May 8, 2011

What is profane culture?

This is the last in a series of three posts sketching my preliminary understanding of democratic, sacred, and profane culture.

In an online column, Dennis Prager, a tireless advocate of Judaism, discusses a song, "Fuck You," nominated in 2010 to be the Grammy Awards' Record of the Year. Prager says:

[T]he music industry, from producers to artists, is largely populated by people who regard social and cultural norms as stifling. Their professional lives are dedicated to lowering that which is elevated, to destroying that which uplifts, and to profaning that which is held sacred.[1]

A "song" such as "Fuck You" is considered profane by Prager because he holds that all individuals, as the creatures of a perfect God, deserve respect. (The term "fuck" also demeans sexuality.) In a religious context, a profane act is one that violates, demeans, or affronts the sacred, where "sacred" refers to God or something closely related to God.[2]

SECULAR EXAMPLES. I think the concept "profane" is valid in an objective, secular context as well. The profane is that which violates, demeans, or affronts the sacred in man. (See the previous post, "What does 'sacred' mean?")

The weapons in the profane assault on the sacred in man include the following.

1. Speech, in many forms. The issue here is not a curse or other expression that pops from my subconscious after I accidentally drop a brick on my foot. Instead the issue is the conscious choice of a word that assaults one's sense of the sacred. Examples include: (a) "Trash talk," which is "disparaging, taunting, or boastful comments especially between opponents trying to intimidate each other" (The Merriam-Webster online dictionary). Trash talk is communication used between individuals who are in conflict with each other, not trading with each other. Trash talk thus abandons etiquette -- the set of rules and principles designed to facilitate trade between individuals for mutually selfish benefit in society.[3] (b) Sexual terms used as a verbal assault and expressed in demeaning slang ("screw you"). (c) Terms that reduce a value-charged situation to a foul concrete ("makes me vomit"). (d) Slang terms for human organs or bodily functions -- when they do not even need to be named in a particular context -- often with a psychologically revealing special focus on excretion ("sack of shit," "pissed off"). (e) Unearned, undignified, and unwelcome familiarity ("Hey, bro!" or individuals as "folks"). (f) Gangster ("gangsta") talk, including terms of violence and denigration of others. (g) Foul language in general, including fig-leaf acronyms ("WTF").

2. Ways of dress, such as shoes with intentionally untied laces, sagging pants, and torn clothing (as a sign of "poverty chic") -- all for "effect."

3. Personal mannerisms such as slouching or moving in a deliberately jerky or otherwise undignified manner.

4. "Art" that demeans the sacred, directly or indirectly -- such as "gangsta rap" or a painting of a beautiful woman whose skin is marred by disease.

5. Styles of confrontation with other individuals, such as an "in your face" style of speaking that is loud, harsh, insulting, condescending, or physically an invasion of the victim's personal space.

6. Graffiti and other forms of vandalism, as assaults on property rights and other values.

7. Ridicule of an objective valuer, for example, laughing at the holder of objective values by belittling his accent or weight -- allegedly as "humor."

8. Attacking someone while avoiding responsibility, for example, by hiding behind the verbal shield of "jus' saying'" or "just kidding." This approach also denies the target the dignity of being faced openly and honestly, as well as respect for his ability to defend himself as a rational being.

ORIGINS OF PROFANE CULTURE?. I see two possible causes of widespread, sustained profane culture -- psychological and philosophical. The common psychological cause -- easily observed and traced to its roots -- is envy, which is hatred of superiority (real or imagined), or, as philosopher Ayn Rand stated it, "hatred of the good for being the good."[4]

The philosophically motivated democratic movement strives to make everyone equal, often at the price of lowering the high. Is it the cause of profane culture, which tears down the sacred? I seldom see serious, long-term advocates of democratic culture explicitly encourage profanation. What I do see is advocates of democratic culture sanctioning profanation by remaining silent about it. In my experience in speaking with advocates of democratic culture, their usual justification for silence and sanction is their claim that profane culture is merely another manifestation of the culture of "the people" and therefore deserves toleration.

APPLICATION. The kind of world I want to live in is one that rejects the profane and reveres the objectively sacred. Profane culture appears in the lives of upholders of the sacred only if there are no gatekeepers for the sacred or if the gatekeepers are lax. "Open" online discussion groups -- in which any anonymous person can say anything -- are an example.

Making Progress is not an "open" discussion group. Your respectful comments -- additions, deletion, or corrections -- about my notes above are welcome.

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

[1] Dennis Prager, "'F_ _ _ You' from the Music Industry," in "Dennis's Columns," at For more on my philosophically negative but personally mixed views of Dennis Prager, see: and [2] For a Christian's discussion of sacred and profane in a religious context, with Biblical quotations: [3] For discussion of insults: [4] For the concept of envy in Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism: Ayn Rand, "Envy," The Ayn Rand Lexicon.


Roberto Brian Sarrionandia said...

Thank you for posting this. I think this is a very useful delineation of the concept "profanity".

I hadn't considered this application of ethics to language: not only must language be objective, but objectively beneficial.

