffs who made up the Baird School’s disciplinary committee. In the film, Simms is an unlikely attendee of a prestigious and affluent preparatory school. In trouble for not cooperating with the administration concerning an infraction committed by other students (one he may have witnessed), Simms takes a job caring for the cantankerous retired army veteran, Lt. Col. Slade, a character who would undoubtedly be referred to as “deeply flawed” by movie critics and psychologists alike. But after a bond is forged between these two opposites, Slade shows up unannounced and uninvited to defend Simms at the committee’s hearing.
Slade offers up samples of his long list of shortcomings as he lauds the integrity and moral compass of the young man who stands to suffer so much from a committee detached from real-world hardships and working-class values. Slade realizes he has only a few minutes to shock the committee members’ tender sensibilities in order for them to realize the fiasco they are about to condone and the “amputated spirit” they would leave in its wake. Typical of a battle-hardened, hard-drinking, passionate, aged veteran, Slade’s language is violent and rough.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not defending unlicensed profanity. I do not believe that all profanity is inherently sinful. However, it is a slippery slope and can easily become so. If profanity is used as a means of degrading or belittling someone, or if it is done purely to harm another person, then it becomes sinful. (Of course, all such language would be.) But if the intent is to edify or exhort, depending on the time, place, and person, it may be appropriate, or at least permissible.
History and culture can only get one so far. To attempt to discern God’s mind, we turn to Scripture. In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us to “put off concerning the former conversation the old man” and “put on the new man. . . . Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” In Colossians 3, he writes that we should “put off . . . filthy communication.”
Is profanity automatically “filthy” or “corrupt communication”? Surely, such communication extends beyond mere profanity, for I could think of several examples of filthy or corrupt talk that might not include “profanity” at all. But would profanity be permitted if it were used to “edify” or “minister grace unto” those hearing it? Are there circumstances wherein we might use it to encourage people, to exhort them to courage, bravery, or righteous aggression? To do their duty, or to strive for success? Is there a difference between profanity and vulgarity? Or does any use of profanity foster calloused consciences and deadened souls?
After several years of reflection, I have largely stopped using profanity. After studying Scripture and other, more contemporary sources, I have come to the conclusion that using it in any manner that does not glorify God is, indeed, a sin. I do not use it at all in the presence of people I do not know well, lest it become an unnecessary stumbling block. On occasions of lighthearted conviviality with close friends or family, I still use it from time to time.
I can look back at times in my life when regrettable actions were accompanied by hateful profanity. For this I am remorseful. However, I can think of at least one occasion where I used it and do not feel sorry about it.
In March 2013 my father lay in a hospital bed in Gadsden, Alabama. He had been in that bed for several days. The staff had confided to us that they had unintentionally “overmedicated” him on his first day, and he was not responding well. He was 72 then and in poor health. It was a gloomy time. Our family began pondering the worst.
One night, just he and I were in the room. I examined the haggard face of the man who had raised me. Here, again, was the Army veteran, the body-shop worker, the undercover cop with the deserved reputation of being a tough man, one who did not back down from challenges—a rough man with rough language. But at that moment, as he lay nearly motionless in the bed, I saw for the first time a defeated look on his face. It was a mixture of sedated glaze and sorrow. He was supposed to be receiving daily physical rehabilitation services, but the staff was not fulfilling that obligation, so the family had been trying to do some of the work on our own.
With each day his motivation seemed to wane. On this night he rebuffed my initial offer to help him take a few steps around the room. He said he just wanted to lie there.
I walked to the side of his bed and leaned down toward his ear to ensure he could hear me. I do not recall exactly what I said, but the tone was stern and it went something like this: “Look, I know you feel bad. But I also know you don’t want to die lying in this hospital bed if you can help it. I know it’s tough, but you’re the toughest son of a bitch I’ve ever known.”
There was an instant change in his expression. A fire lit in his eyes. He reached out and put his hand on the bedrail and began attempting to pull himself upward. It took a while, and my assistance, but before long he was leaning on me and slowly taking steps around the hospital room. I truly believe it was a turning point.
A few days later he had improved enough to be discharged. The doctor elected to transfer him to an assisted-living facility. I am sure there are many such facilities where fine care is provided, but this was not one of them. After falling on his first night while walking the halls unsupervised and having the toilet we had complained about topple over while he was sitting on it the third day, I drove down and packed his belongings. “We can do better than this at home,” I told the nurse. My father had the old, familiar look of fiery defiance in his eye as we drove to his house.
Five years later, I am proud to say my 77-year-old father is in better shape than he was that night in the hospital. He gets around pretty well. I have not seen that defeated look again.
I am not trying to suggest that my father is alive today because I called him a son of a bitch. All I can say is, in that moment, it was what he needed to hear. Not only would it have been ineffectual to have called him a tough “rascal,” or an “hombre,” or a “fuddy-duddy,” or a “silly goose,” but I truly believe it would have made matters worse.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”