The Third Commandment: Is Profanity Losing its Punch?

In the first of a ten-part series called The Ten Today, Mark A. Kellner at Deseret News writes about the third of the Ten Commandments and its meaning for modern America:

When she's in a courtroom, Wendy Patrick, a deputy district attorney for San Diego, uses some of the roughest words in the English language. She has to, given that she prosecutes sex crimes.

Yet just repeating the words is a challenge for a woman who not only holds a law degree but also degrees in theology and is an ordained Baptist minister: "I have to say (a particularly vulgar expletive) in court when I'm quoting other people, usually the defendants," she admitted.

There's an important reason Patrick has to repeat vile language in court.

"My job is to prove a case, to prove that a crime occurred," she explained. "There's often an element of coercion, of threat, (and) of fear. Colorful language and context is very relevant to proving the kind of emotional persuasion, the menacing, a flavor of how scary these guys are. The jury has to be made aware of how bad the situation was. Those words are disgusting."

It's so bad, Patrick said, that on occasion a judge will ask her to tone things down, fearing a jury's emotions will be improperly swayed.

And yet Patrick continues to be surprised when she heads over to San Diego State University for her part-time work of teaching business ethics.

"My students have no qualms about dropping the 'F-bomb' in class," she said. "The culture in college campuses is that unless they're disruptive or violating the rules, that's (just) the way kids talk."

Experts say people swear for impact, but the widespread use of strong language may in fact lessen that impact, as well as lessen society's ability to set apart certain ideas and words as sacred. From Hollywood to Wall Street, whether "taking the Lord's name in vain" as proscribed in the Ten Commandments or employing other vulgarity, the words people use both shape and reflect modern culture in powerful ways.

"Expressing everything that is within you is a dangerous cultural idea," said Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Los Angeles' Sinai Temple. "Discipline and restraint is as important to the shaping of personal character as is full expression."

A history of swearing

A ban against profaning God's name can trace its roots back to the "Noahide laws" attributed by Jewish historians to the post-flood patriarch. But the late 17th century saw the beginning of a rise in profane and vulgar language, according to historian Melissa Mohr, author of the 2013 book "Holy (Expletive): A Brief History of Swearing." In that book, Mohr asserts that the 18th and 19th centuries saw the mainstreaming of profanity in many parts of culture, including plays by George Bernard Shaw.

Read the rest at Desert News


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