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Vulgarity in America

How should Christians respond to the escalation of swearing and smut?

By John W. Kennedy

Vulgarity oozes through society like a toxin. Television commercials, bumper stickers, radio programs, music videos, T-shirts, magazine covers and motion pictures poison minds and corrupt souls.

By definition, vulgarity involves words or behavior that violate good taste, usually involving slang for body functions or body parts. While such language was once reserved for private conversations and disreputable establishments, today it is becoming acceptable in the public arena.

"It used to be there were certain words people didn’t use in front of pastors, Christians, women and kids," says Gary Allen, coordinator of the Ministerial Enrichment office for the Assemblies of God. "Now it’s only small kids, if at all."

Parental advice

What are parents to do to get their children to read, watch and listen to wholesome alternatives?

Morality in Media’s Robert W. Peters says there are some valuable programs on TV. But experts advise parents to limit a child’s television viewing time in favor of family activities.

"The average child spends three hours a day watching TV but only 15 minutes with parents," media watcher L. Brent Bozell III says. "Who has a bigger influence?"

Because parents cannot be with their children all the time, it is vital to train children to act wisely when not in parental company.

"The biggest thing parents can do is to control their own speech," says radio host John Nieder.

Gary Allen, coordinator of the Ministerial Enrichment office of the Assemblies of God, goes a step further. "Parents have to set rules and explain why certain words are unacceptable in the house, even if they are used publicly," Allen says.

In his book, Cursing in America, Timothy Jay says 13 percent of the leisure conversation of American adults contains cursing or obscenities.

While it is fashionable to blame the media and Hollywood for the prevalence of vulgarity in society, experts contend the behavior of family members and friends is more to blame for the escalation of indecency. That, however, does not diminish the negative influence of motion pictures. Movies have romanticized vulgarity and created a lexicon of sorts for young people. In 1999, for example, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut set the record for an animated movie with 399 swear words and 128 offensive gestures.

According to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., vulgarity has moved from becoming language associated primarily with hostility to casual banter. "Words once reserved to register strongly negative emotions have become the standard lingo of movies, TV shows and music videos," the study says. "Language that was once taboo has become standard fare in contemporary popular entertainment."

The increase in vulgarity reflects the values of those who produce and act in the entertainment industry, according to Robert W. Peters, president of Morality in Media, based in New York City. "Mainstream media corporations have largely abandoned their standards," he says. "They have chosen the low road in significant measure because it reflects their lives. They have a distorted perspective of reality."

The Internet has only exacerbated the problem. When people communicate online, sometimes anonymously, they may type words they would never utter in person.

The music industry has also changed in the past decade. Under pressure in 1990, music executives agreed to voluntarily label explicit content. Regrettably, the warnings have become a drawing card for many teens. A Federal Trade Commission study last summer showed that 85 percent of children ages 13-16 who attempted to buy music labeled "explicit" made the purchase without being questioned. One vulgar-laden album in 2000 became the fastest-selling hip-hop compact disc in history, selling 5 million copies in two months.

In the 1950s, TV standards forbade the use of toilet and pregnant on the airwaves. Times have changed.

"Every time I say it can’t get worse, it does," says L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles. "It’s like an itch that can’t be scratched enough, forever pushed to the next level."

Vulgarity alone does not attract viewers, Bozell says, noting the failure of Fox’s Action in 1999. Despite being hyped as the most vulgar show on broadcast television, Action bombed in the ratings, lasting only six weeks.

Motion pictures, Bozell contends, set the course for future television shows. "When a wall [of decency] is broken in the movie theaters, you can count on someone wanting to break that wall in television soon thereafter, first on premium channels, then cable, then broadcast TV."

The television rating system is ineffective, Bozell says, because producers of episodes, unlike the movie industry, determine the ratings themselves. Nearly 70 percent of evening television programs carry a PG rating, even though they are replete with vulgar speech and sexual innuendo. "It’s the foxes guarding the henhouse," Bozell says.

In real life children are reprimanded for swearing by parents, teachers and church workers, Peters says. Adults are corrected by spouses and co-workers.

