The Problem of Public Profanity

Rod Dreher writes about a disappointing, blue-tongued concert from Adele:

I am not a prude about language, as my male friends will attest. But there is a time and a place for that kind of talk, and onstage at The Royal Albert Hall is not it, at least not if you are a gorgeous singer of pop ballads like Adele. Her fans didn’t seem to mind it at all, to be clear, but every time she dropped an f-bomb, I kept thinking, You are so beautiful, so enormously talented, such a gifted artist, and here you are, in The Royal Albert Hall, a high temple of musical performance, in a moment of  complete triumph, and … this is how you talk? 

It didn’t make me mad, really, only sad for her, and for a popular culture that doesn’t know how to behave in a place like The Royal Albert Hall, or anywhere else that’s not a rodeo arena, pretty much. Can you imagine being elderly Adele, looking back on a career of fame and accomplishment, screening your performance at The Royal Albert Hall for your grandchildren, and having to listen to your younger self, speaking like that?

Not long ago I was flipping through a major news magazine, the kind that middle schoolers would be expected to consult in a research or current event project. An article in this magazine printed, without obfuscation, an explicit profanity. My feeling of surprise wasn’t at the word itself; I wasn’t scandalized that people would use such a term. What did take me off guard was the editorial decision to print it. Did the magazine simply assume its readers eyes would bounce off the profanity like they bounced off the prepositions? Did the editors not have a sense that this word was not fit for this space? Was it that they felt this epithet was just like any other word–or were the pages of the magazine just like any other space?

Like Rod, I am not easily offended by language. But I have to agree with him that we’ve lost a sense of the impropriety of public profanity.

As a Christian, I know that I’ll be held accountable for every word that I speak, and I believe that words have intrinsic power either toward love or toward sin. I’m not interested though in foisting a Christian doctrine of speech on my neighbors, and to that end, I would submit that there is most certainly a difference between how a group of friends sitting at a restaurant talk to one another, and how those people would talk amongst strangers in public. I’m not for policing speech, just neighborliness.

That, I think, is the main issue with public profanity. People who don’t care about what others hear from them are really not caring about others. I know that profanity is common in a lot of places, and that most people you’ll hear while pumping gas or buying groceries probably don’t have a hang up about bad words. But someone’s being accustomed to four letter bombs doesn’t excuse them from neighborliness anymore than someone’s being accustomed to cruel joking absolves them from being a jerk.

How we speak in public is an issue of neighborliness because words have meaning and power. We all believe this instinctively, which is why, when we meet someone for the first time, there’s an innate desire to get our language correct. If a new acquaintance tells you she is a substitute teacher, and you subsequently refer to her as a “temp,” you are being un-neighborly with your language. The words we choose, especially in public, convey our sense of moral and social responsibility. A “potty mouth” isn’t just a quirky temperament; it’s a deficiency in kindness.

I also don’t think we can comfort ourselves that “nobody is offended.” I think there’s more offense taken than is often revealed. At a previous job, two of my coworkers with desks close to me relished telling each other stories and jokes loaded with four-letter saltines. As far as I can remember, I never once complained or asked them to stop, even though I find their weekly dialogue incredibly rude. I didn’t want drama, and in any way I didn’t want to be “that guy.” I have to believe this happens quite a bit.

This isn’t being a “prude.” If pointing out the obnoxiousness of public swearing irritates some, could it be because we have made our speech just one more extension of our utterly autonomous selves? If repairing our fractured, dis-empathetic public square is a problem worth solving, maybe it would be good to start with our own mouths. It’s not about “legalism” or even sheltering children. It’s about caring enough about those around us to not dare them to listen to us.

You Get What You Pay For

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

The Roots of Conspiracy Theory Rage

Checking my spam folder today, I saw an email from a conservative watchdog group. The email opened like this:

Dear Fellow Conservative,

Do you ever just wonder: what on earth is going on with the liberals in the Democrat party? 

Do they just have no clue what they’re doing to America? Or are they are so spiteful of the American way of life that they are actively working to destroy it?

Note the bold font on the last sentence, meant to draw the reader’s eye and suggest the author’s own beliefs. The writer of the email wants you to believe that the reason your political opponents are so wrong isn’t that they’re mistaken, it’s that they’re evil. In just a few words, the issue has shifted from the wrongness of liberalism’s ideas to the wicked, hostile intentions of its adherents.

But why? What evidence is there to suggest that liberals are “spiteful” of people like me? Well, evidence is largely beside the point; the email is meant to confirm suspiciousness in me that’s already there long before it arrives. And we have to concede this to the sender: This is indeed how so much of our political discourse in America goes right now. The space between “wrong” and “evil” has shrunk so badly that it’s almost obligatory now to preface criticism of someone with, “I don’t think they’re a bad person.” In a culture where people’s first assumption was that disagreements happen because of competing ideas, not  because minions want to ruin everything, no such preface would be necessary. It’s necessary in our culture because “This person is wrong about issue X” is almost always interpreted as a commentary on their character. If someone gets issue X wrong, it’s because they know they’re wrong and just want to hurt others.

