Communication Breakdown

penguincoffee.jpgI have a problem with words. Actually, that’s not altogether true. I really have quite an affinity for words. I adore them; it’s the Legalist mentality of human beings which really disgusts me.

These are the people who have no logical basis for categorizing certain words as “bad.” I mean we’ve heard it all our lives, right? From society, from our peers, from mom and dad: “That’s a bad word!” they say. “I better never hear you say that again, young man!” and “Where did you learn to talk like that?!” Exclamations like these we’re usually punctuated with some kind of corporal punishment involving long, hand-held, flat boards with holes drilled in them to facilitate aerodynamics. Such actions were usually in tandem with a trip to the water closet where the hapless child was forced to ingest soap.

But why does something as seemingly trivial as the choice of one’s words illicit that kind of response. Why do we categorize some words as “bad” while others are deemed acceptable? Who makes these decisions anyway? As a kid I never had the chutzpah to ask my mother and father why some words were deemed appropriate, while others were never under any circumstances to pass one’s lips.

Now that I’m all grown up, I ask people this question all the time. In particular I ask my brothers and sisters in the faith why certain words are bad and why we subsequently punish our children and chastise those of our in-group for using “sentence enhancers.” Simultaneously, we will make hasty character judgments about those in the out-group who utilize “foul language” (I call it “bird” or fowl language) with impunity. Nobody—and I mean NOBODY—has a satisfactory answer.

That’s because there’s no rational explanation for why the words in question are “bad.” NONE! The concept is manifestly absurd. This would be obvious to the bad word police if they stopped to think about it. Take the word, “shit,” for example. Why is that a bad word? Why are word substitutes, which have same meaning, deemed any more appropriate? I mean, what’s the difference in meaning between saying, “I’m gonna take a shit,” and “I’m gonna go number two”? Somehow, no one thinks it wrong if my five year old son pipes up in church and says, “Daddy I gotta go number two!” Nobody bats an eye, and I’m sure that his exclamation would illicit a few chuckles as well. But if he says, “Hey pop, I gotta take a shit!” the legalists will hit the floor rolling, and their reaction won’t be Holy Spirit induced, I can assure you. Jaws will drop; heads will turn; more than likely his dad will have hell to pay, because everybody in the room knows where he learned to talk like that.

True hypocrite that I am, I will be joining the Legalists in their shock and awe over my son’s language, but it won’t because he did anything wrong. It will be because I know if he continues to use such language, not only will it reflect on him, but it will reflect on me. The end result will be nuclear fallout of some sort from my in-group, and his. This is despite the fact that there’s no difference in meaning between the word, “shit” and the apropos word substitutes: crap, poop, defecation, fecal matter, scat, dung, feces, and brown trout come to mind.

To be fair, I do understand why the Legalists deem certain words as “bad.” It’s because people have used these words (as that militant atheist, George Carlin says) “to hurt one another.” That’s why we call them curse words. Cursing another person is wrong. Since those words have become synonymous with cursing, they are categorized as “bad” and so should never be used. That’s the thinking behind all this talk of “bad words.” Somehow, it never occurs to the Legalists that I can curse someone quite effectively without ever using a “curse word.” Every time I say hurtful things to my children, I am in effect, cursing them and the damage inflicted is far worse than those “embarrassing” times when I got pissed and let one slip. But I digress…

People who aren’t familiar with biblical languages don’t realize we have the vestiges of bad words used by some of the very prophets and apostles who penned the Bible. For example, the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:8 uses the Greek word, “Skubalon.” The word is translated, “dung” in the King James Version of the Bible. It is the strongest word available in the Greek for designating human waste. The English equivalent is—you guessed it, “shit.”

A while back a pastor I know of pointed this out from the pulpit. He didn’t water it down either. The result was the absolute shock and awe of his congregation, several of which got up and walked out of the service. Perhaps if he had substituted the word “feces” instead of “shit” he wouldn’t have gotten into trouble. Of course, he would’ve been lying, but with legalists, lying would’ve been preferable to the unvarnished truth.

With all the brutality and suffering in the world, the Legalists are more worried about their comfort than they are with the truth.

We’re more concerned with our cultural baggage. For example, what’s the difference in meaning between the statements, “The cancer survivor had both tits removed” and “The cancer survivor had both breasts removed”? Or the words “bastard” and “illegitimate”; “piss” and “urine”; “pussy” and “vagina”; “cock” and “penis”? Two of the words from the list I just mentioned are even found in the Bible and were used by men of God. So how come using them invites stunned silence (especially in Christian circles) and a subsequent reprimand. If you persist in the use of “bird” language, you will be ostracized, or shunned (to use a Christian term) from the in-group to the “outer darkness.” Such is the small minded, legalistic Pharisism of both secular and religious Fundies.

