This week’s uproar over the president’s reputed profanity (which he denies) in a private meeting simply highlights what seems to be an increasingly rapid downward spiral in societal propriety, courtesy and … well, just plain ol’ class.
Whether the president did say what is reputed, he would not be the first politician to use such crude language, and—sad to say—will likely not be the last. Obama, Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, Cheney, Biden … all have had vulgar comments recorded, and doubtless the list could go on. Unfortunately, such coarseness has been becoming increasingly prevalent in all of our public arenas in the last few decades. Such is a regrettable loss of gentility in our day.
“That Father Glenn; he’s such a prude!” Hardly; not having grown up and worked in the oilfields of west Texas and then to the Marines, I can assure you. But even in those days I wondered … what’s the point? If nothing else, many find such language offensive regardless of the circumstances in which it is spoken, so it seems that simple charity would lead any considerate person to use more commonly-accepted language. And, whether merited or not, the constant use of vulgarity tends to lessen others’ estimation of the user, for many hearers will involuntarily evaluate a person with the sentiment stated by Jesus: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)
Nowadays television shows and cinema have also seemingly discarded almost any apprehension about vulgarity in their productions, even in “children’s” movies and cartoons (anything for a giggle, it seems). Yet some defend such public use of coarse language: “It just reflects real life!” In some circles, perhaps; but need it be so? It seems to create a vicious circle—media reflecting, and by doing so, reinforcing—boorishness. But “cussing like a sailor” in one’s home, office, or daily conversation hardly establishes confidence or perceived credibility for the speaker; quite the contrary. We may default to it to be “cool” or to appear more “streetwise” or to shock. Certainly, such speech does not enhance communication, and can even appear to be a weak attempt at blustering one’s way through a debate due to a lack of cogent argument.
Young people especially often resort to coarseness (as well as smoking, alcohol and drugs) in their attempts to appear more mature, independent, cool, “street smart”, etc. Sorry, gang … it doesn’t work. Desperate attempts to appear more mature by doing things, which are less mature are contradictory, and many people will simply view you as being “not too bright”. So … we adults constantly try (albeit often vainly) to convince our youth that self-discipline, wisdom in choices, thoughtfulness of others, and respect toward elders are true signs of maturity. As regards language, eloquence is infinitely more impressive (and influential) than vulgarity will ever be. After all, “[Both] Glory and dishonor come from speaking…” (Sirach 5:13)
One might remember Henry Higgins’ soliloquy to Eliza in “My Fair Lady” about the beauty of well-spoken language, which does not only have refinement in itself, but gives nuances of meaning, which otherwise might be absent. Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Dickens, Donne, etc., haven’t been admired, read and memorized for centuries and millennia because of crudity of language, but rather because of their skill in expression. After all, skill in oratory has been lauded since Mankind developed language. One need only listen to some of the great modern speeches of MLK, Jr., JFK, MacArthur and the like, and how even a light peppering of vulgarity and coarseness could have not only diminished their effectiveness, but may have even doomed what was otherwise great oratory to the dustbin of history.
Some may think this is making the proverbial mountain out of the molehill; well, maybe. But it’s an important molehill. Elevating the speech tends to elevate the thoughts and behavior, as, conversely, coarseness can draw to the gutter. Even scriptures proscribe vulgar speech: “Do not accustom your mouth to lewd vulgarity, for it involves sinful speech.” (Sirach 23:13), and St. Paul exhorts us: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
And so, with all this in mind: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one” (Colossians 4:6) … and “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)