Your Words Make You Wise

–Take back the narrative and turn the tide

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.


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?


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.

Previously published in Jewish World Review and the Jewish Press and featured here with Author permission.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. The way we talk has a strong impact on our ability to succeed and be happy in life, even though most people are not aware of this and much less intentionally choose the words they use every day.
    Normally we don’t pay much attention to the words we use. We tend to believe that we choose them at random, as required by the circumstances, but in reality it has been shown that everyone has a unique way of speaking, as if it were a “verbal trace”.
    Without a doubt, words have a strong impact because they not only serve to describe the world but also end up creating our own. The wrong words have the power to bring us down, but the right ones can inspire us, lift us up and push us and revolutionize our lives.

  2. Jonason, as always, I enjoy your thought-provoking essays, and now that I have heard your eloquence and elegance in the spoken word as well as the written, your suggestions feel more palpable. As a professional in my roles as a therapist, speaker, and writer, I do not believe in using profanity. Many others do in those roles and would disagree with my premise. All of my professional identities are used to assist people in getting unstuck so they can elevate and soar. I do not believe profanity or even improper language contributes to that in any way. To make matters worse, our young people are no longer learning to the etiquette of proper and civil speech never mind a better use of the written word. Sadly, our devolving education system is magnifying this illiteracy. Thank you for this.💖

  3. Yonason – this is rich and powerful and wonderful on so many levels. You correctly show the cost that our society has paid for dumbing down everything and how that so easily translates into “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.” We often chide ourselves and others for looking back at the “good old days,” when we all know that they weren’t that good… but part of our nostalgia has to do with, I believe, a certain amount of lament that the next generations won’t have to push on against many of our obstacles. Because we did and persevered against some of these negatives, we see the wisdom and have developed some amount of dexterity and nimbleness that may not have otherwise evolved. It’s similar to finishing sentences for a toddler, or giving answers to a test, we deprive others of the mental excercise of learning. It’s not about putting on airs and everyone starting to parrot Thurston Howell III (did you see a Gilligan’s Island reference coming here?) – it’s about raising expectations for all of us.

    We have reached the point where people can’t sit still to read a three sentence email. Political debates, such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates from 1858 and 1860, lasted for three hours – no moderators, no commercial breaks, and no spin room afterwords. We have dumbed down all of our discourse to sound bites, because no one has the intellectual stamina to do the research on their own.Here’s to honoring that desire to respect our audiences and raising the level of our discourse. Really well done, Yonason, I agree with this wholeheartedly.

    • I always look forward to your comments, Darlene. After our interview, I appreciate in you a quality I try to maintain in myself, the ability to balance passion against moderation which, together with etiquette, is a dying art.

      Some time ago, in conversation, a phrase fell out of my mouth: etiquette is the art of social ethics. I don’t think it’s an accident that both are endangered species.

      Oddly enough, political correctness does not promote etiquette, as intuition suggests it might. I believe that’s because etiquette is an expression of civility, which is my sensitivity to how my words and actions may affect you. Political correctness is weaponized civility, demanding that you conform to my standards and observe my sensitivities with no accompanying sense of reciprocal responsibility.

      In the end, all we can do is be responsible for ourselves and hope to influence those who notice.

    • I’m afraid my reply to Darlene went to you, Tom. However, I appreciate your thoughtful reply, especially after I found myself skimming through it and then sheepishly went back to give it the attention it deserves. It takes tremendous discipline not to get caught up in the culture of inattention that has surrounded us.

      On a positive note, there seems to be a slowly growing movement to observe a technology Sabbath, disconnecting from electronics for one day a week.

      Wait… what’s this? A book! Hello… who are you? My family!