In the last two decades since programs like The Simpsons and South Park started airing, I've noticed both in my pastoral ministry and clinical counseling an increase of crude language and crass behavior especially among young people. It's a troubling development because these programs make it even more difficult to teach our children the elementary rules of civil discourse. These rules function not only to prevent the debasement of society, but also to foster psychological stability in the child.
Previously I pointed out that parents and anyone who deals with children are obligated to stand against those who foster moral decline among our youth. This exhortation draws from the words of Christ spoken against those who corrupt children: "And Jesus said to his disciples ... 'woe to him by whom they (offenses against children) come! It would be better for him if a millstone was hung round his neck and he was cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin'" (Luke 17:1-2).
Does my exhortation sound alarmist? It shouldn't. As soon as I started this article an email alert from the Catholic League arrived:
Virgin Mary Defiled on "South Park"
The Comedy Central show, "South Park," reran an episode last night that the station's officials previously said would not air again. Titled "Bloody Mary," the episode depicts a statute of the Virgin Mary spraying blood from her vagina into the cartoon-face of Pope Benedict XVI.
Do we really want to expose our children to this?
Webster defines offensive language as cursing, swearing, and using profanity. Whether we like it or not, the words we use draw from deep places within us and shape the culture around us. The words we hear affects us psychologically (especially children), thus shaping how we think and act.
Language is in part a broadcast of our psychosocial definition. It shapes how other people see us and how they think we see ourselves. Healthy social and personality development is assessed by how a person relates with others, and how emotional reactions that accompany these relationships are displayed (Cole and Cole, 1996). Language is obviously a key component in this development.
Eisenberg (1993) found that children who display social and emotional competence are better liked by peers and teachers. Thompson (1990) and Sarni (1990) discussed self-regulation strategies, particularly how fluency with language modified emotional states in children. The research shows that how children view their interaction with others helps them acquire "a sense of themselves and their own personalities" (Cole and Cole, 1996).
Cussing disrupts healthy self-development. Cussing, says the International Maledicta Society, a professional organization founded in 1976 uniting some 6,000 scholars and others interested in the phenomenon of human speech, actually functions as a form of verbal aggression. It is perceived as hostile and thus truncates the social relationships needed for a healthy sense of self.
Obviously cussing that extends into adulthood can have serious consequences, impairing social and occupational dysfunction if not outright job loss. O'Connor (2000) records an example of a 20 year old female camp counselor who observed two children fighting and said "What the "F" do you think you are doing?" She was fired on the spot.
O'Connor (2000) gives twenty-five reasons to stop cussing. He sorts them into three clusters: personal, corruption of the language, and societal effects.
- Personal reasons not to swear include: it makes a bad impression, is unpleasant to be around, endangers relationships, reduces respect, demonstrates loss of emotional control, signals a bad attitude and is a tool of whiners and complainers, discloses lack of character, is immature, reflects ignorance, and sets a bad example.
- Language corruption includes: abrasive and lazy word usage, unclear communication and lacking meaning, lacking imagination, has lost effectiveness, and "represents the dumbing down of America."
- Societal effects of cussing include: declines civility, offends people, makes others uncomfortable, is disrespectful, starts arguments, is a sign of hostility, and can lead to violence.
Cussing cannot be spiritually justified. Who does not know the second commandment God gave to Moses: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" (Exodus 20:7)? This is affirmed by St. Mark who quoted Jesus responding the question about what commandment is the greatest: "You shall love the Lord your God with all y our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12: 28-31). Finally St Paul exhorted us: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Ephesians 4:28-30).
While the twenty five reasons to stop cussing mentioned above don't reference these biblical exhortations, they nevertheless draw from the Christian moral tradition and are therefore relevant to the discussion. All of them function as a restraint against offence of the neighbor thereby affirming the Christian commandment to love the neighbor.
Blasphemy is a form of cussing that is considered to be a very serious sin where words are used to curse God. St. Nikitas Stithatos wrote about the spiritual dangers:
Blasphemy is a frightful passion, difficult to combat, for its origin lies in the arrogant mind of satan ... we must guard the senses with great diligence, and reverence all the awe-inspiring mysteries of God, the holy images and holy words, and watch out for the attacks of this spirit. ... when we are inattentive it discharges through our lips curses against ourselves and strange blasphemies against God the Most High (Philokalia IV).
Cursing is another form of spiritual cussing that occurs when the heart is set completely against a person and words are used with the intent of bringing the fire of hell upon them. Cursing is a very serious offense. The writer of the book of Proverbs wrote: "If one curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in utter darkness" (Proverbs 20:20). The book of Ecclesiastes warned both the curser and the one being cursed: "Do not give heed to all the things that men say, lest you hear your servant cursing you; your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others. All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, 'I will be wise; but it was far from me" (Ecclesiastes 7:21-23).