Not much has changed in the 2000 years since my Lord and Savior arrived on the scene; we’re still majoring on the minors: When it comes to the inconsequential we most certainly give a shit. Conversely, we bastardize the things that matter. Jesus lamented this fact as well when he called the Pharisees blind guides who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.


~ by mythough on October 23, 2007.

15 Responses to “Communication Breakdown”

  1. file under who knows?
    great point…….

    i never understand how language, if not specifically used to hurt someone managed to become black and white

  2. Most bad words, in my world, earned the negative status through the circumstances surrounding the usage.


    Spread em’!!

    I’m gonna give you a ‘knuckle sandwich’.

    None of those may sound bad to you.

    To this day ‘knuckle sandwich’ scares me.

  3. In case no one knew, I love to fucking curse, and just for the reason Max points out. It makes no fucking sense that some words are a-ok, but others are considered “naughty.”

    “Knuckle sandwich?”

    Cops said that?

  4. My Lord And Savior…now those are some fucking bad words there. Or how about “God Bless America” or “ nation under God.” And what’s a “militant atheist”?

    The world is loaded with bad words, Max. It’s all a question of your world view.

    BTW, what’s a legalist?

  5. fairlane- no, it was my dad- he was a great guy but the fear was real. Oh yeah he used to say “Beat it or I’ll give you a ‘knuckle sandwich'”. I had a vivid imagination. The childhood thought of a knuckle sandwich literally freaked me out.I conjured images of fists being force fed into my mouth.

    By The Way- Good Post.

    I’m with Spartacus- what’s a legalist

  6. I’m not sure about “legalist.” I think he means our propensity to police each other even when what we’re policing is mundane.

    Controlist is maybe another way to say it. We love to control other humans. All of us have those tendencies, but some are either unaware or unable to stop themselves.

    “Militant Atheist” is easy. Max and I agree that some Ahteists are every bit as bad as the Fundies. Believe or not believe, I personally don’t give a shit, but it’s those people who need everyone in the world to tow the line that get on my last fucking nerve.

    At times atheism comes across like a religion, and the “Believers” are just as fanatical as those they supposedly hate. Hitchens comes to mind. Everything he talks about involves religion in some shape or form. Almost like he’s trying to convince himself.

  7. You said it, Spartacus: One person’s so-called trashy language is another’s treasure. For most of us, it’s just a matter of “taste” or “cultural leftovers.” (And I hate leftovers.)

    With regard to the “legalist,” I’m referring to those who are so zealous for the law (Torah), that they have no love for other human beings. Amazingly, the term can also apply to secular fundamentalists. But from a purely ecclesiastical point of view, legalists are those who think they can earn their way into God’s economy. How do they do it? By keeping the fucking rules.

  8. Did you just say “Fucking?” Holy Fuck!

    Are you Fucking serious? Don’t Fuck with me. You honestly meant to write “Friggin,” and got caught up in the moment, right?

    Fucking incredible. I’m at a fucking loss.

  9. Fairlane-

    I take some umbrage with the term “militant atheist” because, IMHO, I have yet to read or hear from one who has tried to proselytize me into “believing” in atheism. I just think writers like Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris and Dennett are pissed at being pissed on by “militant deists” who want to remove any and all doubt about who’s God rules; who feel that the natural rights of man are subservient to the will of a deity who will evaluate our life-long behavior and reward or punish us based on some set, and unknown, criteria of what is moral. If that’s what a militant atheist is then, you may as well call me one, too.

    At it’s core atheism is non-belief; a lack of faith in any deity. As an atheist, I don’t necessarily care to convince and convert one who believes in a god, as I care about challenging their belief system. I see nothing militant in asking for solid, irrefutable and independently testable proof a god exists or in pointing out the hypocrisy of those who feverent believers, like that Mother Theresa as Hitchens did. It’s healthy and necessary criticism. The fact is, one’s faith in a god or lack thereof is not beyond reproach. For our fundamentally secular Constitution to work, we must allow for open and rational critiques of all ideas — including religion.

  10. Good post. I sort of agree. I don’t think there’s anything biblically wrong with using curse words. However, I do think that there are certain words that should not be used in some places or contexts. It’s not that I’m afraid that God will be mad at me or anyone else, it’s just a matter of respect. Some words simply have a negative connotation, and it’s admittedly due mostly to our culture. I’ll give some examples.

    You mentioned sexual organs. Would a woman rather go to the doctor to have her pussy looked at, or to have her vagina examined? Obviously, it’s the latter, and it’s because the former carries with it a sexual connotation. “Vagina” is the correct physiological term for the body part in question, while “pussy” is a slang term that is generally used in a sexual context. In order for you to make it socially acceptable to use “pussy” in all situations, you would have to magically erase all of the times when it was used sexually in the past. In other words, this is just how it is, and there’s not much we can do about it. This is the same with many other examples you brought up. Why not “shit” versus “feces” or “fecal matter”? The latter examples are the accepted scientific terms. The former is another slang term that carries with it a negative connotation. Same with “tit” v. “breast”, “bastard” v. “illegitimate”, etc.

