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.

Why seminary needs fiction

812tYQPrHnLI enthusiastically commend to you Rod Dreher’s new book How Dante Can Save Your Life. It’s a fascinating, joyful, sobering and at times deeply moving testimony of power, not only to the The Divine Comedy in particular but to literature in general. Rod calls himself a “witness” and not a scholar. That’s the idea, but I would nonetheless urge literary scholars to read his book and savor the way a medieval text can speak so pertinently into a 21st century soul.  Continue reading Why seminary needs fiction