This is, I think, a very important element in conspiracy theory thinking. Once you’re sold on the idea that honest wrongness is impossible, everything your opponents say becomes, in your eyes, evidence of their treason. Consider the usual progression of straw-man fallacies. Person A says to person B, “I think your real goal is to do Y to America.” Person B replies, “No, that’s not my goal at all,” to which person A says, “Well of course you’d deny it if it really was!” Bias confirmation kicks in, and there’s almost no way to convince person A otherwise, because everything they see is either what they predicted or evidence that person B is hiding something. That’s conspiracy theory thinking. And there’s no clean way off that psychological merry-go-round.

There Are No Secrets Anymore

Disgraced politician Anthony Weiner has been disgraced yet again…and again, it’s all about some raunchy texts. I can’t really laugh at him, because it’s obvious that he’s dealing with some life-deforming demons that I know too well. My prayer is that he would reach to the heavens for the rescue he desperately needs.

In a brief piece at National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke makes an interesting point about technology and immorality. Years ago, this kind of infidelity was hard to keep secret, because it required physical presence. Then, with technology, it got really easy to keep secret. But now, with the way that modern smartphone technology tracks and archives everything, secrecy is impossible yet again:

By the 1950s, everybody had a car, which they could use to get to the next town — or farther. Motels popped everywhere, as did their discreet proprietors. And the analog telephone provided a means by which those who were up to no good could communicate instantly, and without leaving a substantial record. So fundamentally did this transform American life that traditionalists complained openly about the deleterious effect that modernity was having on conventional mores…

[I]s this still true? I think not, no. Now, there are cameras everywhere. Now, most people carry cell phones and drive cars that track their movement by satellite. Now, most communication is conducted via intermediate servers, and spread across multiple devices. In 1960, the average American could make a sordid phone call without there being any chance that it would be taped. Today, with a $3 app, anybody can record any conversation and send it anywhere in the world in a few seconds…Put plainly, it is now nigh on impossible for anybody to get away with infidelity, especially if one is a public figure.

Maybe we could put it like this: In the age of the iPhone, doing something lascivious while no one is watching is the easiest it’s ever been–but doing it without anyone ever knowing is virtually (pun not intended) impossible. At the very least, those naked pictures and crass text messages are being stored somewhere, on technology that someone with a name and two eyes built and maintains.

Surely, as Cooke writes of Weiner, we know this to be the case. So why is there so much explicitness on cloud servers? I can think of two answers.

First, sexual temptation is stronger, always has been stronger, and always will be stronger than logic. This is why Solomon urges his son to not even walk down the street where the adulterous woman lives.

Second, though: Is it possible that many in Western culture are actually OK with the idea of people they’ll never meet having access to their naked bodies and lewd messages? Could it be that our pornified consciousness has actually numbed us to the point where, even if we know that our texts and pictures stop belonging to us the moment we press “Send,” we don’t really care? Have we, as the prophets warned, actually become the very smut we love?

The Worst President Ever

A president with wrong ideas is not a good president. But a president with wrong motivations would be the worst president imaginable.

Too often we think of politicians and rulers as fundamentally different types of people than the rest of us. It’s an understandable misconception, given that our ruling class is overwhelmingly technocratic and elite. From trust funds to the Ivy League, the existential gap between taxpayers and the leaders they get to choose from seems infinite.

But powerful humans beings are still human beings. That means they experience the same temptations, doubts, frustrations, and ambitions that their electorate experiences. If you want to understand the most powerful, influential people in the world, the best way to start is to try to understand the people working in the cubicle across from you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or taking notes on the other side of the classroom.

Every adult understands intuitively the difference between the wrong kind of person and a person who is just wrong. We practice this intuition every day on spouses, coworkers, children, law enforcement, etc. How many parents have pled for understanding from exasperated teachers with the words, “They’re not a bad kid”? Or how many of us have tried to get out of the speeding ticket by insisting that we had no idea the change in zone limit, or the speedometer has been messing up? Nobody in the right mind says, “You have to understand, my child is just an especially wicked and stubborn kid,” or, “Honestly, officer, I love speeding and breaking the law. Can’t you empathize with my loves?” In the contexts that come to us every day, we practice the difference between the wrong motivation and the wrong application.

What bewilders me about this election is the amount of people I’m running into who willingly concede that their candidate of choice may be the wrong kind of person. There’s a maddening air of willing indifference when it comes to motivations and basic moral orientation. And these same people are likely thrashing another politician, on the other side of the aisle, for being “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” in their policies or worldview. It’s almost as if there’s a huge group of voters in my social sphere who think the wrong kind of president is better than a wrong president.

