Watch Your Mouth

As I’m writing this, the polls are opening, and I for one won’t miss the robo-calls, the reams of direct mail and most of all the contentious, virtually inescapable ads, arguments and incessant news coverage highlighting the most excessive outbursts from candidates. Whatever the outcome, however, the permanent campaigning will simply go on, but perhaps the tone will be ratcheted back a bit, and that’s going to be a relief.

Whatever your political views, there’s one issue that is likely to survive this election campaign—and it’s not a good one. I’ve been shocked at the speech of candidates on both sides throughout, and I believe it sets a new standard that isn’t good for our kids.

When I was a kid and we dared to use off-limits words, we were punished. Sometimes it was a sharp, “Language!” from my mother. Depending on the infraction, we could be sent to our room. There was no brooking of what was considered vulgar or disrespectful, and there was no doubt in our minds where the limits of appropriate speech were. Bad language became a secret thing, shared with friends away from adult ears. We felt naughty and grown-up at the same time. Of course swearing became “forbidden fruit,” but there was no doubt as to what was appropriate where and when.

That distinction is gone. I’ve been surprised at the vulgarity and violence of so much of the language that people have used throughout this campaign.  I realize that there is a lot of pent up frustration and anger at things right now, but the tone of campaigning and some of the language I’ve heard has really surprised me.

Moreover, having tracked various debates here in the East, in addition to speech that doesn’t seem becoming of a public official, the art of debate is gone. What has taken its place is an ongoing spate of name-calling and stand-alone statements, most of which have focused on denigrating the opponents.

Yes, all of this can be entertaining, but it’s not a service to our children. We are not modeling intellectual rigor, respect or anything but scoring points at the expense of an opponent. Sorry, that’s not debate.

There’s not much we can do about the public discourse. It’s validated by the news media that plays it for all of its entertainment value. And let’s not even get started on this behavior and language reality show actors use. Yes, it can be funny to watch vulgar people behaving badly, but it’s only funny if one has a context for understanding that this kind of behavior is inappropriate. After all, the women on “Bridezillas” are not chosen for their sophistication.

Laugh all you want, and we do. Yet children need to understand what’s appropriate when. It’s important for everything from day-to-day interaction to career development.

In “Pygmalion” (aka “My Fair Lady” in the musical), George Bernard Shaw suggested that how one speaks immediately identifies that person with class, education and intelligence. It’s still true. What seems to have changed is that at one time more people aspired to being in the more elevated strata of society. Today when “Jersey Shore” and the like guarantee easy fame and fortune, it’s not so clear as to what kind of behavior or speech leads to worldly success.

Let me be perfectly blunt: The extreme vulgarity of this behavior and speech will spell success for an infinitesimal number of people. For the rest of us, knowing how to speak and carry ourselves in a way that is grown-up and appropriate is much more a key to success than being known for something more base. We may laugh at the train wrecks, but we hire people who know how to behave, think and speak well.

Is colorful language ever permissible? Of course, but in the right time and place. Swearing can relieve stress, make you laugh and lead to the healthy expression of anger and other negative and inevitable emotions. What makes the difference is having the choice of what to use when.

Oh, and this is nothing new. If you read the newspaper criticisms of John Adams from the 18th Century, you’ll find it rife with rage, and vulgarity. Then, as now, it was designed to stir up emotional reactions that can undermine rational thought. Emotionalism and vulgarity can have short-term impact, but they don’t have the staying power of something more reasoned. The crackpots of history are largely forgotten because for all their noise, they seldom become more than a footnote to history.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the sideshow, but be mindful that the main event requires something more substantive.

Scroll to Top