Building character and acquiring a civil tongue
In 1972, comedian George Carlin made headlines with his routine “7 words you can never say on television.” And although the FCC still limits what can be broadcast over the airways, the rise of cable TV long ago ensured that you can say – or hear, or see – just about anything on television.
But even this doesn’t show how much standards of refinement have changed.
Free speech vs. free for all
Older readers will remember Johnny Carson, the legendary host of the Tonight Show whose 30-year tenure preceded that of Jay Leno. But not so many remember Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Jack Paar, and fewer still will recall why he left the show.
In the opening monologue one night, Mr. Paar uttered the expression “W.C.,” a mostly-forgotten anachronism meaning Water Closet, yet another anachronism meaning bathroom. The censors bleeped the term as profane. Mr. Paar quit the show in protest.
The story strikes as comical, and we can’t help rolling our collective eyes at the overzealous censors who couldn’t tell real profanity from the merely indelicate. But when it comes to values, we can’t escape the inevitable objection: who gets to decide where to draw the line?
And so, too often, no line gets drawn at all. That’s not good for us. And it’s even worse for our children. Because what gets lost with the line is something that was once called character.
A short history of inelegance
The blurring of lines extends beyond speech. Fashion as well has suffered the ravages of time. During the Civil War, women were not allowed to enter the army camps, even when they came bringing food and other supplies for the soldiers. Since the men sometimes came out of their tents first thing in the morning without putting on their waistcoats – what we call vests – they were not considered presentable to be seen by women.
Up until 1961, it was virtually unheard of for a man to appear on the street without his hat. That changed overnight when John F. Kennedy took his presidential oath of office bareheaded; instantly, hats became a thing of the past. During the same era, no self-respecting person would be seen on the streets of San Francisco without wearing a suit. Even ladies wore hats, as well as gloves. Today, you can see just about anything on the streets of San Francisco. We’ve traded character for caricature.
Then there’s Michelle Obama, our sleeveless first lady. We would have been shocked had Laura Bush – much less Barbara Bush – shown so much skin in the White House. Indeed, conservatives made quite the fuss over the new first lady’s bare arms at the outset of the Obama administration. Ironically, sleeves have become virtually extinct on the Fox News channel. Megyn Kelly is truly a bright and articulate anchor, but her abandonment of professionalism choosing her wardrobe does not enhance her credibility as a reporter.
At least we can be grateful that Bill O’Reilly still wears a jacket.
The lost art of a civil tongue
As standards disappear, so do expectations. When anything goes, everything goes. And when that happens, much is lost. Especially character.
If you’re a parent, do you remember the first time you heard profanity come out of the mouth of your child? All of a sudden, freedom of expression became a double-edged sword, all the more so if I realize that my child had learned his newly expanded vocabulary from me. And if I think I can explain to a three-year-old why it’s okay for adults to swear but not children – well, good luck with that.
Ask school teachers about student speech. I could list here the blue words that my students no longer recognize as profane, but then I would be part of the problem. As much as we may celebrate freedom of speech, once our use of language becomes degraded, we are no longer able to express ourselves clearly at all.
Junk food for the mind
Which brings us back to George Carlin. He was funny – really funny. But he was funnier on TV, where he couldn’t rely on profanity and actually had to be clever. Swearing is the junk food of comedy, and comics shortchange their audiences when they go for the easy laugh.
In truth, profanity is the junk food of all speech, with four-letter words often sprinkled into movies and popular literature so liberally that they become meaningless, even for shock value. All they achieve is to dilute our message and to demean both the speaker and the listener.
When we elevate our speaking, we elevate our thinking. Maybe some of the seemingly insoluble problems of the world would seem less daunting if we cleaned up our language, toned down our rhetoric, and put more effort into thinking about what we – and others – are actually saying.
Think first, speak better
So here are five questions to help reclaim refinement in our speech and improve our character. In truth, they all fall under the simple heading, Think Before You Speak:
- Is it worth saying? If no one really wants to hear it, it’s better left unsaid
- How can I say it best? Be clear, concise, and cogent.
- What if it goes viral? If it’s something I would cringe to have flooding the internet, best not to take any chances.
- Is it something I would want my kids to hear or repeat? Children already hear more than is good for them. Don’t forfeit your credibility to say, “We don’t talk like that.”
- What’s wrong with silence? As Mark Twain is reputed to have said: Better to hold your tongue and be thought a fool that speak and remove all doubt.
A little self-discipline goes a long way toward building character. If nothing else, our children will notice the difference. And that might make all the difference in the world.