But surely this is asinine. It’s a delusion that can only be maintained by divorcing entirely a person from their actions. If a candidate who seeks office consistently demonstrates morally contemptible behavior, a self-seeking narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation, how is it at all possible that his or her leadership will not reflect that? How is it possible to be the wrong kind of person but the right kind of leader?

Surely this is not the logic we would apply to even our babysitters. It’s one thing for a sitter to cluelessly give the children sugary sweets right before bedtime. That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake that can be cured through correction. But it’s another thing entirely for a sitter to plop down on the sofa, immerse herself in her phone, and let the children do whatever they want so long as she does nothing she finds inconvenient. The first babysitter needs instruction and perhaps some common sense. The second babysitter needs a moral intervention.

Parents get this distinction. Why don’t voters? Why are so many people in my Facebook feed convinced that character is negotiable if we’re talking about getting the job done? Why are so many evangelicals farming out their convictions about integrity for the sake of keeping the score between Left and Right even? When did we convince ourselves that the wrong kind of person can be the right kind of president?

A president with bad beliefs is a dangerous thing. But a bad person is even worse than bad beliefs. If this is true on Monday morning in the office, or on Saturday night during date night, it’s so much more true in November.

Planned Parenthood and the Future

Yesterday Planned Parenthood leadership announced that it would stop receiving “reimbursements” for the donation of fetal tissue taken from aborted babies. It was a curious declaration, one that could be summarized (as my boss Russell Moore put it) “We never did anything wrong and we’ll stop doing it now.”

The video evidence that betrayed a profitable business from the dismembered parts of children is not silent. There is more than enough reason to think that Planned Parenthood is guilty of atrocity that far outweighs anything they have passively conceded by changing their reimbursements policy.But sadly, as the often-frustrating Congressional testimony of Cecile Richards demonstrated, it seems that the nation’s largest abortion provider is for the moment insulated from any serious trouble. There are just too many political allies, too many reliable talking points, and too few in positions of meaningful leadership willing to risk political face to confront Richards and her company.

So where does that leave us? What are we to think and say and do going forward? If what we saw in those videos was indeed what I believe we saw, we cannot be satisfied. We cannot shrug and go on to the “next cause.” If the videos were a moment of reality for pro-choice Americans, they were even more so a moment of accountability for pro-life Americans. We can’t look at the abortion debate in this country the same way after #ItsABoy. Something has changed, and a moral demand is placed upon those with the truth to do something faithful with it.

The first thing we must do as pro-life Christians is repent. We must repent of ever being comfortable with abortion as a “private values” issue. Abortion is not ultimately about “values” or “legislating morality.” It’s about legislating justice and human rights. In the absence of jarring human degradation, we can forget that. We can unwittingly accept the other side’s cries of “culture war” and comfort ourselves that we are on the right side of history, no matter what’s going on in the abortion clinic downtown. No more. We have seen, and we have heard.

Secondly, we must prepare. We have no reason to think the legal battle to restore human rights to the unborn will be any easier than was the legal battle to restore rights to millions of African slaves. “Reproductive freedom” is the plantation of our time. It is a glossy, extravagant, externally beautiful facade that runs on the churned up bodies of the innocent. If attacking the materialism of the age–indeed, the materialism in many of our own hearts!–was difficult and costly back then, why should we think it would be different now?

That means that not every skirmish over unborn rights will end in victory. It also means that not every victory will be the victory we would want. Like William Wilberforce, we have to sober and resolute enough to keep shouting, keep debating, and keep fighting even in the face of overwhelming odds and mounting defeats.

Finally, we must preach the gospel. Unless we preach the full gospel of justice, atonement, and mercy, we will not capture the hearts of this country. Even if we are armed with the most compelling visual evidence, the most airtight philosophical arguments, or the most cutting edge medical technology, the human hearts we preach to will do whatever it takes to keep from coming under the condemnation of their own conscience. A pro-life message of only judgment and justice isn’t a full pro-life message. The unborn are made in the image of the same God who put the sins of the world on his only Son. The gospel is good news that the unborn, the elderly, and the disabled have inherent human dignity, and that every crime against that dignity can be absorbed by the sacrifice of the most dignified Being in the history of the cosmos.

We must hold that hope out to a world that sees the infant hand and hears the infant cry and must explain it all away or face despair. A pro-life Christianity is either a gospel Christianity or it isn’t pro-life at all.

Planned Parenthood is open today, and for that we mourn. But we cannot resign ourselves to its world. We have too great a message, and too great a hope, not to endure in this fight. Lives, and souls, depend on it.