Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Going Pro
A friend of mine recently mentioned that he thought that cussing wasn't "Pro," (as in slang meaning, "cool & professional") and that he wanted to be a Pro, and so was going to cut down on his cussing. (This friend, btw, is one of the more brilliant & gifted folks that I know.)

I've been considering the underpinnings of cussing/foul language since I was in junior high. That's when I first began to hear it used in earnest. (Though "cussing in earnest" is kind of a funny thing to say.) In Junior High & High School, it was clearly used as a proxy for showing one was "grown up." (It indicates one is "grown up" about as much as watching an "adult" film indicates that one is an adult, imho.)

In College, a new justification arose: cultural relativity. (It's no coincidence that sophomoric ideas originate in the same institutions which house Sophomores.) That argument went something like this: In England, "bloody" is a cussword, but here it doesn't mean the same thing, the same thing with the word "shag." So if I say, "bloody" here, how will you know if I mean the "bad" or the "good" kind? It works the same way with American cussing: somewhere in the world (perhaps even across the tracks in our very city!) this word is not as bad as you think it is. Therefore, it doesn't matter if I use it myself.

There was also the Christian sub-culture pheonomena whereby folks who had been fairly obedient Christians their whole lives were suddenly discovering that they could cuss, and nothing would obviously happen as a result. When you're a student, you don't notice it as much, but when you work with College students for more than 3 years, it's astounding the patterns that emerge. Every Christian who starts cussing at college decides that they're the first ones to be so cosmopolitan and sophisticated to see cussing for what it is: merely a social convention that has no bearing on anything in their souls, especially if it helps them deal with their own perceived social pressure.

My little corner of the business world puts me in touch with a number of business strata: lawyers, truckers, computer geeks, bankers, internet rock-stars, actual rock-stars, it's actually quite an interesting and varied cross section. In every category there are people that are a pleasure to work with, who are competent, thoughtful, cool under pressure, and always performing at a high level: the Pros. And there are those who always make excuses for their inability to get the job done, who can't seem to be on time for their appointments, who only half-way do a job before calling it a day, and who are generally not a pleasure to be around: the un-Pros.

And as I look across my personal landscape, I find that my friend is correct about cussing and being "Pro." The Pros, by and large, do not cuss. I don't think it's causal, but I do think that whatever it is that makes them a Pro is also affecting how they make use of language.

I've come across critiques of cussing which amount to mainly an aesthetic critique along the lines of: cussing is a quick and dirty use of the language, which intelligent and educated people avoid.

And while I agree that cussing is the above, I don't see how this is compelling to anyone at all. That's the problem with aesthetic critiques: one can easily say, "you like chocolate, I like vanilla. Leave me alone." This critique falls into the same category of why one ought to wear matched clothes: you look better in them. Well, so what? Perhaps I'm saying something about society with my unmatched clothes. In fact, perhaps my life is one big performance art piece. Didja think about that, mister "no more cussing"?

But I do have an epistemological & ontological critique. It's merely this: words have meaning. That is when I say, "love" it has a specific meaning, even though it happens to be an English word and even though there are people who might utter the same phonemes in the same order in a different language and so mean something different.

Words point to something beyond themselves, something real & true. If they don't, we have a word for that, too. Those are called, "lies."

I think that this is a particularly Christianly way to approach language, as we depend upon human language to communicate eternal & foundational ideas, the first of which is, "Jesus is Lord." (If you want to try to tell me that the language doesn't matter, that it's the "Spirit's" work to do that, then think of it this way: in the same way that Flesh & Spirit work together in the Christian life, so too do Words & the Spirit. You can't get around this problem by practicing a kind of language doecitism.)

So to justify cussing with cultural relativity is to undermine the very tools we use to commuincate anything. Not so much in the sense that if one cusses too much, you won't be able to communicate. Of course not.

But our language usage affects how we think, quite literally. Thinking logically & carefully over time will help you think logically & carefully over time. If you've spent any time doing computer programming, you know that, after a while, you begin to see the universe as an endless series of commands, loops, input & output variables, and the like. If you spend a lot of time reading Jane Austen, you find yourself speaking with Austen-like phrasing. Words and thoughts become you. There is a conforming of your mind, if you will, to what you're putting in front of it. Physiologically your brain is making connections and reinforcing neural pathways. Seriously!

So why would a Christian use language in such a way as to train themselves that words are meaningless, or, at best, are so flexible as to mean whatever I'd like for them to mean, as opposed to using words as tools with specific uses in order to communicate? I don't know. It seems dumb to me.

There are tons of folks who believe there is no place for words to "point", that there is no meaning to words besides what we agree in this room that such words mean. I'm not out to persuade those folks. (This means you, Richard Rorty!) Christians cannot coherently hold such a view, so I'm merely working to persuade these fellow travelers.

At the end of the day, though, I am in agreement with my friend. Cussing is so amateur. It just isn't Pro.

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