St. Paul reminded his readers of the depravity of heart that cursing reveals: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one ... Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive ... The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness" (Romans 3:10-14).
The prohibition against cursing is so strong that Evagrius the Solitary said: "Try not to pray against anyone [cursing] in your prayer, so that you do not destroy what you are building, and make your prayer loathsome" (Philokalia I).
St. Nikitas Stithatos pointed out how to overcome blasphemy and cursing: "Then concentrating our thoughts, we should at once occupy our intellect with some other matter, either divine or human, and with tears raise it towards God; and so with God's assistance we will be relieved of the burden of blasphemy" (Philokalia IV).
We can eliminate everyday cussing as well. I recommend the book written by James V. O'Conner called Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. O'Connor taught that very often the alternatives to cuss words are more powerful than the cuss words themselves and thus make communication more effective.
On my own I have discovered and used many of O'Conner's suggestions, sometimes to the chagrin of my friends. Among my favorites: "holy cow," "holy crow," "holy megochies" (a word I made up), even "I don't give a flying fortress". My all time favorite however was coined by my brother Pete when he disagrees with something: "that's haghah".
As mentioned in a previous article (Morelli, 2006c) grace works with nature. St. Maximus the Confessor taught: "the grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the Saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it." Goodness and wisdom is granted to man by his "volitive faculty, so that what He (Christ) is in His essence the creature may become by participation" (Philokalia II).
A person should prepare himself, then, for the grace of goodness and wisdom by all means possible. Changing cussing behaviors is a good place to start. The first step is metanoia ( change of mind) built on both the twenty-five reasons to stop cussing listed above and the commandment to love God and neighbor. Apply them both and we discover the power to change this sin that has engrained itself through habit.
Further, to change cussing behaviors a person has to develop emotional control (Morelli, 2005c, 2006b). This may mean changing stimulus cues (the events that trigger habitual cussing). The best way to begin is to practice appropriate verbal substitutes (Morelli, 2006a).
"S" word substitutes
One of the best verbal substitutes I have heard was on TV when the judge commenting on someone's obviously fabricated testimony said: "That is just bovine fecal matter." Thanks to O'Connor (2000) here are some others: Nuts! Cripes! Criminey! Egad! Mercy! Holy cow! Darn it! Oh, boy!
Another approach is to eliminate the "S" word altogether in sentences where it is not needed: "Who [the ... ]. knows?", "Who [the ... .] cares?", "Don't give me that [ ... .]", "She thinks she's hot [ ... .]". Some words according to O'Connor work fine in themselves: dump, junk anything, pile, kidding, soiled, mean person, phony, bunk, guy-girl, stuff, act together, hit list, country boys, coronary, short, menial. In describing sensory reactions one can say: "This food tastes 'terrible'", "This coat feels 'itchy'". Substitutes can always be found. O'Connor recommends finding a word that can always be a fall back when you disagree with something: bunk, baloney, or my brother Pete's 'haghah.'
"F" Word Substitutes
The "S" word is crude but the "F" word misses the mark even more. It is flat out sinful. This word defiles one of God's greatest gifts to mankind: the ability to have pleasurable and life-creating sexual intercourse in a blessed and holy marriage (Morelli 2005a). The "F" word rips all notions of decency, respect, and sacredness out of sexual intercourse and reduces it to animalistic rutting. It darkens the awareness that sexual intercourse is the means to love our neighbor, which in its proper moral context is only the spouse. The interpersonal and social impact of this word is reaches deep.
O'Connor recommends substitute words for the "F" word that begin with the letter "f" because it is easier to catch yourself with a word starting with "f" than one beginning with the ending consonant "k." Starting points are: fudge, fiddlesticks and phooey. People get used to hearing you say these words while you become more comfortable using them. My own experience is that O'Conner is right on the mark. In fact, in my case any other type of substitute would sound like an atomic explosion.
Other recommended words are: fool, meddle, interfere, fiddling, futzing, messing, fouled, botched, ruined, wrecked, muddled, bleeping, and revolting. I do not recommend what O'Connor calls euphemisms as everyone knows such words have come to mean the same thing as the "F" word. Among these are "effing," "fricking," and "frigging". In fact this latter word is in the American Heritage Dictionary and means "to have sexual intercourse with."
Vocabulary building substitutes
Some words are much more precise in communication and have the double effect of increasing meaningful vocabulary. A sample of words falling into this category are: odious, detestable, contemptible, despicable, atrocious, appalling, outlandish, trashy, shoddy, sleazy, sinister, diabolical, villainous, dilapidated, vile, heinous, and abhorrent.