"Yet you never see stars embarrassed for swearing in a sitcom," Peters says. "It’s always ‘funny.’ Friends is not for children, even though it only carries a PG rating. Showing a lifestyle of promiscuity and irresponsibility is not for young teens."

"The [television] characters [people] want to identify with the most use the majority of the foul language," says Matthew Felling, media director for CMPA. "It’s no longer the domain of the man in the black hat."

WWF Smackdown! holds the distinction of being the PTC’s "most offensive" television show for the 1999-2000 season. The wrestling show regularly features characters portraying prostitutes, a pimp, a porn actor and a sex addict, with frequent use of bleeped words.

The broadcast and cable networks have pushed the envelope in an attempt to appear as edgy as the premium channels. The CMPA study says hard-core obscenity is heard every two minutes on premium cable TV. "For all that critics complain about the sex and violence, foul language is where the action is in the popular culture’s ongoing descent toward the lowest common denominator," the CMPA study concluded.

The PTC has conducted several studies, determining that foul language is more than five times as frequent on the air in 1999 as compared to a decade earlier.

"Words that were once taboo now are common in the news or even in normal conversation," Allen says. "Young people are not embarrassed because they grew up hearing it."

John Nieder, host of the Art of Family Living radio program in Dallas, says the rise in vulgarity is symptomatic of the godlessness, abusive behavior and lack of restraint Paul predicted in 2 Timothy 3. The tolerance of vulgarity is a strong indicator that the body of Christ is not impacting society as it should, Nieder says.

Grant Jones, a licensed psychologist and associate professor at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., says vulgar language disregards the respect God intended humans to have in interacting with each other. He says vulgarity can hinder or harm relationships, and such language can hinder the Christian witness of believers. Jones says people who use sexual innuendoes are also more likely to eventually act on such language.

James O’Connor, author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How To Curb Your Cursing and a lecturer at Cuss Control Academy, made a decision some years ago to stop swearing. He determined that it sounded immature and inane. "It does influence the way people perceive your character, intelligence and maturity," O’Connor says. "People need to be more considerate of others. I’ve been told, ‘I swear all the time and it doesn’t bother anybody.’ Well, yes it does. They just don’t tell you."

Teaching children to avoid vulgar expressions is difficult when many of the rich and powerful — movie stars, athletes and politicians — use inappropriate words with impunity.

"There’s so much more exposure to what is considered acceptable vulgarity at an earlier age," says Wanda Hynson, elementary vice principal at Capital Christian Center School in Sacramento, Calif. "We’ve become so conditioned and desensitized to it."

Hynson is surprised that some Christian parents allow their elementary-age children to watch PG-13 and R-rated movies. "Their attitude is the movie only had a couple of swear words," she says. "But one is too many."

While parents are not going to be able to control what their children say outside their presence, if they are trained properly they will be less likely to use vulgarity on their own, she says.

Vulgarity is considered a major infraction at the 500-student school. For the first offense, pupils are counseled. A second violation means a parent must pick up the student from school and have a conference with the teacher. Third-time rule breakers are suspended for up to three days and during the re-entry conference with administration, parents are warned of possible dismissal from the school if the behavior continues.

As part of the Bible curriculum, students at Capital Christian are taught the importance of speech. "We tell them if you love your neighbor as yourself you will speak respectfully to them," Hynson says. "Our speech should be edifying and encouraging."

Nieder believes Christians should counter the spread of vulgarity in society with speech and behavior that pleases God. Christians must refrain from swearing or using distasteful language, he says. "It’s like people claiming that dabbling in soft-core pornography won’t lead to hard-core viewing. Letting down our guard only leads to worse things. Curse words shouldn’t be on the lips of Christians."

Gary Allen urges Christians to pray for people who use bad language, but not intentionally avoid contact with them. "In trying to build relationships with people we must do so without giving approval to the vulgarity they may use," he says. "But in our efforts to witness to them about the gospel we must reach beyond verbal differences."


John W. Kennedy is an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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