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.