O'Connor also suggests more communicative sentences that are less crass, cruel and abrasive. Two of his examples include:
Avoid: "When the "F" do you expect me to do this?
Substitute: "I'll try and stay late and get this done."
Avoid: "It's not my "F" problem."
Substitute: "I wasn't involved in that project."
In my pastoral and clinical experience I find labeling people to be one of the most flagrant and offensive ways to hurt others short of physical abuse. The most egregious labels actually are forms of psychological abuse which is not only a sin against charity, but also illegal (Morelli, 2005d).
The Church Fathers point out we should refrain from saying ill about someone we should always look toward what is good. Priestmonk Christodoulos Ageloglou (1998) said of St. Paisius of the Holy Mountain:
He only said the good things in life and he was blind to every evil. The elder said; "I know from experience people are divided into two categories ... The first resembles the fly. The fly is attracted to dirt ... when a fly is found in a garden full of flowers with beautiful fragrances; it will ignore them and will sit on top of some dirt. People belonging to this category always look to bad things in life and refuse the presence of the good. The other category is like the bee whose main characteristic is to always look for something sweet and nice to sit on. The second category of people ... sees only the good side of things. They always try to cover up the evil to protect their fellow man."
A way to start applying the elder's counsel is to use substitute labels that are not like the dirt and evil that the fly would land on. O'Connor lists some diverting words that fall into this category. Some examples include: cad, heel, chisler, shyster, savage, ogre reprobate, miscreant ne'er-do-well, rapscallion, slacker, weasel, rogue, scalawag, scoundrel, vixen, tart, rascal, buffoon and galoot.
Parents and all people who deal with children must model Christ in their own lives. Orthodox parents in particular must create an "Orthodox Family Culture" where all family activity and behavior are permeated with Orthodox teaching and practice. This exhortation is so important that a couple hears it during their wedding service long before the children even arrive: "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant them fair children for education in thy faith and fear." ("Fear" means the proper acknowledgement of the awesome and transcendent God [Morelli, 2005b].)
What does this exhortation mean in practical terms? First is the proper monitoring of the media allowed into the home. Regulate the media because it is one of the greatest purveyors of cussing in the larger culture. Programs such as the The Simpsons or South Park (or Desperate Housewives and the like) should not be allowed. Likewise with computer games that have violent or sexual themes and use debased language. Make sure to regulate internet access properly by keeping the computer in a public place like the kitchen. Never allow children private internet access in their rooms, especially teenage boys.
How should parents exercise vigilance? A good way is to bring up the objectionable content in a discussion with their children. Ask children how a program fits with something Jesus has taught. The parent may find a scripture passage or a catechism answer and ask their children what they think about it versus the program content.
Children may be able to state on their own the reasons why some images and words are wrong. This will be more meaningful to children than parental "preaching." Parental discussion can then follow up by emphasizing such virtues as respect for one's self and others as well as the true honor due to God. Consider making joint decisions about which shows to watch.
If children oppose the parents and insist on viewing objectionable programming, they can be told with soft but firm tone that we "all follow God's rules in this house" (Morelli, 2006b,d). Rules should be set and enforced with love rather than rigid authoritarianism since authoritarian parenting styles foster anger and rebellion in children (Morelli, 2006a). Two scripture verses can guide the parents: 1) "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4); and 2) "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
Use occasions when the media has to be regulated as opportunities for discussion. Make sure your child understands the reasons for your decision. Explain the reasons in age appropriate ways as soon as you make them because that is when dialogue can be most effective. If the child is upset or angry, allow him to cool off and discuss it later.
Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.
Cole, M. & Cole, S.R. (1996). The Development of Children (3rd ed.) NY: Freeman.
O'Conner, J.V. (2000). Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. NY: Three Rivers Press.
Morelli, G. (2005a, July 19) Sex is Holy: Psycho-Spiritual Reflections in a Secular World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliSexIsHoly.php.
Morelli, G. (2005b, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.
Morelli, G. (2005c, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.
Morelli, G. (2005d, December, 04) Abuse: Some Pastoral and Clinical Considerations. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAbuse.php.
Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 10). Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHumility.php.
Morelli, G. (2006c, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.
Morelli, G. (2006d, July 02)> Assertiveness and Christian Charity. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.
Morelli, G. (2006c, July 26). Dealing with Brokenness in the World: Learned Psychological Optimism and the Virtue of Hope. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliBrokenness.php
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (eds.) (1981). The Philokalia: The Complete Text compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (Vol. 2). London: Faber and Faber.
Sarni, C. (1990). Emotional Competence: How Emotions and Relationships Become Integrated. In R. A. Thompson (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 36 Socioemotional Development. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Thompson, R.A. (1990). Emotion and Self Regulation. In R. A. Thompson (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 36 Socioemotional Development. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
He is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is also Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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