Words Do Matter

Even though I am old, I am neither a fogey nor a prude. There are many things I miss about my personal “good old days,” but I do not want the country to be like it used to be. I am perhaps a tad more prudish than fogeyish. Despite my attitude, I still believe civility is important.

As a social norm, civility helps societies function. Those norms change, but for the past couple of hundred years, certain words were not for use in public. They are words we collectively identified as vulgarities, obscenities or profanities. We do use them, but there are situations where we do not. There may, or may not, be consequences for people who do, but the offense is disruptive.

We use words to convey what we think and want others to know. In mid-January, we experienced a vivid example when the president used, in his words, “rough language” while talking about immigration.

The media and diplomatic uproar his word choice caused illustrate that what we say and how we say it matters. His supporters want to deemphasize the significance of his word choice, and they accurately say his language is how ordinary people talk in barrooms. Some have said locker rooms.

But, the halls of government are neither locker room nor barroom. The White House is America’s home. The president is not an ordinary American; he is America’s representative to the world.

I do not believe ordinary Americans use such words in their churches or supermarkets or their homes, except for dramatic emphasis—or they have no other words at hand. Such words are not ordinary, and when they become ordinary they lose emphasis

Obscenities and profanities are omnipresent and loud in locker rooms. Locker rooms are places where competitive demonstrations of prowess and superiority are common. In locker rooms, people boast. They ridicule opponents. They taunt fellow competitors, and teammates. In locker rooms, people express their frustrations, most often vocally but sometimes physically. Locker-room-talk is social in a specific environment.

Barrooms are less competitive places. People go to bars to relax, socialize, argue, commiserate and share intimate thoughts. Yes, some people boast or pick fights. There are people for whom a bar is a place to get drunk or to get into a fight. Those people are not the norm, and they make other patrons uncomfortable.

The free flow of obscenities and profanities and outrageous opinions in locker rooms and barrooms is integral to making those places refuges from the rest of the world, but the atmosphere makes them alien to those who disapprove.

There is a critical element common in both environments. People are speaking for themselves, not for others. Unless someone makes it known he is a representative, those around him can be confident they are hearing an individual opinion. No one expects the talk, especially the specific language, to go beyond the room. Only in recent years has the language of locker rooms and barrooms, and the military moved beyond those places. It was not a language for public places, and certainly not something you would want your mother or your children to hear you utter.

I have vivid memories of my father’s reaction to words I used on my first leave from the Army. He convinced me that what we say, and the words we use to say it, are indicative of who we are. With each decade since his lecture, I have come to believe his argument more deeply.

Although we have loosened our standards for acceptable language, there still are places where barroom and locker room talk are out of place. Meeting rooms are one example. In meetings, everyone represents something or someone beyond themselves. Being a representative includes the burden of decorous behavior and speech. Otherwise, meetings devolve into chaos.

Behavior and language in a business meeting are of concern to the business, not the public. Government meetings are different.

At all levels of government, expectations about language and words are higher because participants are not speaking as individuals. Every person present is conducting the business of a constituency, and participants can reasonably expect their conduct and their language to become known to their constituents.

Failure, or refusal, to recognize those expectations and adhere to norms disrupts the exchange of ideas and creates a shockwave of distraction from the problems at hand. It is impossible to address the problems of governing when everyone’s attention is focused on the furor over what the leader’s unusual word choice means.

I am neither a fogey nor a prude. I love the vividness of our language, its softness, and its harsh shock value. The words we choose to convey what we think, and they can convey our deepest beliefs, particularly in emotional moments. I do not want to see the effectiveness of those words diminished by moving the language of the barroom into the living room.

The words we choose matter, but the place and the context in which we use them matters more.