This one, on cussing and cultural taboos, comes to us from Scott Larousse.

Of recent trends in language, the increased frequency of curse words stands out. On Twitter, in speeches, in pop books, and in online news and opinion outlets, certain words are on the rise. A recent Gmail ad invited me to sign up for its listserv by clicking a button labeled “Hello Yeah”; The A.V. Club’s report on the Oscars is headlined, “Here’s what we know about the great Best Picture f*%&-up of 2017.” The Net is increasingly rife with cuss-words.

As a kid, I remember our stunned silence when a friend who was a sort of pace-setter for adult behavior uttered the G–D– word on the playground. As we grew up, the world-defying shock of such an utterance gave way to more of a teenage insouciance, a minor conversational act of boldness, a social liberty with those with whom one is comfortable, an act of confidence-signaling, and at its best, linguistic creativity. Like any act of taboo-breaking, cussing sets an individual temporarily over-and-against social conventions, an affirmation of existential freedom or its converse, a statement that no cows are sacred. The latter is an act of adventure, even discovery, breaking down the artifices and declaring that no territory is off-limits to human experience, conversation, and humorizing.

Language is fundamentally social as our sacred cows are social, and cussing, likewise, is an act of intimacy. It declares and enacts a certain comfort-level among a group of people; like a confession, it acts on a confidence that one’s hearers are sympathetic. The use of a particularly taboo word even approaches flattery — we are the ones who can make a home in this off-limits territory, who proceed undaunted by the fears and superstitions of past generations, of a stifling society.

The curious thing about our modern public culture is that everyone treads into this new land together, A.V. Club and inbox-advertisers and, yes, even Christian blogs, all as one. But I suspect this adventure doesn’t indicate an increased willingness to break taboos, so much as an increased willingness to beat a dead horse.

Consider the content of our taboo words. At one point, “damn” and “hell” would’ve been matters of utmost seriousness. Hell was where countless ungodly folk — and perhaps, one day, you, too — might suffer unspeakable torments for all eternity due to your sin, pride, unbelief, et cetera. Nothing could be more serious; “Hell yeah!” would’ve felt like speaking lightly about genocide today. Likewise with the D– word; to say “that damned cobbler made my shoes too small” was to assert that a holy and merciful God had forever exiled the cobbler to hell. Apart from taking a serious matter lightly, this also usurped God’s prerogative to separate sheep from goats, expressing a confidence that “that guy” would be rejected from heaven.

Now of course there’s an exaggeration there. The speaker doesn’t actually mean to assert the cobbler is forever reprobate, which is only the literal meaning. But the literal meaning matters; it is the literal meaning which amplifies the voice of the shoe-wearer’s frustration, even as it trivializes a matter of (eternal) life and death. A reason we use those words so much more frequently is that the concepts of hell and damnation no longer carry the societal gravitas which they once did. Large numbers of people no longer believe in those ideas as religion has declined, and even many devout Christians, I suspect, no longer feel those doctrines with the same threatening salience which once they held. I know that if the idea of hell took up the same amount of real-estate in my mind as it did in previous generations of Christians, I wouldn’t use the word as often or as casually as I do. The same goes for the F-word, as sexual taboos are not nearly as pronounced in our generation as they were in the time before. See below.

So when the A.V. Club trivializes the once-taboo realm of sex in its declamation over the Academy Awards, it is beating a dead horse. That guess finds support in the fate of other curse-words. The B-word and the P-word are never used trivially in popular culture, since we take their subject-matter — the demeaning stereotyping of historically marginalized groups — quite seriously.

So it’s not that our society has become more transgressive, so much as that some subjects are no longer the transgressive ones. We could glean from that the notion that our society isn’t as bold or transgressive as it thinks it is. One might also surmise that the past taboos are quite as serious as our grandparents thought, or that some of our present ones aren’t as serious as we might think.

But I think a sensible view would be that the taboos of any age are, quite likely, very serious matters. The issue is that no one culture can rigorously enforce anything beyond a small slice of the moral law at a time. We had a good bead on the sexual slice of God’s law at one time, even if it was perhaps overdone, as in our stereotypes about the Victorian Era. Now, we might have a very good grasp of the importance of inclusion and equality, but perhaps our culture’s sexual morality has gone off-kilter. Those are all guesses, to be taken or left, but the one sure thing is that we are not nearing the end of some journey toward discovering the real moral code, much as we, just like the Victorians, think we’ve pretty much got it figured out.

That’s not an argument for a relativistic view (all that matters is the moral code of one’s time and place) or a nihilistic one (no moral code truly matters). Rather, the most attractive option would be to assume that both the Victorians and the Progressives were very much onto something, and something very serious. But enacting the taboo, through cussing or otherwise, is, at root, a protest against the enforcement of the prevailing moral codes, a protest at once individually defiant, productive of social intimacy, and possibly arrogant or wrongheaded.

Perhaps one thing the protester gets right is the insistence that the appearance of respect for society’s moral code, in the form of strict adherence, often doesn’t go to the heart, and censure or avoidance are not productive of goodness. The breaking of a taboo creates a safe space for the nonconformists, sinners though they be. That doesn’t justify it, but it does provide a brace of reality against the appearance of perfection — in whatever slice of the moral law which is culturally entrenched — and recalls that all fall short of the glory of perfection, be it Victorian chastity or whatever other ideal is around. In that way, the taboo serves a useful function, suspending the moral order, for a moment, while still publicly affirming its truth and goodness.

How should we use taboos? They probably have some use in deconstructing certain arbitrary forms of law, such as the reputed excess of Victorian public purity. But, as we are dwellers all in time and space, it might be naïve to assume we can reliably distinguish between true and false moralities of our own day — a naivety we would share with the Victorians, the Ancient Greeks, and everyone in between. One might venture that breaking taboos is useful, as a sort of pressure-release valve from stifling public compliance, but overdone, as the identity of the bold rebel defying an artificial, arbitrary moral consensus just appeals too damn much to our pride.

A more certain conclusion is that the taboo will always be present, as social moralities of one form or another will always be, and they will always be broken by the intractable mismatches between public compliance and the vagaries of our private hearts. This persistence supports the Christian view that sin comes not from without but from within, and rigidly enforced compliance with public norms has never changed the heart. For our fracked-up habit of always transgressing for the sake of transgression, we need something more.