I don’t think I ever heard my Mom swear. Not my Dad, either. Well, sometimes, when caught in a really bad day, he would say “Damn!” and hit the steering wheel. I do remember that. Otherwise, pretty much never.
Me, I like to drop the occasional F-bomb because it feels right or because I feel a little cooler when I do. I usually use swearing to help convey how amped up I am about something.
Now, I wasn’t raised by puritans. This wasn’t a house in which anything fun was outlawed. It’s just…not how my parents are.
We typically associate behavior as being a personal choice between acting and refraining from action. This is how puritans see the idea of sinfulness: we must refrain from sinning. Because, of course, the choice is sin or not. Act or refrain.
So the studies that link childhood aggressiveness with witnessing outward signs of aggression make sense to us. When our children see violence on TV or in video games, naturally they will respond more aggressively. We can see the influence of aggressive individuals in peer groups as making the group more aggressive. We know this. However, a new study has found that children exposed to swearing demonstrate increased aggressiveness. This doesn’t seem to have the same correlation. A child that is exposed to swearing is more likely to shove someone? This isn’t a one-to-one ratio. This isn’t learning specific behavior through observation. This is observing one thing and doing something different.
Sarah Coyne, the study’s leader, pointed out further:
“And these are not even the worst [profane] words that kids are exposed to, since there are seven dirty words that you’re not allowed to say on TV. So we’re seeing that even exposure to lower forms of profanity are having an effect on behavior.”
So it isn’t the words themselves. It isn’t the F-bomb itself or any 4-letter nasty. And it isn’t the 7 words (some of which aren’t really that bad, let’s be honest). It’s weaker swearing that seems to do it. It isn’t the words. So what is it?
Perhaps we should start by admitting that swearing is, for the most part, itself aggressive. Perhaps a bit passive aggressive, but aggressive none the less. It is about how we interact with the world. A few of my own theories are:
- Swearing shows hostility toward the dominant culture.
- It is a way of raising ones self up and putting another down.
- Swearing is egocentric–the person who cut you off in traffic, disrespected you on the playground, or made fun of you when you made a mistake.
- It is both taboo and common: it is forbidden, tolerated, or supported depending on your cultural expectations.
What sticks out at me the most, however, is that third one. It raises the big theological question about how we interact with our world that is far too easily glossed by puritan forbidding. Swearing isn’t the problem, then, but our hostility to our environment that is at issue. It is anti-social, even if it brings some amount of camaraderie. It distances us from our peers because we fundamentally intend to push them away. This may be (relatively) appropriate in hipster settings of nonconformity, but it seems to operate counter to Jesus’s encouragement of love and respect for those around us.
And it certainly doesn’t seem like an attribute we want our children to have.
Therefore, this whole issue isn’t really about “act or refrain”: that external struggle. It is a struggle for our intentions. It is more like choosing between love or hate. Or perhaps worse: love or indifference.
Worrying about how our kids act while ignoring their intentions is a recipe for failure. So why is it, when it comes to all aggressive behaviors, we are obsessed with only the actions?
If swearing is aggressive, what is so attractive about it? Are we fundamentally attracted to aggressiveness itself? And are we too afraid to actually discourage aggressive intentions, satisfied with curbing the actions?
© 2011 Drew Downs. All rights reserved