Fri. August 24
George Washington: Better Language Makes Better Men
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the topic of “Language in the Digital Age.” Look for further contributions on this topic (like this one and this one) throughout the week on Acculturated.
Yesterday at the local grocery, I witnessed a child of perhaps five or six accosting her mother loudly. I could not discern what the little girl wanted, but it had clearly been denied to her, and she was determined to embarrass her mother—who stood silently in line, loading foodstuffs out of the cart—for this vindictive crime. The child was wailing as youngsters do, but with a difference: her baleful screams were punctuated by R-rated profanities.
Of course, perhaps this is barely worth noting these days, when the real problem with youngsters using profanity isn’t the words they use, but the implication that they might be youthful homophobes, as Bristol Palin learned recently when her four year old was bleeped while using the F-word. According to Cursing in America author Timothy Jay’s research, while the average adult isn’t swearing more than they have in recent decades, children are swearing more than ever before, and at earlier ages. Typically, in reaction to this sort of thing, dour people shake their heads and murmur “television.” They could be right. Or perhaps this DC-area child was simply affected by her environment. But whatever the reason, let’s remember that washing a child’s mouth out with soap is not child abuse. At least until the United Nations gets involved.
There is not enough appreciation for how this coarser approach to language in our social interactions—not just around children, online, or in reaction to your team’s performance, but in the workplace and the home—changes our perception of what these words mean. It raises their appropriateness for common discourse and lowers the barriers to escalated verbal conflict with those who don’t have a similar experience. But the more troublesome trend may be how the ubiquity of profanity lowers our appreciation for language and grammar generally, becoming a crutch for bad writing in the same way shock-humor is a crutch for a bad comic. This blog post on the rise in profanity from a New Yorker copy editor is depressingly accurate: “What was the point of making a fuss over a ‘than’ for a ‘then’ in a piece so full of profanity?”
Of course I do not insist on everyone adopting the language of the Puritan. But at least recognize that the prevalence of profanity in modern literature and art is grating and pointless, as if the authors of pulp fiction and screenplays are still operating under the impression that the act of swearing is daring instead of banal. At least we could demand more interesting profanity from our entertainment. Captain Haddock, grizzled sidekick to Hergé’s Tintin, was particularly inventive with insults that could be published in the family newspaper. That would at least make swearing what it ought to be—a cathartic moment, not a confrontational one.
Yet the better way would be for those who value language to recall George Washington’s order to the troops at Valley Forge:
The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army is growing into fashion. He hopes that the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it and that both they and the men will reflect that we can little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our army if we insult it by our impiety and folly. Added to this it is a vice so mean and low without any temptation that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.
Better language, Washington understood, makes better men.
Benjamin Domenech is a research fellow for The Heartland Instituteand editor in chief of The City, an academic journal on politics and culture. He edits and writes a popular daily email newsletter, The Transom, and co-hosts the daily Coffee & Markets podcast.
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