Crude Language, Coarse Culture: We Need to Do Better
At the least, we can call on our public leaders to restrain themselves.
Since when did sick language go mainstream?
The hateful, obscenity-heavy remarks new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci reported in The New Yorker are only the most recent example of a cultural phenomenon. Namely, our acceptance of, or at least indifference to, foul language.
The White House called Scaramucci’s bizarre outburst “colorful.” That is correct. Only this kind of color tarnishes.
In a previous generation, Scaramucci would have been fired. Today, his comments produce surprise, bemusement, even disgust. But no loss of employment, let alone political standing.
However, Scaramucci is hardly unique. In 2011, CNN carried a story on the “Top 16 Foul-Mouthed Politicians.” Included in the list were Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, Nixon, Johnson, and Truman. Vice-Presidents Cheney and Biden were both known as men ready to wax obscene.
Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to use foul language as a habit. It’s the result of many smaller decisions.
Coarse language has become commonplace. In a 2014 article, Canada’s National Post asks, “Are swear (words) becoming so common they aren’t even profanity anymore?” The author, Tristan Hopper, notes that “Expletives, once absolutely banned in public discourse, are now increasingly turning up in literature, television, the news media and even political speech.”
Crumbling Moral Walls
Why? One reason is as old as humankind. Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to use foul language as a habit. It’s the result of many smaller decisions. Watching profanity-laced television shows. Reading books with “contemporary” language. Associating with people who use obscenity with ease, and never challenging them. One’s moral wall begins to crumble and then, one day, it’s breached.
Modeling Good Behavior
Another reason is the absence of strong parents who punish children with dirty mouths and who model clean language themselves. Children imitate what they hear. And that might mean pulling them out of a school where their friends season their speech with filth, at least until they’re old enough to have built-in their own moral filters.
Perhaps the most significant reason is that we’ve turned from a belief in accountability to God. If no personal and final authority exists, the doors are unbarred and we can make choices to suit our own selfishness.
Popular culture doesn’t help much. For example, the recent hit film The Wolf of Wall Street contained 544 uses of the “f-word.” For a teenage mind, especially, this kind of thing conditions the brain both to accept and imitate what is heard.
Foul language is like a sledgehammer to the soul. “Profane words have a direct line to our emotions,” writes Benjamin Bergen of the University of California-San Diego’s Department of Cognitive Science. “In short, bad words are powerful — emotionally, physiologically, psychologically and socially.”
Immorality in personal practice and popular culture has become so “normal” that its absence is more surprising than not.
What Does Scripture Say?
Scripture has much to say about the power of our words. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” writes Solomon (Proverbs 18:21). Jesus said that it is “out of the abundance of (the) heart (that) the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
The tongue can be a verbal flame-thrower. “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness,” the apostle James tells us (3:6). “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
It is as though James is straining to be graphic to get his point across. The tongue can destroy. And one of its most effective and aggressive weapons is crude language.
A Topsy Turvy World
“Over the past generation,” wrote the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1993, “we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
In the ensuing 24 years, things haven’t gotten better. And as we harden ourselves in one area, we begin to lose our moral sense in others. Cruelty becomes entertaining. Sex becomes casual and more loveless. Violence becomes more routine.
This goes beyond profanity, the now-accepted commonness of which is only a symptom. Immorality in personal practice and popular culture has become so “normal” that its absence is more surprising than not.
But we can’t live this way in practical terms. The institutions we still cherish celebrate honor, loyalty, sacrifice, duty, and truth. We are disgusted by reports of crooked politicians, dishonest cops, adulterous pastors, and so forth.
At the least, we can call on our public leaders to restrain themselves. Our country deserves better.
Yet as the culture declines, will that disgust be replaced increasingly by a shrug?
“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man (1943). “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” Put less elegantly, we belittle virtue but are saddened and surprised when its loss becomes evident.
America Deserves Better
Back to crude language. At the least, we can call on our public leaders to restrain themselves. Our country deserves better. And by keeping their language purer, they might inspire a bit less callousing of our society at large.
“Profanity … seemingly has infiltrated our culture, and created this crazy circus of vulgarity now marked as normal,” writes Kelly Powell in her article, “Generation F-Bomb: Profanity Goes Mainstream.” “This compels me to use another 4-letter word for all those profanity lovers in our society: STOP!”
Amen, Kelly. Amen.