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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Watch Your Language

Filthy speech pervades today's culture

By Christina Quick
Dec. 27, 2009

NBC issued no apologies after Saturday Night Live cast member Jenny Slate uttered an obscene expletive in the show’s season opener on Sept. 26.

A network spokesperson assured entertainment reporters that Slate didn’t need to worry about her job being in jeopardy for uttering the offensive four-letter word midway through a sketch about biker women. Because the show airs after prime time, the Federal Communications Commission didn’t have authority to sanction the network. Not everyone found it to be a laughing matter, however.

Parents Television Council President Tim Winter called it “just the latest example of NBC telling its audience, its affiliates and its advertisers that it really doesn’t care if harsh profanity like this makes it to air.”

Foul language isn’t the exclusive domain of late-night comedy shows. It echoes through school halls, spews from the lips of grandmothers and even appears in coded form in text messages. In many ways, it has become the unofficial dialect of today’s culture.

“The guardrails have come down, and the boundaries have changed,” says Gary R. Allen, national director of Ministerial Enrichment for the Assemblies of God. “But as Christians, we shouldn’t become comfortable with vulgarity.”

In a 2006 Associated Press poll, nearly half of respondents said they use swear words in conversation several times a week or more. In addition, 67 percent agreed that such words are used more frequently than two decades ago.

P.M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, says cursing no longer carries the same stigma it once did.

“Quite simply, we have redefined what is acceptable,” Forni says. “Recent research tells us that our concern for social approval of our words and actions is much lower than 40 years ago. We simply do not care that much about what others think of us. This tends to create a culture in which everything goes. This is a fertile terrain for profanity.”

Coarse speech is increasingly difficult to avoid on television. In an analysis of television programming in 2006 and 2007, the Parents Television Council found foul language in the vast majority of shows airing during the first hour of prime time, traditionally considered the “family hour.” 

Even the most offensive words, including vulgarities that are sexual in nature, are popping up with alarming frequency.

“Unless your kids are exclusively watching television that’s designed for children, the chances are about 100 percent that they’ll be exposed to foul language, even during prime time,” says Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council. “The degree of offensiveness may vary from program to program, but pretty much everything on prime time broadcast television contains some profanity.”

Profane speech is even more common online, where there are few restraints and virtually no accountability.

Last year, Web developer Richard Henry launched Cursebird, a tool that counts the number of swear words on the social networking site Twitter. Within the first four months, he had documented more than 2 million instances of vulgar “tweeting.”

A Parents Television Council study of YouTube videos likely to attract children and teens found profanity in 68 percent of the accompanying comments. Nearly a third of those words were categorized as being “of the most offensive nature.”

“The widespread use of profane speech contributes to the coarsening of the fabric of our lives,” Forni says. “We are becoming increasingly informal — a trend that has accelerated with the diffusion of the Internet. Informality is not the same as incivility. Extreme informality, however, borders with incivility. If you are near the border, it’s easier to cross it. The widespread use of profanity depends in part on this very casual attitude that characterizes our times.”

Of course, not everyone embraces such relaxed standards of decency. According to a study last year by The Nielsen Company, PG-rated films with the least profanity drew the biggest box office crowds. Sexuality or violence in those films had less to do with success than the language, researchers found.

“The reality is that profanity, within PG, is the big demarcation between box office winner and box office loser,” research and marketing director Dan O’Toole said at a conference last year. “Parents are choosing PG films for their kids that have very, very low levels of profanity. We’re talking one-third the level of the average PG film.”

In spite of such findings, Henson says the entertainment industry isn’t listening.

“As much as studios like to claim they’re delivering what audiences are looking for, those arguments don’t hold when you look at box office returns,” Henson says. “Working in Hollywood is like being in high school. Rather than delivering what audiences want, it’s about impressing your peers and going to a cocktail party and saying, ‘Look what I managed to get into my last film.’”

Moviegoers aren’t the only ones who remain unimpressed by foul speech. In a poll of more than 2,000 executives conducted by a popular career Web site, the use of bad language topped the list of etiquette breaches for which they had fired employees.

“There are still plenty of people who will consider that language code unprofessional and unappealing,” Forni says. “You may be a very good person, but your profanity-laced language may still work against you with some people in the circles of acquaintance and care to which you belong.”

That is especially true for Christians, who are supposed to represent Jesus to the world, Allen says.

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” Allen says. “Words are very important because they communicate our attitudes, motives and thoughts.”

In a world bombarded with toxic speech, Allen says it’s good to know the Holy Spirit has the last word.

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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