Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion Politics

On Mormons, swear words and ‘ladylike’ behavior

Elaine Dalton, a former general officer in the LDS Church, spoke on Sunday to YSA sisters in Salt Lake City. After praising the young women’s faithfulness and high morals, she turned a more critical eye to their foils: worldly women she spied on a recent trip to New York.

As reported in the Deseret News, Sister Dalton explained:

We were in a cab, and as I watched those women marching and yelling, and should I say, behaving anything but ladylike and using language that was very unbefitting of daughters of God . . . . As I watched all of that take place, my heart just sunk and I thought to myself, “What would happen if all those women were marching and calling to the world for a return to virtue?”

I am struck here by two things:

  • That the moral courage these women showed in protesting an immoral president does not have a place in Sister Dalton’s understanding of “virtuous” behavior, and
  • That she was offended by the language they were using, as if that were more important than their vocal refusal to countenance a president who has clearly engaged in other behaviors that I’m sure Sister Dalton would censure, like boasting that he could “grab” any woman he wanted “by the pussy.”

Somehow, it’s unfeminine and wrong for women to protest that, in fact, their pussies are not Trump’s for the grabbing. And to match his profanity in getting their message across.

Clean language has, for Mormons, become a point of great pride, even bordering on pharisaic legalism.

But do we ever ask why?

A search through old conference talks doesn’t shed much light on the reasons, other than the biblical importance of not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Here I’m not talking about such blasphemy; I’m talking about profanity. They are not the same thing.

In general authorities’ delicate dances around the usual varieties of profanity (largely defined by categories of sex and excrement), there is a noticeable class bias.

In other words, Mormons are not supposed to swear because it’s not middle-class. It’s not respectable. As Elder Ted E. Brewerton quoted in a 1983 talk, “Obscenity, the open use of which used to be a mark of lower social strata, has somehow become acceptable in everyday conversation for everyday people.”

The class intimations of “foul” language are apparent in other Conference talks through the years. In Dallin Oaks’s “Clean and Reverent,” he said he was not able to remember when he was first exposed to such language, but it must have been “from adults in the barnyard or the barracks.” This “barnyard” slap was not exactly directed at the professional classes. He called profanity “public evidence of a speaker’s ignorance, inadequacy, or immaturity. . . . A speaker who mouths profanity . . . confesses inadequacy in his or her own language skills.”

The undercurrent here is that those who swear are of the lower classes; they are coarse and uneducated, not up to the task of “real” adult language. And this lack of refinement and culture is not the image that Church members should wish to project.

Swearing has been on my mind because of a fascinating cognitive science book I read recently: What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.

Why do people in every culture seem to need to swear at times, and when do they? Is swearing harmful? How, linguistically, does it happen that yesterday’s ordinary descriptive word (Chinaman, cock, cunt, retarded) can devolve into a swear word or a slur?

One of the major cognitive findings discussed in the book is that profanity is processed in a different part of the brain than other language. Swearing is housed with “automatic language” words, childhood songs, and nursery rhymes in the basal ganglia, rather than with the pretty, higher-level language that occupies the left hemisphere of the brain.

That’s why aphasia patients, and even some people who have had the entire left side of their brains removed, can’t speak anything intelligible—but then can lash into a string of perfectly understandable curse words when they get frustrated that their everyday language wasn’t understood.

So in a way, the class-based critiques of profane language were correct: Swearing is a lower function—it’s literally subcortical.

There is something primal about swearing, something innate, something we need.

Not all the time. Not every day. People are more likely to swear when they feel threatened or unsafe — which may explain why it has been associated with the lower classes, who are routinely threatened, or why women might use it when objecting to a president who has boasted about committing sexual assault.

In such times, those are precisely the words we need.

The only credible research about harm caused by swearing is a) when swearing is accompanied by physical intimidation and/or verbal abuse or b) it contains slurs and insults.

So to Sister Dalton and to many other Mormons who have chided their fellow Saints for what amounts to class betrayal (and, in Sister Dalton’s case, an accompanying erosion of the pedestal supporting genteel femininity): Lay. Off.

I could go one step further and say “butt out,” because according to What the F, the linguistic ante is upped anytime we insert a body part into an imperative statement.

And I could even go one step further and drop a shocker into the equation — one of those words that ends in a hard consonant, like most profane terms do — but I think I’ll stop there for now. I know that like my Mormon food storage, profane words are there for me, ready and waiting, whenever an emergency comes and I need them most.

Like when we have a fuckwit masquerading as the leader of the free world. Oops, just raided that verbal food storage.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

12 Comments

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  • This article is important, for there are young people all over the place (be they religious or non-religious), who occasionally may ask about “what’s wrong with cussing?”

    That’s a reasonable question. I would never condemn anybody for asking, because lots of people cuss, just about everywhere.

    But I would tell the inquirer, “It’s still true that some people (of whatever flavors) don’t cuss. Of those people who don’t cuss, some call themselves Christians, and those people sometimes offer the following brief reasons…”

    https://www.gotquestions.org/cussing-swearing.html

    “So there ya go! The biblical reasons clearly exist, if Jesus is the actual Ruler and Savior of your life. So what will you do about those reasons?”