Etiquette is indeed the trader principle applied to communication, and rejecting it is certainly abandoning that principle. One could elaborate further: Since all human interaction, if it is to be rationally selfish, must abide by the trader's principle of mutual benefit, then one must observe the rules of etiquette if he has anything to gain from such an interaction. If one's estimate is truly that there is no value to be gained from any particular interaction, the reasonable thing to do is not to abandon etiquette but to abandon the interaction as the waste of time that it is.

Piz said...

The late E.G. Ross once said that profanity has a valid use as an expression of the intensity of one's views. I have found that to be both very true and fucking useful.

I wrote the previous sentence as I did not to offend but to illustrate what I'm talking about. Most likely, when you read that sentence your attention shifted considerably, which was the effect I was aiming for. I'm not talking about screaming profane words at people, but inserting it judiciously as emphasis.

If you would like to comment on this, Burgess, I would be very interested in your opinion.

Michael Pizolato

Burgess Laughlin said...

1. If I were writing an autobiography, I would make clear to the reader which values and events were most important to me -- objectively. The way to do that is to build a case, offering evidence and an argument. If the intensity of my valuing isn't relevant to -- that is, doesn't logically support -- the subject and theme of what I am writing, then the intensity does not belong in the writing. (For the role of subject and theme, see Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, editor Robert Mayhew, Chapter 2.)

Summary: The writer needs to ask himself whether the article he is writing is about the writer or about some other subject.

2. If the writer is a narcissist, and therefore psychologically incapable of writing about any subject without injecting himself into it, even though he is not the subject of the article, then he might resort to profanity in order to convey the intensity of his valuation.

3. Where the intensity of the writer's valuation is relevant to the subject and theme, then the challenge is to learn to say that in the clearest and most efficient way. That learning requires effort and a long-term perspective -- virtues opposed to democratic and profane culture, but worthy of one who has a sense of the sacred.

4. One other situation justifies the use of profanities: A report from a cultural pathologist. There, the profanities would be the subject matter being examined, not the means of communication.

Brad Williams said...

Thank you, Burgess, for this helpful study of profanity.

Every example of profanity you give is anti-conceptual, a tip-of-the-hat to emotionalism, and a rejection of the listener's or observer's faculty of reason. Each profane act contains the implicit principle: "what you _think_ doesn't matter" -- which involves a more fundamental principle: "for *me*, the importance of reason, even your reason, ends right here."

Thus it may seem that profanity is justified sometimes ("statists can fuck off") as a kind of legitimate accusation -- but this is rather an unintentional admission of one's own lack of total dedication to the use of reason and total rejection of whim.

Unfortunately, our popular culture is infused with the culture of the profane. Your post will help a rational person to realize why the "impulse" to use profanity for seemingly legitimate evocative purposes should be checked.

I think Ayn Rand's fiction is instructive here. For example, how did Galt respond to up-and-coming mass murderer? In a room alone with Dr. Ferris, Galt said nothing. What if he had instead said "Go to hell!" -- how would that change Galt's character and why?

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I have enjoyed this series because I think we all have a sense of the sacred and profane, although many only consider these ideas as related to supernaturalism. One interesting thing to me is that the word "profane" simply means ordinary in Latin. So originally the sacred was set apart from that which was ordinary. (This makes more sense in Hebrew, where the word for sacred, kadosh, actually means set apart). But in the vernacular use of the term, profane has come to mean lower than ordinary, and has a naughty connotation. I am not sure when this change in meaning occured, but it was sometime in the modern period. I think it says something about the culture in that what are ordinary human functions, particularly sex, have been demoted to something lower or more nasty than the merely ordinary.

Jason said...

I think this is completely wrong, and there's a ton to say on the matter, too much to even barely get into it here, but I wanted to say something. You are forgetting the main reason that "crude" (or even actually crude) language and behavior is, as such, good: it allows a person to be clever and keep mentally sharp in an immediate way on a regular basis.

It's creative. Its immediacy and regularity is unmatched by any other productive, recreational, or social activity.

Socializing, i.e., dealing with other people, especially in humorous ways, is a distinct and crucial value. Things like facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice are enormously intimate and important to experience and partake in.

Cleverness, such as crude humor, is like food and sex for the mind. That form of immediate satisfaction, of completing a joke so often in a day, both keeps one's mind sharp and keeps one playful and benevolent. Even if it goes too far or becomes too desperate, it comes from a good place.

Here’s one good, short example of something clever, not crude or vulgar at all, just funny, that showcases how humor, in this case mocking over-formality, is so valuable:

The video title is: For Your Consideration: "Knuckle Up". It's with Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones.

Jason said...

Regarding the Cee Lo Green song, it's interesting to note that in our supposedly widely vulgar, hold-nothing-back culture, the only version of that song that gets played on the radio and widely accessible venues is titled "Forget You," with that sanitized lyric throughout the song.

Michael said...


I can see how constantly thinking fast and making witty responses would make one sharp minded, but I don't see where crudeness fits in