I’m sure you’ve noticed the proliferation of profanity on television. The ubiquity of the f-word on dramas like Succession is stunning. The queen of all cuss words crops up so frequently that I started counting.
I shouldn’t have bothered, somebody had beat me to it. Turns out, Succession treated us to 2,071 f-bombs in four seasons. The average per episode was 75 and the Season 3 finale featured 119.
Logan Roy, the Rupert Murdoch figure in Succession, used the f-word 402 times in four seasons. Brian Cox, the Shakespearean actor who played the Roy patriarch in the series, admits that, after playing Logan, he finds himself cursing a lot more than he used to.
As I tallied up the f-bombs, I noticed profanity was rarely used by characters outside the Roy clan. The only exceptions to this rule were characters like Stewy Hossieni (Arian Moayed), a powerful equity investor who rivals the Roy clan in cash and influence. In Succession, it seems, the privilege to curse at will is granted to a select circle.
“In Succession, it seems, the privilege to curse at will is granted to a select circle.”
This makes sense. Profanity can be a powerful cultural signifier; it tells us who has the power. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden cuss like sailors behind closed doors; I suspect their subordinates do not.
Profanity is a bonding agent. When I curse, I signal solidarity with “my” people and my contempt for the opposition. Some people feel reassured by my coarse talk; others are offended. Both responses are part of the game. To work, profanity must be transgressive. If my cursing doesn’t rattle a cage or two, it’s hardly worth the trouble.
This helps explain why white evangelical Christians are rarely offended by the insults and low-grade cuss-words Trump tosses around. Trump inserts himself into the public debate like a huge middle finger. Some are deeply offended. Others are titillated. Everybody pays attention.
Profanity is a megaphone, an intensifier. When I move from “get over here” to “GTF over here” I have added a new level of intensity to the message.
Cursing was common in pre-war America but was reserved for men in stressful social situations. The cursing of sailors was proverbial. But soldiers cussed too, as did male athletes, police officers, longshoremen and brick masons. So long as they bit their lips in front of women, children and the general public, tough men with tough jobs were expected to use tough language. Profanity was wielded like a weapon and worn like armor.
In HBO’s The Wire, both police officers and street hustlers utilized a constant stream of profanity. In one extended scene, Jimmy McNulty, a white Baltimore cop, and his Black partner, Bunk Moreland, communicate solely through various formulations of the f-word while investigating a crime scene. Tough men navigating a tough world by talking as tough as humanly possible.
In the ”you-can’t-handle-the-truth” scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men, Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) argues that men like him live above conventional morality. They protect the “nice” people from chaos.
“My existence,” Jessup tells a young military prosecutor, “while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”
“The speech of the men who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was laced with profanity, even though most of them identified as evangelical Christians.”
Profanity signals a willingness to say what must be said, and to do what must be done. Cursing is battle language. It signifies sincerity and deep dedication to a cause. The speech of the men who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was laced with profanity, even though most of them identified as evangelical Christians. They spoke like dangerous men on a dangerous mission.
Liberals and progressives cuss too, of course, and for similar reasons. In a culture war, combatants on both sides need all the verbal armor they can lay hands on. Profanity is therapeutic. Utilized selectively, it commands attention.
A quarter century ago, I heard Tony Campolo goose an audience of American Baptists in Wichita, Kan. “I have three things I’d like to say today,” Tony began. “First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
I now realize that was one of Campolo’s standard openers. “I get what he’s saying,” a pastor friend commented after the sermon, “but I wish he’d find a less objectionable way to say it.”
But was there a less objectionable way to say it? Campolo was challenging the core of our faith. Do you think Jesus is applauding you for not using naughty words, if you have hardened your hearts against the poor?
“Do you think Jesus is applauding you for not using naughty words, if you have hardened your hearts against the poor?”
Those who quote the anti-cussing passages in Scripture are tempted to reduce Christianity to a purity cult. Swearing figures prominently in a list of prohibitions against smoking, drinking, dancing and extramarital sex. Avoid these pitfalls, the purity cult suggests, and you’ll be in God’s good books.
“Swearing” meant something very different in biblical times than it means today. In his book Nine Nasty Words, English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, linguist John McWhorter argues the original form of profanity was sacrilege, the abuse of sacred language. In an age when privacy was virtually non-existent for most people, public excretion and indiscreet sexual behavior were too commonplace to evoke shock. If you don’t believe it, check out Martin Luther’s casual profanity.
Cursing changed, McWhorter says, when from the Renaissance onward, a favored segment within society achieved a measure of privacy. As the public role of religion waned, references to excretion, intimate body parts and sexual behavior became increasingly taboo (at least among the nobility). When the middle-class exploded in Victorian England, the avoidance of vulgarity was associated with gentility. This was the age when “a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking.”
But, as the copious use of the f-word in our public entertainment suggests, we’ve grown comfortable with casual references to excretion and sex talk. In the 21st century, McWhorter believes, a new form of taboo has emerged. The only language beyond the pale now is derogatory references to subgroups based on racial, religious, ethnic, gender and sexual identity.
This may be true in New York City, where McWhorter lives, but in large swathes of Red America, a sensitivity to cultural diversity is denounced as “political correctness.” In Texas, most of us long for the good old days when white Christian folk could “otherize” minority groups to our heart’s content (as long as we didn’t cuss excessively while doing it).
“Is it OK for Christians to curse as long as we are enlisted on the right side of the culture war?”
So, is it OK for Christians to curse as long as we are enlisted on the right side of the culture war?
If we define ourselves as fighters, a little profanity will toughen us up, arm us against the foe, clarify which side we’re on, foster solidarity within the ranks and signal contempt for the opposition. If you’re gearing up for a fight, profanity is a faithful friend.
But Jesus doesn’t like it. He calls it hate speech. So does Paul. And James. And that’s true even if the standard cuss words never cross our lips. Cursing is verboten for Christians, not because it is filthy, distasteful or common, but because it hardens our hearts.
St. Seraphim of Sarov (1784-1833), a Russian Orthodox monk, told his disciples that “refusing to harden your heart is a radical act.” Radical, rare and essential.
In the concluding pages of Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky relates a parable-dream in which the Lamb of God doubles down on Matthew 25:
Then Christ will say to us, “Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!” And he will say to us, “Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!” And the wise and prudent will say, “Lord, why are you welcoming them?” And he will say, “O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.”
Notice, Dostoevsky says “Christ will say to us.” We are the “vile creatures” Jesus welcomes into his kingdom. Not one of us is worthy. That’s why forgiveness is non-negotiable. To the forgiving and the forgiven alike, profanity is useless.
Alan Bean serves as executive director of Friends of Justice. He is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.