  • Listening to a Sunstone podcast on women in pants made me realize yesterday 3 things. 1. I can’t believe my wife and I stayed in the LDS branch of Mormonism as long as we did. 2. The LDS church is as conservative as The Gospel is liberal. 3. The LDS church uses fear and intimidation to control members and a year later it’s quite amazing how great it is to no longer live in fear. I was excommunicated because the threats no longer worked, my testimony of the restored Gospel was too strong for me to pretend that hate was God’s love. My reliance on God was too strong to need a church that ostracized my children (and didn’t even realize that telling them things like “God doesn’t love you when you’re not here” is emotionally abusive). The greatest lie of the LDS church isn’t even that they’re the original, their greatest lie is that the Book of Mormon being true = their church being the only true church. God is real, the Bible & Book of Mormon are the Word of God, the Church of Jesus Christ is true, and the LDS church is just a branch of that church using fear to control and wealth to create illusion. Is you think white men are God’s chosen and all others are there to submit to them, the LDS branch is the Gospel you’re looking for. If you don’t, there’s over 100 other Mormon denominations to choose from. They could use your help building the kingdom.

  • I think each person must decide what constitutes their authentic selves and live by that standard with integrity. If a person believes they have lessened themselves by the use of certain words, then for those people such words have no place. And I respect such standards. My objection comes when a person changes behavior due to some externally imposed standard. Personally, I don’t believe such metaphysical nonsense as words “pollute” a soul. A completely unprovable assertion.

    I happen to enjoy a well-placed F-bomb. And for those who pine for the “good old days” such as WWII, for example, when truth and justice prevailed, may I humbly suggest the war was won amidst a sea of profanity. The blog hints at a larger point as well, which is an overfocus on trivial matters, such as cursing. Since leaving the church a couple of years ago, my notion of morality has changed significantly. At one time, I had no problem watching graphic war violence while in another movie taking offense to a boob flash. I now realize war is the ultimate obscenity, not sex. Violence is offensive. Not two consenting adults doing whatever pleases them.

  • Joseph Smith is reported to have said, “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the smooth-faced hypocrite. I do not want you to think that I’m very righteous, for I am not. There was one good man, and his name was Jesus” (Documentary History of the Church, 5:401).

  • Coming from a New York Jewish culture (but having become LDS), I always noted that Mormon culture always seemed directly connected to traditional British civility, to those trying to be in line with Queen Victoria’s regal and proper notions of exactly how to engage with others. Nothing to be ashamed of. Just a strong line right back to the ancestors, to the pioneers, right? Holding onto something that grounds you to your roots. It feels totally similar to my saying “oy,vey” or, using sarcasm (“don’t ask!) with my tribe. Unfortunately, the insistence that language from the gut is wrong (or shall we say “inappropriate”!) conveys further insistence that communication is meant only from that side of the brain. So limiting! And I can’t even imagine how truncated your culture’s communication becomes in more private matters 🙂

  • “Obscenity, the open use of which used to be a mark of lower social strata, has somehow become acceptable in everyday conversation for everyday people.”

    That was how I was raised (proper British mother and Southern father) and what I still believe for the most part. I do use a few swear words if I’m angry and don’t catch myself and sometimes a single swear word says more than I can express with many words. In excess they’re a crutch. But it is innate as Turrets Syndrome shows. It’s also a sign of our society’s loss of civility and politeness.

  • Jana: A nice post. The priggish, self-righteous culture that is Elaine Daltons needs the strongest condemnation. That you did it with humor deserves three thumbs up!

  • Psalm 137:9 is, according to virtually every bible scholar, a reference to the practice in oriental wafare of not sparing children.

    http://biblehub.com/commentaries/psalms/137-9.htm

    I’m unaware of any bible scholars who equate Psalm 137:8-9 with feminism. Furthermore, every conception of feminism I’ve every examined supports the preservation of children.

    Finally, if you are referencing abortion, please consider that God himself condoned abortion in the case of adultery (presumably when adultery was discovered some of these women were pregnant):

    http://biblehub.com/leviticus/20-10.htm

  • The LDS Church doesn’t have any teachings. Joseph Smith didn’t Ordain women, except when he did, the Lord banned blacks until it was really just Brigham Young. Anti-Mormon propaganda can’t really ever destroy the church because there’s no solid foundation for them to attack or the church to stand on. Anything they say the LDS branch teaches they simply don’t teach any more or lie about. When I was a kid, Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a stone in a hat, as a teen he read the Gold plates while wearing ancient glasses, as an adult he just turned the pages in his hands, now thanks to the Internet he used a rock in a hat again. Supposedly that’s not the Church but the people- yet what is the church if it isn’t the people? Every problem is blamed on membership, yet the members are the body of Christ.

    Joseph Smith was a prophet, the Book of Mormon is the Word of God, that’s why you’re taught to pray on these truths to trick people into believing the LDS branch is legit. It’s fine for those called to it, and it has some good people in it, but it’s not God’s only Church, the leaders do not have the same relationship with the Lord that Smith enjoyed, and their evil teachings that encourage bigotry should be venomously opposed by honest members. Trying to nail down LDS “doctrines” is like nailing jello to a wall, and they will keep losing members until they build on a solid foundation built on trust, not secrecy, truth, not lies, and Christ, not the wisdom of men.

  • > Give me a break

    What aspect of my comment do you object to?

    > The Priesthood of this Church is literally called the Patriarchy

    If you are trying to say that the leadership and structure of the LDS Church is very patriarchal, I completely agree.

    > In case you have not realized this yet, the Prophet is not a fan of the Feminist agenda.

    I completely agree. I interpreted your initial comment as a religiously-based rejection of feminism (derived from an unlikely interpretation of Psalm 137:9).

    I’m fine with feminism, and I’m fine with profanity used with circumspection and moderation.

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