The Humanist Dilemma: Are There Humanist Rules Regarding Foul Language?

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F-ur Letter W-rds: I am appalled by the language used by my teenage kids and their friends, and yet I find myself increasingly cursing thanks to their example. This seems to be a trend, not only among young people, but also as evidenced by all the bleeps on late-night talk shows—and all the things that are not bleeped—as well as the crude terms coming out of our president’s perfectly round mouth-hole.

I was brought up with the notion that cursing was prohibited by the Ten Commandments, schools, parents, censors, and polite company. Has something changed, officially or unofficially?

Is there a humanist position on the use of foul language? I must confess I rather enjoy uttering the occasional expletive, maybe because it feels forbidden but doesn’t hurt anyone (except perhaps delicate ears).

–Soap Bubbles

Dear Bubbles,

You will find support for your new habit in this article, “Swearing is Good for You.”

I too have noticed not only a steep upswing in previously verboten words, but also in the discussion of verboten topics, such as bodily functions and intimate sexual details. Although I’m not a psychologist or a historian, I suspect this stems from the sexual revolution and the pill which freed people not only to have more sex without pregnancy, but also to be open and even casual about it. The days of twin beds in Ozzie and Harriet’s bedroom are long gone. George Carlin created a ruckus saying the words one couldn’t say on the air at that time, and now we have pundits arguing over whether our fearless leader actually said “sh-thole,” which they often pronounce without the -. Yes, for better or worse, times have changed.

I believe the Commandment refers strictly to cursing that involves God, and even that may be just one debatable interpretation of the prohibition not to “take the lord’s name in vain.” (Maybe it actually means not to claim “God made me do it” or “God did that because he was mad about X.” God only knows.) It does not address secular naughty words, which are more of a social convention that varies with the time, place, and players. When I was a kid, in the UK the word “bloody” was a big deal that would get people’s knickers in a twist, and even the euphemistic terms “heck” and “darn” seemed kind of daring. But so were skirts that stopped above the knee.

Although there are no humanist “rules” regarding cursing, our principles guide us to avoid gratuitously offending individuals or groups, which would mean exercising consideration, such as not cursing randomly, in the presence of those who might be upset by it, or in ways that denigrate anyone.

And although expletives can be a great way to express oneself and release tension, overdoing it can dilute its potency. Moderation is a good thing to exercise along with those charged words. So go ahead and enjoy your da-n cursing the humanist way: within reason.