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The Ethical Life: What's wrong with cursing?

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A couple of weeks ago former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy criticized Rex Ryan, head coach of the New York Jets, for frequent cursing during an episode of "Hard Knocks," an HBO series chronicling the Jets' practices.

The reaction in the sports world revealed deep differences in attitudes toward the use of foul language. Fellow coaches, players and sports announcers lined up on different sides of the fence, some agreeing with Dungy, others defending Ryan.

Ryan's defenders said things like this: "It's just words, they don't hurt anybody;" "Ryan is just being himself; if that's how he runs his practices, that's what he should do;" "Dungy should just mind his own business."

Dungy's defenders have been more inclined to soft-pedal their opinions, saying things like: "I agree that Ryan should tone it down, especially when you know that kids will be watching the show" or "I understand that's what a lot of coaches do, but I personally choose not to do it."

I find it curious that Ryan's defenders are so confident in their response and that Dungy's defenders are so timid. Why do people find it so difficult to express their objections to cursing?

I suspect it's partly because of strong and commendable tradition in this country of defending free speech. We are reluctant to criticize people's manner of expression, even as we are quick to criticize the content of what they say.

Another reason may be that it's hard to demonstrate the direct harmful effects of cursing. Most of our public moral objections to particular kinds of behavior depend on reasons that show a demonstrable harm.

The majority of people who object to cursing would probably agree that it doesn't amount to a serious harm; rather, it is something that is distasteful or vulgar, like belching in public. A well brought-up person just doesn't do that sort of thing.

But I believe there are more substantial objections, having to do with the role that words play in the public sphere.

Words shape our lives. The laws that constitute our society are made up of words. Oaths and vows, which mark the most significant passages in our lives, are composed of words. Wars are begun with a declaration and ended with a treaty. Long-standing relationships are broken up by an insult and repaired with an apology. Without words we wouldn't have a recognizably "human" life at all.

Iris Murdoch, the British novelist, observed that "we make pictures of ourselves, and then come to resemble the pictures." The chief way we make pictures of ourselves is with words.

Cuss words are, with a few exceptions, words that refer either to sexual anatomy and activity or to excrement. They are typically used to express anger or hatred, or to shock, belittle, ridicule and demean. The widespread use of cuss words reduces the world to a landscape of sexual objectification and waste, bringing into the public sphere images of things and activities that we normally choose to keep private.

Cuss words present a distorted picture of human beings, a picture that is incompatible with seeing the inherent dignity of every human life. That is why all the major world's religions object to the use of foul language, because it is "blasphemous," an insult to those whom the Creator loves.

Guy Deutscher, a research fellow at the University of Manchester and author of a new book about language and perception, says "The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter." How we talk to people and about people affects how we perceive them; how we perceive them affects how we treat them. And it doesn't matter who is the speaker and who is the hearer; words affect the perception of both.

Dungy's critics accuse him of being a "prude," of being overly sensitive and morally judgmental. Such reactions attempt to diminish the force of Dungy's remarks by drawing attention away from the substance of his objection and focusing instead on his personality.

But it is important to remember that Dungy didn't make any personal judgments about Ryan; he just said that Ryan shouldn't be cursing on television. He was objecting to a use of language that, once it becomes public, affects all of us by making our common world uglier. That's a significant objection, and worth taking seriously.

The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.


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