Standing Up to Profanity


We can be an influence for good in speaking out for clean, respectful language.

When my brother Mark installed a trampoline in his backyard, the neighborhood children were drawn to it like a magnet. The family hastily formulated some restrictions regarding its use and posted a list of rules in the yard.

I was reviewing the list with seven-year-old Kelsie: “No playing under the trampoline. … No food on the trampoline. … No jumping with shoes.” Kelsie seriously confided to me, “We have the most trouble with number three, ‘No swearing.’”

“What do you do when someone breaks that rule?” I asked her.

“I say, ‘We don’t allow that kind of language on our property.’”

Even in first grade, Kelsie had encountered profanity. But she had been taught the importance of appropriate language, and her parents were good examples in their home.

We may know the use of profane and vulgar language is wrong. We may be free of this habit ourselves, and perhaps swearing is never heard in our homes. Yet it is likely that we and our children are frequently “vexed with the filthy conversation” (2 Pet. 2:7) of others in school, in business settings, or during leisure activities. Certainly we can avoid entertainment that relies on the use of profanity, but often we are placed in situations where we have little control over what others say. Yet even in those situations, we can be an influence for good in speaking out for clean, respectful language.

A common form of profanity is the desecration of the name of Deity. Even many who rarely use other bad language have found this to be an acceptable form of self-expression. Often this is connected with violent feelings and with other harsh and profane words, further degrading the sacred terms for Deity.

Many members have heard of President Spencer W. Kimball’s request to a hospital attendant who swore in his presence: “Please! Please! That is my Lord whose names you revile” (“President Kimball Speaks Out on Profanity,” Ensign, Feb. 1981, 3). Are we as courageous and kind in speaking out for right when we hear profanity? Or are we silent because we feel we will offend our friends and coworkers?

An Influence for Good

Just as an outspoken public has brought about sweeping changes in laws regulating the smoking of cigarettes, individual Church members can be an influence for good in reducing the flood of profanity.

Gary worked with many salespeople who profaned the name of Deity. He was troubled by this but wondered how to mention it without damaging his friendship with his associates. When he heard a sacrament meeting speaker tell of his success in confronting the same problem, Gary felt encouraged to try a similar approach. He took each friend aside confidentially and told them how much he appreciated their friendship, adding, “But you know, when you use the name of the Lord like you do, it makes me uncomfortable. His name is sacred to me.”

Spoken in kindness, this remark without exception received a response similar to, “I know you’re right, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t do it; it’s just become a habit.”

In no case was anyone offended. In fact, some opportunities arose for sharing Latter-day Saint standards and beliefs. Speaking up required courage on Gary’s part, but he knew these men and women had “known better” at some time in their lives and simply needed a gentle reminder.

After hearing Gary relate his experience, I took courage when a similar situation occurred in my own life. For many years I was a member of a 120-voice women’s barbershop chorus. I enjoyed my friendship with the other singers, none of whom were Church members.

On one occasion, a new piece of music—a medley of songs from a Broadway musical—was introduced. One part of the medley called for a group to speak some phrases while the chorus sang in the background. In these spoken phrases, the name of Deity was used several times in a common or profane way.

Although I would not be required to say these words, I was upset that they would be used at all. I spoke to the director and others of her staff. When no change was made, I personally boycotted participation in the music to a certain degree.

The music remained part of the chorus repertoire for a time. But I noticed a subtle change. The director, who had used these irreverent terms frequently in her own speech, seemed to be making an effort not to do so. When she slipped during rehearsals, she looked at me apologetically, and once she even mouthed the words “Sorry, Paula.” My concerns about profanity became known to others in the group, and the frequency of its use diminished in my presence. I received encouragement from others in the chorus, and one friend told me she had spoken to the director in support of my position.

The Lord’s counsel to “be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile” (D&C 31:9) reminds us that our defense of what is right must be based on friendship and consideration for offenders that will outshine the momentary criticism. They must know that we dislike the bad language we hear but that we value their friendship.

“A Bright Light in the Darkness”

Is the fear of being shunned reason enough for us to tolerate a profane world without speaking out in favor of wholesome speech? While some may choose to avoid us because of our standards, it has been my experience that many who do not live those standards themselves are attracted to us and will speak up for us or shield us from the profane language of others. “Language has its own ethics, and one who communicates truth is like a bright light in the darkness,” said Elder Ted E. Brewerton, now an emeritus member of the Quorum of the Seventy (“Profanity and Swearing,” Ensign, May 1983, 73).

Even when we say nothing publicly about our beliefs, our righteous habits can cast a “light of truth” into the lives of others, reminding them of wholesome values they know to be right. However, a good example alone is often not a cure for profanity. If “the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7), how does He view those who, by their continued silence, condone such actions by others?

President Kimball described a drama he attended that had been a long-running success on Broadway. “The actors … were blaspheming [the Lord’s] sacred name in their common, vulgar talk. They repeated words of a playwright, words profaning the holy name of their Creator. The people laughed and applauded, and as I thought of the writer, the players, and the audience, the feeling came to me that all were party to the crime” (Ensign, Feb. 1981, 4). He recalled the castigation in the book of Proverbs of those who condone evil: “Whoso is partner with a thief hateth his own soul: he heareth cursing, and bewrayeth it not” (Prov. 29:24).

It may seem that our efforts to curtail profanity have little influence beyond our circle of acquaintance. Yet Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles notes, “If we knew how often the obedience of others is affected by our own and how often our stepping forth soon brings forth a whole platoon of helpers and how often our speaking forth soon creates a chorus—we would be even more ashamed of our slackness and our silence” (Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward [1977], 41).

“Slackness and silence” will do little to stop the pollution of profanity that seems to have seeped into every corner of our world. Those who have the courage not only to live their beliefs but to speak in their favor may find unexpected results. As an unknown poet wrote:

You never know when someone
May catch a dream from you.
You never know when a little word
Or something you may do
May open up the windows
Of a mind that seeks the light.
The way you live may not matter at all …
But then again—it might.

Do Not Indulge in Swearing

President Gordon B. Hinckley

“We cannot indulge in swearing. We cannot be guilty of profanity; we cannot indulge in impure thoughts, words, and acts and have the Spirit of the Lord with us.” President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Converts and Young Men,” Ensign, May 1997, 49.

More on this topic: See John S. Gholdston, “Words of Darkness, Words of Light,” Ensign, Jan. 1992, 56–59; Dallin H. Oaks, “Reverent and Clean,”Ensign, May 1986, 49–52; Spencer W. Kimball, “President Kimball Speaks Out on Profanity,”Ensign, Feb. 1981, 3–5. Visit www.lds.org or see Church magazines on CD.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:

  1. 1.

    What prevents us at times from tactfully speaking out against profanity?

  2. 2.

    How can we politely let others know we are offended by their language?

  3. 3.

    What are the potential benefits of tactfully making known our views on profanity? Do these benefits outweigh the risks?

  4. 4.

    If we struggle with profanity ourselves, what are some ways we can overcome this habit?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Paula K. Boothe is a member of the Damascus Ward, Gresham Oregon South Stake.