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A Plea for Civility April 15, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Random Observations.
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Warning: crude language ahead. Queen Victoria would not be amused.

On a recent episode of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart talked about taking his four- and five-year-old children to a ball game and his embarrassment when one of them asked, “Daddy, what’s a blind cocksucker?” (I think I would have answered, “A blind person is someone who can’t see. The other word is not nice, and I don’t want you ever to use it. It’s a mean name for someone who likes to make a man happy.” If the child persisted, I would say, “It’s another way of saying ‘rooster’s lollipop.’ ”)

I’ve been thinking about civility in the public sphere a lot recently, ever since teabaggers responded to the passage of health care reform by shouting “Nigger!” at a hero of the Civil Rights movement, “Faggot!” at a hero of the gay rights movement, and various other epithets. And spitting on them. I’ve noticed on Twitter and to a lesser extent on Facebook that a lot of people seem to think that vituperation is a tactic of first resort — that is, when confronted with an irrefutable fact or logical deduction, those whose education or thinking skills are poor resort to personal attack. A: “No, you’re wrong, the sun rises in the east. Look over there.” B: “You fucking bitch!”

The attackers’ intention always seems to be scattershot insults, most of which aren’t even tangentially related to the subject that aroused the attacker’s ire, but instead attack one’s sexual orientation, sexual proclivities, or general lack of ability to understand and admire the attacker’s superiority. (Shall we say.) For example, A: “The United States is a democracy.” B: “It is not! You want to round up me and my friends and make us live in internment camps, you stupid cunt!”

On the one hand, this is something of a relief; I don’t much care whether some badly-educated stranger wants the world to believe I’m gay, or stupid, or a fascist. On the other hand, it grieves me that Faux News and hate radio have so diminished public discourse (not to mention Sarah Palin’s redefinition of “debate” as “recital of talking points”). Why, when people disagree, can they not use rational thought as their first recourse? Too often these days, an argument seems to proceed, A: “You want to take away my freedom!” B: “Exactly where did you get an idea like that? What proof do you have that it’s true? How do you know what’s in my mind?” A: “You’re a fucking lesbian niggerloving Hitler who hates America!”

Obviously it’s impossible to teach strangers how to think clearly and use reason and logic, especially when TV “pundits” like Glenn Beck do it so rarely. A journalist named Neil Midgley recently wrote, “The only way to cure racism and homophobia is through reason and debate.” Isn’t that so admirably idealistic as to qualify as sweet? Can you imagine in engaging in civilized reason and debate with the teabaggers who shouted “Faggot!” at Barney Frank for the terrible crime of thinking every American deserves to be able to see a doctor when sick?

Long, long ago, I had a pottymouth. Well, I was very young; I thought I was cool, hip, a happening kind of chick, unconstrained by Miss Thistlebottom and Queen Victoria. Then I read a novel in which one of the characters remarked that the use of “bad” words is a sign of a limited vocabulary. This struck me as profoundly true, and I cleaned up my act. (I also think having a limited vocabulary limits your ability to think and reason, but that’s a different rant.)

Although I slip, I try hard to limit myself to “shazbot” or “frak” or to phrases like “Pishy-poo!,” “Dag nabbit!” or “Dad gummit!” I’ve discovered some unexpected benefits. For one thing, deliberately silly or antique language tends to make people smile, and it’s hard to spit or froth at the mouth when you’re smiling. For another, I’m a sweet little old lady; nowadays, when I use shock language, people are shocked!

Remember the old saying, “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it frustrates you and annoys the pig”? My corollary: “Don’t try to teach a Faux News / hate radio fan to think. It frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

You can’t control anyone else’s thoughts or behavior, only your own. My plea is that you, gentle reader, expand your vocabulary. Pretend that the person you’re talking to will turn out to be the Big Barn Smell at a place you really want to have a job with someday. You don’t want to have your future boss think you are a pottymouth with a poor education and worse thinking skills, do you?

You may have heard of Gresham’s Law, “Bad money drives out good.” For example, it used to be that quarters were solid silver. Then when silver started getting expensive, the government started issuing coins that were two thin sheets of silver sandwiching a less expensive metal. Naturally people started hoarding the solid-silver quarters, and now they can only be acquired from coin collectors.

I think Gresham’s Law also applies to public discourse: “Vituperation drives out civility and rational debate.” And it just makes life nasty.

Join me in adopting expletives like “shazbot!” and “frak!” Join me in preferring phrases like “Dad-blamed rumgumptious flibbertigibbet!” Write down and use the expletives you hear Ralphie’s dad use in “A Christmas Story.”

Or in other words: Save shock language for when you really want to shock.