The March 24th Reason Rally wouldn’t have been much of a story if there wasn’t some salacious controversy. Thankfully, Tim Minchin provided us with plenty. During his performance, he sang a song about the pope in which he dropped no less than 75 F-Bombs. If you’re not familiar, the main point of the song (edited, of course) is “Bomb the mother-bombing Pope.” (If you’d like to hear the uncensored version, complete with lots and lots of explicit lyrics, check it out HERE. It is most definitely not safe for work. Be warned.)
Many people have objected to Tim’s performance. Facebook threads have exploded as Christians denounce him for blasphemy. A smaller number of atheists who attended the Rally with their children have expressed concern that the event was billed as “family friendly.”
To begin with, let’s dismiss the accusations of blasphemy. The whole point of the Reason Rally was to promote the idea that religion is not sacred, and deserves no special privilege in American society. So… blasphemy was precisely the point.
There’s a more reasonable point to be made about the “family friendly” aspect, however. The Reason Rally was billed that way, and there were lots of children about. The performance was right in the middle of the day, when children were most likely to be there. There are some atheist parents who prefer that their children are not exposed to cursing. So there is some legitimacy to the complaint that Tim’s song went over the top.
However, there are also some good arguments that it was a three minute microcosm of everything the Reason Rally stands for. The first, and most powerful argument is the (ahem) explicit message in the song itself. The edited version goes like this: “If you are more offended by all the profanity in this song than the fact that the Catholic Church facilitates and covers up priests raping children, then there is something very wrong with you.”
The implication is that religion skews morality. Christians are notorious for their censorship campaigns. They throw a fit over profanity, and insist on “Explicit Language” warnings on movies, music, comedy shows, and books. They have mounted such a campaign against nudity and sex that it’s hard to find an R-rated movie these days with more than a two second nude scene, as compared to the 70s and 80s when lengthy nude scenes were part of any self-respecting teen romp or slasher film. Of course, there has never been a single reputable study that has demonstrated a causal link between childhood exposure to either profanity or sex and adult dysfunction. Not one. Yet, Christians go nuts anytime someone curses when a child might hear. Inexplicably, Christians seem apathetic over the frightening increase in graphic, gory violence in the media, despite mountains of evidence that exposure to violence is harmful to children. How can we not see this as horribly skewed morality?
Maybe we atheists are drinking the Kool-Aid, so to speak, in getting offended over naughty language. Tim’s song is offensive to some. No doubt. It has lots and lots and lots of dirty words. But in what universe can we possibly even attempt to compare offense over cursing to offense over children being raped? The fact is, profanity in front of children is uncomfortable for the parents. They feel embarrassment at the thought that their children will repeat the words in an inappropriate circumstance. But the children don’t know what the words mean, or when they are appropriate. (If they do, then what are the parents concerned about?) An unwelcome F-bomb in front of a child is inconvenient for a parent who may have to have an uncomfortable discussion before they’re ready. That’s it. That’s the absolute extent of the damage cursing has been demonstrated to cause. And yet, we go nuts when someone curses in front of children. (There have been studies that have found correlations between cursing in violent media and child/teen aggression, but this means little so long as it is linked to violence, which we know is causal.)
To put it more succinctly: Since Tim’s F-Bomb Extravaganza, I’ve seen no less than ten calls for apology, policy changes for future rallies, or other such measures to make sure it never happens again. I haven’t seen one person start a thread about what we can do right now to hold the Catholic Church accountable for raping children, and make sure it doesn’t happen ever again. Can we really say that we are not the very people Tim was excoriating for being more offended over cursing than rape? Do not our actions betray us?
All children will learn to curse, and all children will grow up and have sex. Both cursing and sex are activities that Christians have labeled as evil, despite the complete lack of evidence that they are in fact harmful. Cursing, even more than sex, is harmless so long as we treat it as harmless. While there are real dangers to practicing unsafe sex, there is nothing that a curse word can possibly do to cause harm if nobody takes it seriously.
“Family Friendly” is a Christian term. In America, it means “devoid of sex or cursing.” One wonders why the Reason Rally even used the term, since it was clear from the get-go that there would be plenty of naughty language. Penn Jillette? Tim Minchin? Eddie Izzard? Paul Provenza? Really? Can we honestly believe nobody thought there would be cursing? We can imagine that the organizers, knowing that Tim would be dropping 75 curse words in 3 minutes, could have made a note to that effect so that parents who are offended by 75 F-Bombs could take their children to the Camp Quest tent for his presentation. But we must ask the obvious question: If parents with children were comfortable through all the rest of the Rally’s curses, what makes the compression of 75 of them into 3 minutes unacceptable?
Cursing is a part of life. It is a way of saying, “This one goes up to eleven.” It’s a way of expressing exceptionally strong emotions. It’s a way to joke. It’s a way to reduce pain. No kidding! Cursing reduces pain. Check out the Mythbusters for a fun demonstration of the principle, which has been proven in more scholarly fashion. (Both links are safe for work.) Cursing also has cultural context, just as sex does. Child cognitive development studies demonstrate that children are capable of understanding appropriateness at a very early age. Concepts such as “we don’t curse at the dinner table,” or “we close the door when we masturbate” are very easy for most children to understand. It is well demonstrated that “sex-positive” methods of child-rearing are healthy, and that children raised in this way learn sexual boundaries better than those who are shielded from the pervasiveness of sex in human life. The same principle works with cursing. Shielding is a way of pretending it doesn’t exist — not for the benefit of the children, but to avoid the discomfort of adults.
In the end, I think atheist parents have an obligation to examine their own sensibilities with the same magnifying lens that they use to rail against Christians for imposing their beliefs on others. It is Christians’ right to avoid contraception, abortion, or gay marriage if they choose. It is not their right to tell others they must abide by the same moral standards. By the same logic, atheist parents who choose to abide by the Christian moral judgment against some words as naughty are within their rights to take their children away from Tim’s performance. (Some did. And that’s fine.) But calls for either censorship or adherence to Christian definitions of “Family Friendly” defeat the whole purpose of the rally, which is to put an end to superstition as a measure of what we allow in society.
This is not to say that we must throw our hands in the air and be content with anyone cursing anytime they feel like it. Appeals to this kind of logic are just red herrings. Of course there are circumstances where it is appropriate to speak in measured, non-emotional ways. Science journals, presidential addresses, and inter-cultural gatherings are examples of places where cursing is best avoided. Each person has an obligation to understand what cursing means in a specific context, and to craft their speech in a way that achieves the intended cultural goal. But this observation does not extrapolate to the argument that parents who are not ready to have the “cursing talk” with their children have a right to tell other adults when they may or may not curse, or to suggest that anyone is “harming” their children by cursing. Raping children harms them. Cursing in front of them (which is different from cursing at them) does not.
Was Tim Minchin’s song in poor taste? Maybe it was, and maybe it was not. In either case, there is absolutely nothing about the song that could cause even a millionth of the harm caused by child rape. Better that a thousand comedians each say a thousand F-bombs on live TV to every child in America than for one child to be raped by a priest. Anyone who says differently needs to examine their morality very, very carefully.