    Now, this is not to say that you can’t use the term with your friends who are comfortable with it. I’m just saying that there are reasons that some of these words are not acceptable in certain situations, and there’s not much that we can do about it. There’s a big difference between joking with your buddy about being a bastard when he makes fun of you for bowling a gutter ball and telling an adoption official that you’d like to adopt a “little bastard”.

  11. I make a similar argument now and then. It’s a pet peeve of mine, I guess. Humans assign meaning to words. Like, if we all decided “fairlane” was an insult or a curse word, then it would become so, even though “fairlane” is currently somewhat acceptable in polite society.

    “You effing FAIRLANE! Get outta my lane.” You know, on the highway….

    But then I guess muttering “fuck” wouldn’t bring that same satisfaction if it weren’t taboo.

  12. Spart- The need to point out “atheism” is no different than some Fundie feeling the need to tell me about their love for Jesus.

    Personally, I don’t give a shit. You can believe we were created by a Magic Toothbrush for all I care. As long as you don’t tread on me or others, believe what you want.

    For most people, religion gives them something in which to believe, and most importantly it gives them hope. In a world, for the most part, devoid of both, I have no problem with it. It’s those who are hell bent on convincing everyone they are “Right” and everyone else is “Wrong” that makes me hanker for a little bit of the Ultra-violence.

    I don’t buy into any “Ideology.” They are all traps, and they are all run by people with an agenda.

    Why waste time trying to convince someone that their god/gods are not real? Do you honestly think that’s how this battle will be won? You think you’re going to convince Fundies that God is not “dead” because he never existed in the first place?

    And saying that Atheism is a “non-belief” is a illogical. It is, in fact, a “belief.” It’s almost paradoxical in nature much like a Nihilist who engages in debate with others who disagree. How can you debate if you don’t believe in anything?

    As for Hitchens, he’s an arrogant fuck who supports this insane never-ending war.

    reasic- Again, your previous statement that you are not “funny” continues to be laid to waste.

    Adopting a “little bastard.” That is classic.

    Scarlet- “fairlane” is actually a “dirty word” in ten languages.

    And I’m not so sure how “acceptable” I am in “polite society.” Thus far, I’ve been asked to leave “polite society” every time we’ve encountered one another.

  13. Fairlane –

    I feel as though I’m being a troll on your site and I want you to understand that being cross with you or your guest bloggers is not my intention at all. In fact, I think by me taking this thread in the direction I have, I’ve done you and Max a huge disservice. For this, I apologize.

    The irony in this back and forth between us lies in the title of the post “Communication Breakdown”. Somehow, I don’t think we’re applying the same meaning to the words belief and faith, which I think is making us “cross swords”, if you will. We can discuss the concept of atheism as religion in another forum, if you like, but I think I’m going to “drink the cool-aid” and kill this thread I’m on.

  14. Yes…well, we’ve certainly gotten off topic, but I think if something needs to be talked about, by God, best just get to it. Since I’m the token wingnut philosophical theist I might as well put my two cents in and see if I can pull us even further of course.

    Sparticus, I do believe you’ve hit on something when you speak of belief and faith. Denotatively, those words are not the same, but we frequently use them interchangeably, which is confusing as hell. From a biblical perspective, belief speaks of that which I give intellectual assent to. Faith, on the other hand, is that which governs my actions. In the former, “belief” doesn’t necessitate action. In the latter, action is always inherent in faith. We always “do” what we have faith in. That is one reason why I agree with fairlane on the epistemological question. Whether theist, atheist, or agnostic: All human beings put their “faith” in something/someone and it is that “whatever” which governs our affairs. Even when fairlane says (and I know he’ll appreciate this) “I don’t buy into any ideology,” he gives tacit assent to an ideology of dissent.” So, none of us are without guile here. But the question is does our intellectual assent line up with our faith?

    I also agree with you (sp) that these things need to be questioned. People need to be challenged. And as the noted atheist Dr. Richard Dawkins has said, “religion deserves no special deference” simply because people will get offended (present company included). On the other hand, it’s always a pleasant experience when people can have these discussions without pissing one another off.

    Oh, and Spartacus….no apology necessary.

  15. Sorry it took me so long to respond Spart.

    Bottom line, you’ve read my blog (I’m assuming), and you know I don’t beat around the bush. If I thought you were a troll, I’d kindly ask you to fuck off, and that would be the end of it.

    I’m just blunt Spart, don’t take it personal. In my “real life” I have to write in a very controlled, and “professional way.” Here I get to write what I want, and how I want.

    In other words, if I didn’t want you to comment you’d know, and then I’d simply delete your comments.

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