The problem with acts of rebellion is that sometimes they succeed. When you get in someone’s face and do something that’s forbidden, taboo, beyond the pale and unimaginably daring . . . you will shock them. But then you do it again. And again.
Then other people think it’s cool that you’re doing it, so they do it too, because they also want to be daring and rebellious. Soon everyone’s rebelling.
And here’s where you have a problem. Your rebellion has become so widespread that what was once rebellious has become mainstream, and the people who used to find the act of rebellion horrifying suddenly realize the whole thing was kind of silly and pointless in the first place.
Thus, your attack on the taboo has succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. You haven’t just defied the taboo, you’ve completely destroyed it. And that’s when you realize that, in doing so, you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing.
I don’t think the under-40 set is completely unaware of the shock and horror that was once attached to the use of the F word. I think they know all about it. That’s exactly why they drop it in any and every circumstance they can.
They’ve all seen Christmas Story, so they’re well aware of this:
Yep, Ralphie learned the word from his old man, but he couldn’t admit that because it would be too scandalous. So he bore false witness against his friend, and as far as anyone knows the poor kid’s mother still hasn’t stopped screaming.
I’m 51. When I was Ralphie’s age, only the burnouts would say the F-word. Most of us were afraid to even think it. It was that much of a cultural unmentionable. If a teacher heard you say it, you’d be in the principal’s office. If your parents heard you say it, you’re either munching soap or you’re rubbing an awfully sore butt, and you might not even get dinner.
It hardly seemed worth the risk just to utter a one-syllable word when there were plenty of alternatives that wouldn’t get you in trouble at all.
But you know how generations are. If someone tells you that you absolutely must not do something, especially if it’s hard to see what the harm really is, those most invested in their own edginess are going to do it. They’ll start by working it around the edges, but eventually they’ll get more fearless, until others who are far less brave are following their lead and doing the same thing.
And all the while, they keep telling themselves and each other what renegades they are by doing it.
“I’m so f****** tired.”
“The Lions are f****** garbage!”
“I’m drunk as f***!”
“That’s a f****** beautiful sunset, Grandma!”
Look at you! Saying f***! You’re f****** dope!
Some of you know I’m a huge Genesis fan, so I recall very well that the 1992 We Can’t Dance tour was the second tour that included the song Invisible Touch, which includes the line “and though she will mess up your life . . .”
The first time they played the song on tour, Phil Collins sang the lyric straight. But in 1992 he decided to get a bit more daring, and he changed the line to “and though she will f*** up your life . . .”
Ooooooh! Pretty daring, Phil! But perhaps a bit too ahead of his time. When Genesis played at Al Gore’s Live Earth concert in 2007, Phil dropped the f-bomb in Invisible Touch exactly as he’d been doing since 1992 . . . and the promoters felt the need to apologize for it.
There was probably no one actually offended at the hearing of the word, but cultural mores still dictated that you couldn’t just say f*** in public like that. That was 2007.
Fast-forward a decade.
My favorite band among those currently active is Foster the People. I love them. Last summer, Angie and I went to see them at the MoPop Festival in downtown Detroit. Here’s the t-shirt lead singer Mark Foster wore, not only at this show but at every show on the tour:
Now let’s leave aside the whole issue of tossing around the racism charge so lightly. That’s for another discussion. The point is Foster probably thought he was being shocking and edgy by wearing a shirt that said you-know-what, but in reality most of the crowd that goes to a Foster the People show loved it. And those who don’t love it can’t be bothered to get upset about it. It’s everywhere, all the time, and it means almost everything.
It can refer to sex. It can refer to hatred. It can refer to condemnation. It can refer to intensity. It can serve as an absolutely meaningless adjective.
In other words, it’s become so ubiquitous and all-encompassing that it doesn’t mean anything at all, and it’s hardly worth your time to take offense at it.
This is your accomplishment, Millennials. You’ve ridden the F-word so far and so fast that you’ve neutered it. Your daring act of rebellion has succeeded so spectacularly that it’s revealed the total pointlessness of the effort.
The F-word is now just a word, like any other word. You say it about as often as you breathe because you’re still working off the template that it proves what a bad-ass you are, but in fact you’ve turned it into a completely pedestrian, emasculated word.
It’s like chewing the same stick of gum for 10 years. It lost its flavor a very long time ago, but you just keep chewing, long after you’ve forgotten why you started in the first place.
I’ve always sort of believed the whole idea of “swear words” was kind of silly. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that “poop” is a perfectly fine way to refer to human excrement, but “shit” is shocking and terrible. They both mean the exact same thing. They’re four-letter combinations turned into one-syllable sounds. But you recoil at the one and shrug at the other, because you learned at some point that this is what you’re supposed to do.
The human posterior can be described as a “butt,” but use the name of a female donkey to describe it – even though that same word is in the Bible – and you’ve violated all acceptable societal standards.
It’s actually pretty stupid.
This is usually the point where my fellow Christians will cite Ephesians 4:29, which tells us:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Obviously I agree completely. What I question is how we’ve decided to define “unwholesome talk.” Word Choice A to describe Concept Z is wholesome, but Word Choice B to describe Concept Z is unwholesome? Why? Who says? Who decides this? And for what reason?
Or is Ephesians 4:29 really warning us against unwholesome ideas? The fraternity bro who’s telling his buddies about how he banged the drunk girl at the party last night is engaged in unwholesome talk, whether he says he banged her, nailed her, f***** her or “made love to her.” The word choices are not the problem. The evil being celebrated is the problem.
But someone decided that certain combinations of sounds that make up words would be deemed “swear words” or “bad words” and we all went along with that, until the inevitable rebellion that mainstreamed the bad words so that they were no longer really all that bad – and we discovered that they were never really all that good or bad in the first place. They were just words.
So congratulations, Millennials. The F-word is dead. It’s still a word, but it’s lost its sting and its ability to horrify because you’ve used it to death. The Ralphies of today will no longer have to eat soap. But also: No one is impressed by your F-bomb droppings. You’ll have to find something new to prove what a rebel you are.
I’d like to make a suggestion: Give your life to Jesus. In the current culture, it’s about the most rebellious thing you can do.
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Powers and Principalities (2009): Twenty years ago, Clay Bender saw the face of spiritual evil with the naked eye while attending a party. Now, Clay’s terrifying spiritual gift returns, showing him that a supernatural threat is looming – one that could threaten everyone in Royal Oak. As the community grapples with bizarre electrical disturbances and a horrible train derailment, only Clay can recognize the true nature of the strange events, and he and his two closest friends have little time to battle the city’s demons – even as all three are forced to face their own. (Buy Now button for signed hard copy: $15.99. Amazon button for digital download: $2.99)
Pharmakeia (2010): Kyla Spears is being warned – in terrifying dreams – of grisly and violent tragedies looming for young people in Royal Oak. But her spiritually gifted friend Clay Bender is reluctant to help, and her feelings for one charming young man threaten her newfound spiritual integrity and her ability to face the truth about what’s really behind the threat. (Buy Now button for signed hard copy: $15.99. Amazon button for digital download: $2.99)