Jana Riess Is Wrong about Profanity

Mormon Profanity
In an attempt to explain the value of profanity at the Women's March, the author misses the bigger picture.

Mormon Profanity

As part of the controversy surrounding former Young Women General President Elaine S. Dalton’s recent remarks on the language used by female protesters during January’s Women’s March, Jana Riess’ recent article at Flunking Sainthood, “On Mormons, swear words and ladylike behavior,” attempted a teardown of Mormonism’s relationship with profanity, particularly in defense of Women’s March protesters who employed more “colorful metaphors” than others. Riess has fair and even interesting questions: Why is profanity verboten within Mormonism? Why do we allow profanity to cripple us from paying attention to more important underlying issues?

I was dismayed to see that in her attempts to break down the issue, Riess misses the mark, drifting into what boils down to an argument that profanity is fun, basic, and sometimes useful, and we should stop being prudes and cuss every now and then to let off some steam. Her findings seek to challenge religious norms via non-religious analysis, going as far as to take a Mormon apostle’s comments out of context to argue a point. It’s an unfortunate piece from one of the Bloggernacle’s better voices.

Riess argues that Mormon leaders’ aversion to profanity essentially comes down to class bias, citing remarks from 1983 by Elder Ted. E Brewerton and current apostle Elder Dallin H. Oaks from 1986.

Said Brewerton:

“Obscenity, the open use of which used to be a mark of lower social strata, has somehow become acceptable in everyday conversation for everyday people.”

At first glance, this quote seems pretty cut and dry, ascribing a foul mouth to “lower social strata,” the idea of which gives me nightmares of a caste system. A closer examination reveals that Brewerton clearly says that the open use of profanity used to be a mark of lower social strata. This is hardly an example of class bias.

However, Riess’ treatment of Elder Oaks is an exercise in cherry picking. Below is an excerpt from her commentary:

“The class intimations of ‘foul’ language are apparent in other Conference talks through the years. In Dallin Oaks’s “Clean and Reverent,” he said he was not able to remember when he was first exposed to such language, but it must have been ‘from adults in the barnyard or the barracks.’ This ‘barnyard’ slap was not exactly directed at the professional classes. He called profanity ‘public evidence of a speaker’s ignorance, inadequacy, or immaturity. . . . A speaker who mouths profanity . . . confesses inadequacy in his or her own language skills.’”

This paragraph draws from two separate section of Elder Oaks’ remarks. The first, about the barracks and barnyards is as follows:

“I cannot remember when I first heard profane and vulgar expressions in common use around me. I suppose it was from adults in the barnyard or the barracks. Today, our young people hear such expressions from boys and girls in their grade schools, from actors on stage and in the movies, from popular novels, and even from public officials and sports heroes. Television and videotapes bring profanity and vulgarity into our homes.”

This paragraph is clearly an exploration of the normalization of profanity across society, not a slight at agriculture and military service. Oaks was raised in what was then largely rural Provo. More importantly, perhaps, he was a member of the National Guard. So yes, Oaks was exposed to aspects of the military and it’s completely within the realm of possibility that his first major exposure to profanity was via his Guard experience.

That last line in Riess’ paragraph is a whittled down amalgamation of a much more complex series of statements. The remarks in their entirety are below.

“Profane and vulgar expressions are public evidence of a speaker’s ignorance, inadequacy, or immaturity.

“A speaker who profanes must be ignorant or indifferent to God’s stern command that his name must be treated with reverence and not used in vain.

“A speaker who mouths profanity or vulgarity to punctuate or emphasize speech confesses inadequacy in his or her own language skills. Properly used, modern languages require no such artificial boosters.

“A speaker who employs profanity or vulgarity to catch someone’s attention with shock effect engages in a babyish device that is inexcusable as juvenile or adult behavior. Such language is morally bankrupt. It also progressively self-defeating, since shock diminishes with familiarity and the user can only maintain its effect by escalating its excess.”

Perhaps most crucial here is the way the third paragraph was cited to make a statement befitting Riess’ thesis, conveniently leaving out “to punctuate or emphasize speech” when referring to using profanity. That is actually an extremely important modifier. I am not much of a defender of profanity on any level, even though I don’t wince at its use. (I work regularly with those pesky “barracks” folks.) There is a small but crucial difference between slipping into profanity accidentally and using it as a deliberate part of speech emphasis, so this is a curious omission on Jana Riess’ part.

Riess quite conveniently did not quote the final paragraph, which would seem to be a shot across the bow of her entire article, particularly her closing remarks, where she deliberately uses profanity for the sake of shock and awe (and perceived humor).

Moreover, the criticism of Oaks’ remarks misses the greater point – that being high-minded about our language is actually something God wants us to do. Oaks’ remarks are centered not in how profanity turns us into second-class citizens in a temporal context, but how it is something merely unbecoming of those who wish to draw closer to God—something rooted in the natural man—and that it is not something we need to accept simply because it is forced upon us at an increasing rate.

As the article continues, further attempts to justify profanity stem from a study that found profanity to be part of “automatic language,” or the sort of language housed in and processed by a different part of our brain than more complex, thoughtful language. This makes sense. It’s also genuinely pretty interesting and would make for a compelling read on its own.

But the argument goes off the rails when Riess describes profanity as “something we need,” if only because it is housed in the same part of our brains that remembers nursery rhymes, or because it is so basic and so animal that it is important to shoot off some curse words now and again.

Stating, “The only credible research about harm caused by swearing is a) when swearing is accompanied by physical intimidation and/or verbal abuse or b) it contains slurs and insults,” renders moot the spiritual implications of profanity. There is also not much in the way of “credible research” on Book of Mormon archeology in the Americas, or metaphysical explanations of the Atonement, or academic explanations for faith, yet here we are. It is disingenuous to attempt a teardown of religious commentary on a subject to build a case for what, in the end, is an academic justification of profanity and its use. It’s flawed analysis.

This is about reconciling counsel from men and women one believes to be inspired with science that might say otherwise. Indeed, one semi-recent study posited that from an emotional and even physical standpoint, swearing can be healthy for you. I don’t doubt it. However, there are also studies that talk about the health benefits of drinking a glass of wine now and then. There are countless other examples of science and society accepting and promoting a behavior as healthy that God still wants us to avoid.

While the temptation to analyze the spiritual solely with the temporal is understandable and in many ways potentially compelling, doing so is an insufficient way of discussing complex issues. It is unfortunate that someone with the mind and wit of Jana Riess resorts to selectively using quotations that support her original hypothesis rather than properly citing sources in their appropriate context.

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