The Horns of a Dilemma

Detail from Judgement by Jacob de Backer (16th century)Once again, I find myself drawn to bad language.  As usual, the cause is e-mail or, rather, e-mail filtering; a recent customer newsletter was rejected by a small number of (school) e-mail systems on the grounds of profanity.  It is not my intention to write offensive newsletters (they are mainly about new publications), so the compilation strategy is to avoid swearing.  In cases where words only have vulgar meanings, this is easy.  It gets harder, as I have mentioned before, where words have multiple meanings dependent on context.  Filtering is not good at context.  I am returning to this topic because the offending word was an odd one.  I think the cause of the problem was the title of David Pemberton’s Dance with the Devil.  Why is the devil banned from my communications?  The question is whether or not “devil” constitutes profanity.

That may seem obvious.  You could argue that the devil, being in opposition to God is, by definition, profane.  However, that which is profane is not necessarily profanity.  (Profane means ‘not sacred’ whereas profanity is swearing or other language that should be avoided in polite society.)  It might also be argued that ‘devil’ is a religious concept: a personification of evil.  But if you go to the source material, you will find relatively little about the devil in the Christian bible – mainly the temptation of Christ (by Satan) as described in three of the gospels, and various instances of “casting out devils” (describing demonic possession).  This should not be such a surprise: Christianity is monotheistic, believing in one omnipotent god; any elevation of the devil beyond the occasional anthropomorphic personification of evil would be to recreate a dualistic system along the lines of Manichaeism (which held that the universe was a perpetual struggle between equal opposing forces of good and evil).  So where do we get the notion of the devil as a consistent figure – the one with the horns and goat’s feet?  Largely through a combination of later Christian mythologizing and mediaeval art.  The former is a matter of joining biblical dots (notably from the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelations) to create a more coherent whole than appears in any of the sources.  The second is a matter of laziness.  In Anna Karenina, when Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” he was talking lazy rubbish.  All happy families are different, but it is much easier – more dramatic – to describe the myriad ways people make each other miserable than it is to depict happiness.  Similarly, depicting the tortures of hell and the attendant demons is far easier than a dull depiction of the tranquillity of heaven.

So what we have is the over-elaboration of a metaphor.  Does that constitute profanity?  I don’t think so.  You can’t discuss the religious concept unless you name it.  I suppose that there is an argument to be made that representations of the devil (such as the 16th century one by Jacob de Backer shown here) constitute profanity, but it’s a pretty abstruse argument.  Then we have the original source of my problem: ‘dance with the devil’ is a metaphor, not a literal depiction or instruction.  Old Harry appears in similar expressions like ‘devil in the detail’ and nobody takes those as literal or offensive.  (At least, I don’t know of anybody who does.  Would anyone care to speak, for example, for the Plymouth Brethren in this respect?  I pick on them as a group who take such things very seriously and much more prescriptively than most of society.)

So are there any instances where use of ‘devil’ constitutes profanity?  Well yes.  You can call someone a devil offensively.  You can also tell them to go to the devil.  These days those uses constitute a vanishingly small minority when compared to legitimate religious use and common metaphor.  So filtering out e-mails that contain the word devil is every bit as lazy as the mediaeval depictions of the tortures of hell.


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