Thursday, April 11, 2013

Words Matter

Words Matter

I wrote earlier about the challenges of interfaith dialogue and how difficult it is when you do not allow differences to emerge because you want to avoid conflict and the clash of ideas. In the modern university there is another area of tension where ideas do not necessarily clash but where words do.  Here the degradation of what I call polite conversation poses enormous difficulties.

An acquaintance remarked about the state of  conversation by mentioning that he remembered when Rhett Butler saying “Damn” raised all sorts of reaction when “Gone With the Wind“ was first released. I didn’t tell him how devastated I was when Tarzan of the Apes first uttered “Damn” in one of the early Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books. The book had been written in the early 20th century, but I read it more than a  decade after Gone with the Wind. How one reacts to the most modest of swear words tells volumes about your educational context. It also explains how hard it is to raise the issue of inappropriate language. For some,  words are what comes out of the mouth; for others, and I count myself in this group, words are almost sacred. They matter and how they are used is important.

By the time I was ten I could swear better in Spanish than I could in English and that was to my advantage since my family did not understand what I was really saying. Or maybe they did, as I was soon moved from a predominantly Hispanic grade school to one where acting out was measured by whether or not you spat on the asphalt playground.

Even as the homogeneity of spoken language has made our public voices sound alike, the influence of urban America and our military adventures have introduced to public discourse language that Tarzan would never use in the presence of self-respecting apes. The crude stream of rap passing as music makes it appear that there are no limits to what may be said and few seem willing to speak out and say that there are limits to what ought to pass as appropriate conversation.

The proof may be easily seen on un-moderated e-mail lists in the university where invective and vulgarity rule. The other day a young woman told me that some friends had referred to her as a whore in conversation on line not because she was known to sleep around, but simply because they thought it funny to use the word to refer to women. She thought it odd that I challenged the word as inappropriate. In her world she felt she could give as good as she got, but the suggestion that no one needed to talk that way gave her pause. Why hadn’t anyone told her she could take offense?

On another list a young man found new and creative ways to use the F-word and when I suggested that choice of words and repetition make his litany less effective than it might have been, his only reply was that speech ought to be free. What would happen, I asked, if a prospective employer found his public rant? Was he trying make a point or simply engaging in performance vulgarity? There are lots of things you can say that you do not need to say, I suggested.  He understood, but thought his freedom of speech was being compromised. Again, I asked, was he talking to be heard or to offend?  Maybe we all need to think about how we might introduce moderation in language into the world around each of us.

Speaking up to call out those who think every verb begins with F is not as easy as it might seem and that is in part because a lot of younger folk have come to believe that because they know a word they can use it. Do not go to the movies with them as they can yell fire pretty loudly.  Free speech seems to mean that I can say what I will about anyone no matter how ugly the words. If no one says that being foul mouthed is not cool, the words simply keep falling out.

Once I recovered from Tarzan’s heresy, I found occasions where strong words made points that could be made in no other way. But I often kept quiet when others spoke as if they were imitating a verbal sewer. My point when I did reply was often simply that four letter words have only limited impact in  contemporary discourse. I remind students that we use words to communicate ideas and strong words can get attention and may help make a point. When all words are equally strong the effect is cancelled. Too many swear words strung together have no impact except to remind the hearer what happens when the tongue gets lazy and the brain shuts down.

All of this is matters little if  we all look down and ignore hurtful language that is both foul and foolish. I have found that asking if someone really means what they are saying can cause enough reaction to foster real dialogue. But it takes a village to start the conversation. Here in the university we have the opportunity to change what is acceptable, but it is not clear that we have the courage to speak up lest we be thought prudish. It is assumed that chaplains are prudish so I have little to lose, but what about the rest of you?

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Cambridge, MA 02139