Swearing off swearing

Clean speech vs. free speech is an endless debate

Published: Friday, April 8 2011 4:10 p.m. MDT

A signup table beckons students to join the No Cussing Club at Mountain Crest High School.

Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News

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HYRUM — Corden Westover reacts to the table set up outside the Mountain Crest High School cafeteria like it's a snake with a lethal bite, throwing his hands up in the air and taking four shuffling steps back.

Across the front of the offending piece of furniture, someone's taped a hand-made, orange and blue paper sign. "NO CUSSING CLUB," it reads.

"Whoa," says Westover, an 18-year-old senior from Wellsville, nearly trampling two sophomores in his rush to steer clear. "No thank you. I reserve my right to free speech."

It's an argument that dates back before Shakespeare, back before the Bible, almost as far back, experts say, as the genesis of human speech. For as long as people have been dropping expletives, others have been fighting for clean language.

Flip through the channels during prime time or pick a movie — nearly any movie — and it appears that profanity is winning the battle. From 2005 to 2010, swearing on prime time television increased by 69 percent, the Parents Television Council reported. More movies are rated "R" for profanity than for sex, violence or drug use, Brigham Young University researchers found.

A recent analysis of the use of swear words on Twitter suggests, however, that the media is not an accurate reflection of mainstream America. While the number of people who used cuss words was high on the coasts where most television and movies are produced, in other areas of the country, many Americans are still keeping it clean.

Utahns swear less than anyone else in the country, said Daniel Huffman, the University of Wisconsin lecturer who put the map together.

"It's 'cause of the Mormons," Westover announced, when he heard about the trend.

He's no expert. A professed curser and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Westover is a walking contradiction to his own theory. But he's got the right idea.

Religion is a major driving force behind the campaign for clean language, said Timothy Jay, author of "Cursing in America" and a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The world's four largest religions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — all discourage using foul language.

In the Christian Bible, James summarizes the issue thus: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?"

Buddha described swearing as "disturbing the mind" and contrary to the Universal laws of nature. Hindus believe to swear is to curse oneself.

"What we have in America is a force counterforce between freedom of speech and a more conservative religious movement that wants to restrict it," Jay said.

Gage Bleazard, the 16-year-old sophomore who started Mountain Crest's No Cussing Club, was inspired to take a stand against swearing by the bishop of his LDS ward. One day in Sunday school, after Bleazard and his classmates had closed their scriptures, the bishop observed that he'd heard a lot of swearing at football games and school activities.

"He challenged us to do something about it," Bleazard said. "I figured, 'I can do that.' "

Bleazard got the format for his club from an 18-year-old California Mormon who had already rallied some 50,000 people to the cause. Raised a Mormon, Bleazard had always been taught that swearing was wrong. But it wasn't until he'd tried it out for himself that he realized why his parents encouraged him to avoid certain words.

"It made it harder to concentrate on the good things in life," he said. "It was harder to feel the spirit (of God)."

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