Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

Dale "Potty Mouth" Earnhardt Jr.

For someone who lives this far north, I have a surprising number of friends and acquaintances who are NASCAR fans. I can’t count the number of times I have heard them defend it as a sport, and not just some sort of car rally. Like most types of sport or entertainment, NASCAR has many who follow it fanatically. I can’t imagine why, but I have been told on good authority that the reason I do not love it is simply that I do not understand it. I guess it holds true even in racing that it is difficult to love or even enjoy what one does not understand.

I was quite surprised by the recent controversy surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his little slip of the tongue. A couple of weeks ago, after winning the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway and during a subsequent interview with NBC he uttered a profanity of the four-letter variety (beginning with “s” and ending in “t” – I guessing you can fill in the blanks). NASCAR took swift action, fining him $10,000, which for a professional driver is but a pittance. Of more importance, they deducted 25 Nextel Cup points, which dropped him from first to second place in the race for the Cup. Much has been said about whether or not NASCAR was right in taking this action. The actions need to be understood in the context of the infamous Janet Jackson incident at the Superbowl last year and also in the context of NASCAR being a sport which is very popular in the Bible belt. I believe it is the only professional sport that begins with a prayer – something that indicates who watches it.

Last week I read an interesting interview with Earnhardt Jr. where he gave his justification for swearing.

I hope they understand that it was in jubilation, and I know me and those other guys that got fined let it slip, but it’s two different circumstances.

I think that when you’re happy and joyous about something and it happens, I think it’s different than being angry and cursing in anger. Of course we don’t want to promote that. But if a guy is in Victory Lane jumping up and down and let’s a “s–” slip out, I don’t think that’s something we need go hammering down on.

I think it’s definitely two different things when a guy is cussing in anger and a guy says s– in jubilation in Victory Lane. I was pretty happy about winning the race. If it came out, it was a mistake. But I don’t think it’s the same.

The first thing I noticed is that he is almost entirely unrepentant for what he said. He does say that “if it came out, it was a mistake” which I suppose we could understand as a vague admission of guilt, but it does not seem to carry much conviction. Of course that isn’t surprising, and frankly many people must be mystified at how one little word could cause such an uproar, especially when he could have uttered far worse. The word he used is common in every office and every school across the country and I doubt there are many who have not used it at one time or another. I am sure that next time he wins a race he will guard his tongue, but out of avoidance, not conviction.

The second observation is that he makes the distinction between angry swearing and joyful swearing. That is interesting, isn’t it? He provides a context for the word in which he feels it is appropriate to use it. In celebration, he believes, it is well and good, but in anger it is inappropriate. How very post-modern.

This is not the first time I have heard people defending “joyful swearing.” I have heard other believes defend their use of inappropriate words and phrases by stating that they were not uttered out of anger. That would seem to indicate that they believe the words they use are merely empty vessels that serve to convey an emotion and have no real value in and of themselves. The words are not nearly as important as the emotion which they express. Therefore the same word can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the emotion it is born from.

And in a sense this must be true. There are no combinations of letters that are somehow inherently evil. It is the meaning behind words – the emotions or desires behind them – that turns standard words into cuss words. Probably the clearest example is in the word “damn” which became a swear word when the intention behind it became “I hope you are damned to hell.”

I got this far into writing this article and decided to do a Google search for this topic to see what others had written about it. I came across an article written by Frederica Mathewes-Green and published in Christianity Today. She says “English is unusually rich language, with over half a million words, about five times the size of French. If there’s something you want to say, you can probably find a way to say it. Naughty words become a blank token we can stick in any sentence as a substitute for really thinking through what we’re trying to say. If Earnhardt hadn’t been in the habit of using this word casually, he could have come up with something equally eloquent for the occasion. I’m not particularly offended that he used this word, though I regret that such words are becoming more common while so many thousands of other words get used rarely or not at all. Our vocabulary is becoming more and more narrow, until one day the English spoken in the streets will be reduced to a few grunts and hand gestures.”

I believe she is quite right, that if Earnhardt Jr. had not already been using this word as part of his common vocabulary it would not have slipped during a moment of joy. I have long realized that the use of swear words is mostly a crutch for those who are incapable of expressing themselves more eloquently and appropriately. The expression he used, “It don’t mean s—t” could have been said in a multitude of ways, each of which would have been better and would have offended far fewer NASCAR fans and english teachers.

Behind all the arguments about whether saying a cuss word is appropriate or not, is God’s wisdom. He tells us that we are to moderate our behavior and to maintain control of our emotions. We are allowed to be angry, but not to allow anger to control us. We are to think before we act, knowing that we are his emissaries – his representatives. With this position comes responsibility. While the combination of letters that form the word Earnhardt spoke may not be inherently evil, the world knows what they mean and knows that they convey anger and disdain. If we must express anger, joy or disappointment, we are able to. But we must use words that convey them in a godly sense so that we can glorify Him in everything we do and say.