kids cursing conservative soulWhile my memories might verge on the edge of fuzzy nostalgia from time to time, I remember quite clearly what the women and men of the 1970s did, said, and believed in small-town American neighborhoods. In those years, I absolutely loved reading (and researching and writing), but I also loved running, biking, and exploring. I could be… rather… well… hyper. When I got too hyper and misbehaved, neighbors (usually women, as the men were at work) corrected me. I do not remember ever being spanked by a neighbor, but I certainly remember receiving stern “talking to’s.”

The worst thing to befall me at the time, of course, came if the neighbor decided to call my mom and let me know that I had misbehaved. If it went that far, I had embarrassed not just myself but my entire family.

Regardless, in the 1970s, it was not just the right but the actual duty of the neighbor to discipline when necessary. I certainly never questioned this, though I did sometimes fear it.

I also remember eating at a good but not excellent restaurant in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. A man at another table cussed. When he did, heads turned, but everyone let it slide, presuming it was a one-time outburst. When he continued to offer foul language at full volume, however, the other men in the restaurant became agitated, formed a small group, and approached the offender, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he had crossed a line and needed to cease such behavior. My memory is that he needed no more persuasion after the others approached him. Indeed, he quieted immediately. Most likely, the men who approached the offender did not know each other, but they had a common purpose once he disrupted the family atmosphere. They knew it, and so did everyone else in the restaurant.

cursingWhy these autobiographical stories? Because in 2015 I am lucky if I can get out of a Wal-Mart without overhearing another shopper dropping the f-bomb, usually at her or his own kids. What happened between 1975 and 2015? A lot, apparently. But, it is not just Wal-Mart. It is in nearly every airport (once distinguished by some class—in dress as well as in language), in nearly every shop, and, certainly, at every gas station. Now, however, such horrific language is not just in person-to-person to communication in public places. TV shows—at least the science fiction ones I like—use sh*t without even the pretense of restraint, and even ostensibly family-oriented podcasts about culture drop the f-bomb without even a semblance of discrimination.

Without being prissy, let me make two comments about the frequent and unabashed use of foul language. First, it is always and everywhere violent. I do not mean this in the modern “trigger-warning” sense used by the weak of soul to protect their equally feeble politically-correct views. I mean this exactly as is. The use of such sexual and barnyard epithets demeans the very integrity of the human being as a unique bearer of the imago dei. This is as true of the one employing such terms as it is of those on the receiving end of such foulness.

Second, and equally important, a recourse to coarse language speaks volumes about the lack of creativity and imagination in our post-modern society. Really, imagine a culture and its inhabitants that have to resort to such language to describe nearly anything and everything in sight and out of sight.

51ukj61zoMLOne of America’s most insightful cultural critics, Tom Wolfe, has correctly labeled this relatively new usage and over-usage of a horrific vulgarity, a “patois.” In a rather comic passage in his profound and disturbing look at the very deconstruction of an intelligent young woman’s soul, I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe notes with surprising effectiveness that the foul word that was once a description of what one barnyard animal does to another has become so omnipresent that the only time it’s really not employed in the language is when it’s meant to describe what it originally meant. “Rarely—the usage had become somewhat archaic—but every now and then it referred to sexual intercourse.”

As Wolfe so unglamorously yet artfully demonstrates, in its habitual unmeaning, the meaning behind the frequent use of the word is all too clear and reveals all too much about us. None of it good. We post-moderns no longer possess souls or minds for beauty, truth, or goodness. We are hollow men, and, at some level, we know this. Honestly, we might have very well sold our souls sometime over the last generation to the father of darkness himself.

What is equally frustrating is that such language had not only become commonplace, but it has also seeped into all aspects of media and culture. Regrettably, this has proven as true for the cultural Right as for the Left. One might actually find it consistent with a Leftist desire for equality in all things to embrace what was once only said in biker bars, in prisons, and in naval ports. Why not take the extreme of low and make it the equivalent of high?

We certainly cannot blame the Left alone. As conservatism has become the property of the attention seekers, the radio sophists, and blond-plastic commodifiers, a fundamental tenet has been lost in this world: the absolute need for a conservative to be a gentleman or lady.

How can we ever conserve goodness if we fail to uphold beauty?

This is, frankly, a simple matter of decorum. Manners, as Cicero understood, as George Washington understood, and as Russell Kirk understood are not the province of the rich and the powerful. They are the province of all men and women of good will. When we dress appropriately, speak appropriately, and even eat appropriately, we are not being haughty or pretentious. Quite the opposite. We are honoring the others near us. In our decency, we are proclaiming the decency of the other. Far from arrogance or stuffiness on the part of the mannered, manners tell others that they matter, that they deserve dignity, and that we are willing to honor them.

manholdingopendoorThe holding of a door for another does not promote sexism or patriarchy; it specifies service, virtue (in a minor way), and respect.

