Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Hill Worth Dying On

“You need to dial down the language,
  Mr. Patout,” I said.

“Don’t you lecture me, boy,” he said.

— From The New Iberia Blues
by James Lee Burke

Some subjects are difficult to talk or write about without giving offense. The use of appropriate language is one of them.

Self-Righteous Correction

One of the themes revisited frequently in James Lee Burke’s novels is the longing for what once was and never will be again. The quotation at the beginning of our post captures one of the seemingly endless encounters in Burke’s series in which Catholic-and-annoyingly-self-righteous detective Dave Robicheaux rebukes someone for his use of profanity or vulgarity. Most frequently this is accompanied by the phrase “not around my home”, emphasizing the personal nature of the offense given.

I’ve heard Christians of his generation do the same and I can only note that it doesn’t work, either in literature or life. Sometimes, as in the exchange above, the person chastised takes offense and gives you a whole lot more of what you didn’t want. More often, they are simply bewildered by the abrupt change of subject and perplexed by the unusual reaction they have inadvertently provoked with a word they use all the time. Always, the “correction” serves as a distraction from the real issue and leaves the difficult-to-erase impression that the lecturer considers him- or herself in some way morally or socially superior to the person he is rebuking.

Judge for yourself whether that’s a useful Christian tactic.

Playing Language Police

Perhaps the real life motivation in calling out a pagan for failing to observe Christian speech standards is similar to Robicheaux’s, in that it recalls a happier time and place and wishes everything around us were still that way. I’m not sure it ever was. Vulgar language has been around us for thousands of years, and I suspect its presence or absence in any given social exchange has more to do with environmental and social differences than religious beliefs. Christians who react strongly to a sad loser with a foul mouth are telling us more about their lack of experience with certain types of unbelievers than about their faithfulness to Christ.

Paul told his Ephesian readers, “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful” (NLT). That’s a word to men and women indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of God and identified with the name of Jesus Christ about how to conduct themselves consistently as members of God’s family and how to relate constructively to others. It’s not really a license to play language policeman, though some interpret it that way.

Times and Circumstances

Christian experience with vulgar people varies considerably with circumstances and time of life. My father, who lived and operated in a largely Christian world in his childhood and from his early twenties, heard little of it for the early and latter parts of his life, but plenty during his years of service in WW2. Circumstances brought him into contact with the sort of coarse men he would never have met any other way. They just didn’t move in his circles.

The first bit of inappropriate speech I ever recall hearing was in grade two. It came from the mouth of a little blond Dutch school chum, and I repeated his bon mot at home in childish innocence without the slightest idea what it meant. [Oops. Thank you, Jan.] Public school was mildly vulgar, high school much more so, college hardly at all, and my first few jobs were in retail environments, where everyone carefully managed their language to avoid offending clients.

Then I got into office work in a printing plant. That was quite the eye-opener.

Would You Really Rather be a Blue-Collar Man?

The people I worked with for the first few years were older and more blue-collar than any I’d ever worked with before, the environment predominately male. The few women, hard-bitten and capable of turning the air just as blue as the men, were foreign creatures to me after thirty years mostly spent associating with believers. Unlike high school, when kids used vulgarity to impress one another or when lashing out in anger, these folks used the same four-letter words and their variants as nouns, adjectives and adverbs in nearly every sentence they uttered. They were vulgar in the original sense of the word, meaning common, their raw language as uncontrived and concordant with their station in life as their unshaven jaws and cheap, tasteless beer. And that was just the women.

What do you do? I didn’t participate, of course, but I didn’t lecture either. There would have been no point. I simply got used to it. Today’s office environments are tamer and more feminized, but I long ago became inured to vulgarity. I barely register it anymore, and I’m not offended by it. Why would I be? Most of the people I know these days who use it are not being deliberately confrontational or trying to get a rise out of the old lady at the next table. They speak the same way in their homes as in their work environments, so habituated to coarse language that they often make no association at all between the words they use and their literal meanings. Profanity is no more significant to them than punctuation.

People and Pain

Lately, in conversations with unsaved blue-collar acquaintances, I have noticed the frequency with which four-letter words appear in a sentence often has to do with the degree of pain the speaker is expressing. They use euphemisms when suffering renders them inarticulate. Grief and sorrow are far from the only reasons people become vulgar, but they are among the most common. They are a cue to Christians who care to listen closely, exercise compassion, and look for every opportunity to offer the only solution that really matters.

The only time I recall hearing my father correct anyone but his children about our language was when some acquaintance blurted out “Jesus Christ!” Dad smiled gently and said something along the lines of “If you don’t mind, you’re talking about Someone I love.”

Now there’s a hill worth dying on.

No comments :

Post a Comment