Our culture needs its collective mouth washed out with soap.
The N-word, the F-bomb, the GD-punctuation, the misuse of Jesus’ name, the misappropriation of the word “Christ” as an exclamation point, the BS-expletive – all flood the public square.
Whether it’s words of blasphemy, profanity, obscenity, indecency, cursing, filth or pejorative name-calling – to offer a few categories of foul language – potty talk is soiling the public square, draining away civility, short-circuiting communication, insulting and/or offending listeners.
After radio talk host Laura Schlessinger used the N-word 11 times in five minutes on a recent program, she did apologize. She later claimed that she was resigning from her radio show “to regain” her First Amendment rights, asserting that criticism of her foul mouth was an abridgment of her right to free speech.
That claim, of course, wasn’t truthful. The government had not restrained her trash talk. Her First Amendment rights had not been breached. Individuals had rightly criticized her for using the N-word.
Missing an opportunity to give a Christian witness to a dirty mouth, Sarah Palin tweeted advice to Schlessinger: “Don’t retreat…reload!”
In other words, misstate the nature of what you did and keep up the trash talk.
A prominent politician, former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, got in hot water earlier this year for using the phrase “f—— retarded.”
Emanuel’s potty mouth is well known. In a reference to his interest in running for mayor of Chicago, Newsweek asked, “Can he keep potty mouth in check?”
President Obama referred to Emanuel’s problem at a 2009 political dinner. In a failed attempt at humor, Obama said that “for Rahm, every day is a swearing-in ceremony.” The president said, “Every week this guy takes a little time away to give back to the community. Just last week he was at a local school teaching profanity to poor children.”
Emanuel apparently thinks that cussing enhances his stature, his authority, when it really discloses his lack of self-control and his respect for others. Maybe it says something about his arrogance – decent language doesn’t apply to him.
Of course, self-control and respect are virtues banished from TV sitcoms, America’s open-air sewers for trash talk. TV and movie producers evidently think that reality necessitates profanity because their reality is so profane, so vulgar.
Regrettably, profanity is not reserved for the irreligious. Emerging church leader Mark Driscoll is known as the cussing pastor. A Southern Baptist Convention agency head used a gutter word to describe a Jewish U.S. senator at Criswell College, a Dallas Bible school. A Christian ethics professor at Duke University, Stanley Hauerwas, prides himself on profanity, and his disciples defend him with the lame excuse that he was raised to cuss.
Foul language in the public square has become a crippling epidemic. Pretending it isn’t a problem is intellectually dishonest and morally naive.
Writing to the earliest Christians, James lamented that the human tongue was “a restless evil, full of deathly poison” with which we both bless God and curse those “made in the likeness of God.”
He wrote, “[T]his ought not to be so” (James 3:1-13).
James did not cite the Ten Commandments but could have referenced the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
When we – Christians – spew vulgarity and profanity, we disregard the biblical witness and speak evil toward God.
Advocating for decent speech is more than personal piety or Puritanical morality, two matters that we should avoid dismissing in and of themselves.
More importantly, indecent speech is a social justice issue.
Social justice requires clarity of communication. Hate words, profane words and crude words short-circuit the public discourse and hamstring moral arguments.
Social justice requires civility in the public square. Trash talk incites hostility. Trash talk hurts some and offends others. Without civility and respectful mutuality, disagreements degenerate and widen. Respectful speech advances understanding and creates an ethos for negotiable compromises needed for solutions.
Social justice requires capturing the moral high ground. Cussing contaminates the messenger and places at risk the moral argument. If the moral argument becomes tainted, an advantage is lost. If an advantage is lost, then challenging injustice becomes much more difficult.
Concern about crude language is not a matter of being politically correct. Concern about cussing is a matter of being politically prudent in order to advance the common good.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.