Culture challenge of the week: Obscenities
As I sat on my front porch engrossed in a writing project, the soft spring breezes were suddenly punctured by the shrill and foul screams of the foreman working on a construction project on our property. The f-bomb was repeatedly billowed at the top of his lungs as he berated his stunned workers. By the time I made it down the stairs and to the site, it seemed as if every vulgar word in the book had been screamed multiple times. The general contractor who had been working nearby arrived at the site the same time I did, and nodded in agreement as I said, “Fire him. Now.”
I don’t put up with trash talk, and I certainly don’t pay other people to berate workers on my property or pollute the sound waves of our peaceful neighborhood. Although our project is now behind schedule by at least a week, costing us thousands of dollars in the process, I’m OK with the reality that sometimes taking a stand can come with a price.
While there have always been folks who enjoy acting tough by using foul language, I worry that such rudeness is becoming acceptable — even by national leaders at public events.
It’s always been true that, as a country, we look to our leaders and public figures for inspiration in the face of natural disasters, horrible crimes or inexplicable suffering. I can recall the electricity in the air when President Reagan inspired Americans to rise above our economic malaise and reach for that “shining city on a hill.” Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the undying hopes of marginalized people with the compelling rhetoric of his “I Have a Dream” speech. And President Bush captured America’s resolve after 9/11 with the statement, “Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”
It was natural that in the wake of Boston’s tragedy, the city tapped one of its celebrities, Boston Red Sox player David “Big Papi” Ortiz, to rally the spirits of beleaguered Bostonians. He started strong, saying, “We want to thank Mayor Menino, Gov. Patrick and the whole police department for the great job they did.” But the tone of the event changed in an instant as Ortiz detoured into obscenity, shouting, “This is our f–ing city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
The crowd applauded wildly, and Ortiz was given a pass, so to speak, because some said he was “speaking from the heart.” But did he miss a perfect moment to show our children what is best about Americans? That we do not lose our own sense of decency even in the face of horrible challenges by evil?
Certainly American leaders have spoken from the heart at other emotional moments of our history without resorting to impulsive vulgarities and offensive language. Surely a baseball player as disciplined and successful as Ortiz could have controlled himself, if he had wanted to. But then again, perhaps he took his cue from the poor example of the White House — remember Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s offensive comments about the significance of passing “Obamacare”?
Can’t public figures do better? Can’t we all do better?
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Yes, we not only can do better; we must.
Language matters. Respect for others — common decency, we used to say — requires that we think of how our words might affect those within earshot. Will the words we use offend religious believers, shock the elderly, confuse younger children or be a bad example to teens yearning to be adult? If so, then we need to choose other words. That’s simple charity, simple respect. No matter how comfortable a speaker — for example, a professional athlete like Ortiz — might be with certain words, the sensibilities of others must be considered first.
Our language says something about who we are, as individuals and as a society. A person who cultivates a rich command of language, a strong sense of self-control and consideration for others will avoid profanity or obscenity at all costs. His or her actions consistently reflect deeper values such as charity, dignity and respect.
Resolve not to put up with a shower of obscenities on TV or in movies, malls and playing fields. Turn off the TV or see a different movie. Insist that those standing or seated near you show some consideration and respect for others by cleaning up their mouths.
Oh, and as for the workers who lost income when we fired their abusive boss? Two of them told a friend of mine that my reaction that day finally gave them the courage to leave a bad employment situation. And to top it off, they are now working for the new company I hired to finish up the work. Their lives are more peaceful and they have a renewed sense of personal dignity.
Demonstrate leadership and respect for others now — don’t wait. Set the tone. Elevate the conversation. And see what a difference it makes.
• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at email@example.com.