John Paul Jones once sent a communique from his flagship to the commander of a seaside British fortress. His message contained a simple ultimatum: surrender your position, or my fleet will blow you and your men into oblivion.
At the bottom of the letter he affixed his signature:
Your most obedient servant,
John Paul Jones
Assuming the story is true, we might regard the admiral’s perfunctory sign-off as quaint, farcical, even hypocritical. On the other hand, we don’t have to go back two centuries – or even two generations – to remember a time when military adversaries saw no reason to abandon good manners and good graces as they prepared to engage one another in combat.
In the same way that civilized countries recognize the need for rules of warfare, civil societies have recognized the need for courtesy and propriety in debate and public discourse. Indeed, at the dawn of American history, Alexander Hamilton felt compelled to turn against his political and ideological ally John Adams, believing that Adams’s frequent, unfiltered outbursts evidenced a lack of discipline that made him unfit to lead the country.
For most of our nation’s history, Americans admired and appreciated the language of eloquence and respectfulness. Abraham Lincoln held audiences spellbound with his carefully crafted addresses. Teddy Roosevelt challenged listeners to keep up with his historical and philosophical references. And Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, brought crowds to tears with his poetic and sonorous orations.
Sadly, those days now lie behind us. Still worse, as lyricism and style fade away, vocabulary follows close behind.
Some of us may recall the days before cable television when, according to Federal Communications Commission regulations, there were seven words you could never hear on television. Although the late George Carlin created an iconic comedy routine flouting those restrictions, his most enduring legacy may be as a principal contributor to the erosion of civility and refinement.
A TIME TO CURSE
In the classic novel 1984, George Orwell demonstrates how speech is the conduit for thought. We think in words; consequently, if we aren’t speaking clearly, we aren’t thinking clearly. When we debase our speech, inevitably we corrupt our thoughts.
The opposite is also true: when we refine and elevate our language, we automatically elevate our thoughts and ideas. The quality of our speech is directly proportional to how we manifest our nobility as human beings – a truism lost today on too many politicians, pundits, and content creators.
So how do we hold back the tide? Fashions change, cultural touchstones come and go, language evolves – or devolves. Children today speak in a manner appropriate, scarcely a generation ago, to the merchant marines or the federal penitentiary.
Must we simply move on with the current of history, or can we search for a beachhead and make a stand in defense of verbal sophistication?
THE SANCTITY OF SPEECH
It’s worth contemplating why profanity exists at all. Perhaps society benefits because of the language that we don’t use. By choosing words that are refined over words that are coarse, don’t we naturally delineate a boundary between our higher selves and our lower selves? Doesn’t that automatically remind us to exercise self-discipline in all the ideas we articulate and all the ways we articulate them?
We decry the belligerent rhetoric of politicians on both sides of the aisle. We lament the perpetual gridlock that characterizes a government in which demagogues preen, posture, and preach. But even if we can’t control the narrative on Capitol Hill, at least we can control it in our own homes, workplaces, and communities.
It all starts with the words we choose and the way we speak.
King Solomon says: Rid yourself of a perverse mouth and keep far from undisciplined lips.
The word profanity literally means “outside the temple.” Now think back to the biblical description of mankind being created “in the image of God.” Doesn’t that make it easier to understand the corrupting influence of unrefined speech on the divine essence that resides within every one of us?
So think twice when you choose your words. The natural result will be more thoughtful speech, more refined thoughts, and more civil discourse.