Over a business lunch just off Capitol Hill in Austin, Texas, a new colleague seemed shocked to know I was a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “You’re a Mormon?” he asked with not a small amount of incredulity. My mind raced to discern why he was surprised. And then it hit me, “Ah. I get it. I swear. Right?” He nodded affirmatively.
My new colleague was not being overly sensitive. My swearing is reflective of unfiltered quality over quantity. I’m good at it. A damn or a hell would not have set off his perception alarms about my faith. He knew the strong expletives I used were intentional. Swearing is behavioral and I own it.
The feelings of others matter to me. I do not seek offense. I don’t swear to assault the sensitivities of certain people, even when those sensitivities are feigned – as happens regularly throughout the Jello Belt. Everyone knows people like that, people who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.
So why do I do it?
When we need an excuse, any excuse will do. I am sure I can conjure a dozen or so justifications for my swearing. In fact, the numerous excuses just complicate an honest answer to a reasonable question. My honest answer? For me, swearing feels liberating, empowering and very practical at times.
Within passive aggressive (and pious) Utah, I almost need to swear to keep my sanity. Not every personality is like mine. Many Utahns seem to be able to absorb heaping amounts of bullshit with a straight face. It’s seen as polite, disciplined and cultured. We are choosing to become our better angels, we say to ourselves. My better angel often tells me to become disruptive around blatant nonsense. It tells me the word bullshit is a better descriptive than poppycock. Of course, Utah’s pious phonies abhor bluntness – it uncovers their façade of authority. For them, getting sworn at feels like that persistent journalist asking hard questions. They feign a smile and walk away as fast as they can. In so much of Utah culture, the pious phonies supplant honesty with unrighteous dominion. So for me to call it out can be liberating.
It also can be empowering. For good or ill, I am wont to bully bullies – and even “polite society” can be chock full of bullies. A well-placed and well-timed expletive can keep bullies in check. You might handle bullies differently than I do. Perhaps asking James to apologize to Robert for humiliating him in front of his classmates is how you might handle a bully. I’m more Old Testament about such things. A threatening whisper full of expletives in the ear of a bully seems more empowering for the victim, by proxy, than a feigned apology.
Swearing also can be very practical at certain times. In truth, most of my audible swearing is to provide a stark reminder for others that I do not want to have to repeat myself. Every child remembers “the look” of a parent commanding us to behave. That look is silent swearing. If that look was verbally communicated, it would be laced with expletives. That look doesn’t always work with adults. Swearing often does work.
No, I don’t explicitly encourage swearing even though I know the mere act of swearing is to encourage it. Everyone close to me knows I swear unapologetically, even my children and grandchildren. I swear at church (mostly hells and damns but the vulgar use not the scriptural use) and I even swear (under my breath) as I change clothes in sacred places and bend over in a cramped stall to try to put on socks for the umpteenth time without losing my breath.
And you know what? God still loves me. I sustain the first great commandment (btw, my swearing does not include taking His name in vain). It’s the day-to-day struggles relative to the second great commandment that give me some wiggle room to swear with no small sense of justification.