In his pursuit of establishing Sociology as a separate academic discipline, Emile Durkheim provided interesting, and novel, theories related to society and social phenomena. Many of the students in this class have already commented about Durkheim’s fascinating conceptions of both crime and suicide. I too began to think hard about these topics, and found myself nodding along as I read what initially struck me as oxymoronic stances. Crime is necessary for society? Suicide is in fact a collective phenomenon and not an individual one? Durkheim’s thorough analyses of both topics, and the way he carefully lays out his ideas as he builds toward his larger points, are nothing short of masterful. But rather than simply praising the man often referred to as “ED” in our class slides, I would like to look at the most recent aspect of society that we have read about, Religion.
It seems to me that Durkheim is most fascinating when he appears to be paradoxical, and his thoughts on religion do not lack that quality. Although you might not believe it to be true, Durkheim maintains that social life is inherently religious. There is no difference between an act deemed “religious” and one deemed “secular.” While this distinction doesn’t appear to exist for Durkheim, his theories on religion rest on one key societal division that relates to religion. This dichotomy, and the one that we spoke extensively about in class, is what Durkheim asserts is the dichotomy that is the source of all others within society, that of the sacred and the profane.
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I hear the term “profane” I think of profanity, and foul language. I happen to love etymology and the source of words, so this dichotomy had me wondering about why foul language is referred to by this term. For Durkheim, “sacred” refers to something apart from the everyday world, something that should be protected because of some value that it possesses. In contrast, “profane” refers to something that is every day, something that should be kept away from the “sacred.” Looking up the actual etymology of profane, it seems to come from a Latin root meaning “outside of the temple,” which fits in nicely with Durkheim’s conception. Some of the first usages of this term were in translations of the Biblical commandment to “not profane the name of the Lord,” which meant to not desecrate or render it unholy. Again, this supports Durkheim’s usage of the word, as the act of taking the Lord’s name in vain (treating it as regular vocabulary), causes something deemed “sacred” to join the ranks of mundane verbiage.
But what about profanity that the FCC cares about, the words that are the subject of comedian George Carlin’s most famous bit? Why do we categorize them with this label? It’s clearly not because they are mundane, because why else would they get censored or lead to a parent washing his child’s mouth out? Sure one could posit that their designation as “profanity” is not due to their everyday quality, but because they must be kept separate from other language. But most frequently these words, known most commonly by their first letter (or their letter amount), are peppered in with regular language. They might be used in order to punctuate and pontificate, to accentuate and emphasize, but their “natural habitat” is most certainly amongst the lexical laymen, not grouped with the verbally venerated. In fact, our treatment of “swear words” (phraseology with a related Biblical origin) seems to give them power. They may have their roots in the mundane, and most often be found with the ordinary, but they appear to have acquired a “sacred” quality, and maybe that’s part of Durkheim’s point. Our behavior towards these words is inherently religious because they serve such an important social function and social life is inherently religious. Maybe our treatment of “curse words” as something “sacred” is similar to the way we treat technology or yoga as “sacred.” It may not be as fully fleshed out as our breakdown of football’s “sacredness,” but it’s not hard to find special symbols (#$@&%!) and movements (flipping someone off) designated for these words. We all know them, and if we don’t we quickly learn. Isn’t this collective aspect a fundamental aspect of religion for Durkheim? It is definitely a provocative, if not humorous, topic to ponder over.
Curse words are holy? The profane is sacred? This all seems paradoxical, like one puzzling identity crisis, and I’d expect nothing less from Emile Durkheim.