The use of proper words does not reveal how uptight a person is, but how much they value another.

In so many ways, we moderns and post-moderns have turned the world of our grandfathers and grandmothers on its head. And, the more we do it, the less we realize we are doing it. Bad is good, evil is interesting, truth is subjective, and beauty only in the eye (or mouth and ear) of the beholder.

Do I have any profound advice? Why, yes, I think I do. It’s nothing new, however, though our generation seems to have forgotten the just scoldings of our mothers and grandmothers. The next time you’re tempted to say something disgusting, think about your someone whom you once deeply respected wanting to wash your mouth out with soap. She had a point. Do you really want to eat out of the same mouth that just defecated all over the front of your shirt? Do you want your daughter to kiss you on the cheek good night, immediately after you smeared excrement all across your face?

The next time you hear another using a foul word in public, question them about it. “Really, is that what you meant?” The chances are quite good you’ll receive an earful of even more “colorful” language. The chances are equally good that you will have planted a vital question in a person’s mind and soul. And, if not that person, perhaps another.

It’s time not to just clean up the trash from the sidewalks and gutters, but from our very mouths, minds, and souls.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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16 replies to this post
  1. This reminds me of my shock when discovering that amongst the liberal intelligentsia in Warsaw, as someone who is now a PhD once told me, swearing is a sign of distinction when done by the upper class indiscretely. I did not fit in because I did not swear all the time, mostly because swear words only got in the way of otherwise useful or intelligent vocabulary. This is why I don’t like universities. Rather than refine the common man they have stooped to his level. Swearing only makes sense to indicate an emotional outburst. Now of course, the common man, seeing that his betters all swear, swears in Wal-mart. The circle is complete.

  2. An excellent article. things are just as bad in Britain – and have been for the past 2 decades or so. It’s so slumming – but just what you would expect in a society whose main organising principle is ‘equality’. Nostalgie de la boue!

  3. I very respectably disagree. I’m going to be painfully honest, I think swearing is a natural part of humor and against liberal ideas of PC and conformity. the more someone tries to stop bad language the more people will use it. I know it’s not very humane of me to say so but I’d rather be honest.

    • I recalled seeing a you tube video where shoppers stepped over a man after he’d just been shot near the checkout counter, his blood seeping from his fresh wound, as though they’d encountered trash on the sidewalk. No one stopped to give a hand, nor inquire after his well being, they just stepped over him. Oh, some took pictures to post his unfortunate situation online. This is why Mr. Birzer’s article, “Foul Language, Decorum & the Soul” raise needed attention to a civilized society and, should be of great concern to all. Yes, many have grown accustomed to cursing and this blood letting type behavior and language and written it off as par for the course. Speaking to whatever you call yourself, conservative and liberal alike, when I hear cursing and foulness come from any human being, it tells me of his frustration with his own life, his hollowness, as Mr. Birzer stated, his lack of any kind of love for another person and the dismissal of the humanity of all who has to witness a person with a suppressed soul. The cursing person is just like the person stepping over the body of another.



      • What’s wrong with being frustrated with life? The modern world is a place of crazy mob rule and insane Godlessness. I just find it hard to keep my sanity in a “sea of Godlessness” as the neglected Pope Benedict I believe said.

  4. Bravo!

    As a woman working in a traditionally “man’s job”, I cannot recount the number of times I’ve heard off color language and stories.

    I used to think there was some hope! At a previous job, one of the engineers I worked with in the lab would profusely apologize any time he saw that I had been in earshot when he uttered an expletive or told a story that could be considered offensive to ladies. I do my best to act like a lady, but I rarely see that type of apologetic behavior any longer.

  5. I remember once grabbing a slice of pizza with a choleric, incorrigible acquaintance and being mortified when a family sat next to us. I still remember the mother’s aghast face. For my part, after four years at my Jesuit high school in NYC in which many of the faculty and the student body cursed constantly, it took me years to dent the habit. Now I reserve swearing for when I’m driving and ranting about modernity.

  6. I like the anecdote from the restaurant. It certainly does illustrate just how low a large portion of our society has stooped. Thankfully, there are places, for example some small towns, where such language is still unacceptable in public.

    • Society is not any more of a problem than Catholicism is a problem. Which is at its heart in my view an authoritarian conformist religion. I feel that I was insincere about my lifestyle and true religious feelings, which Catholics made me suppress. Swearing is a natural part of life, swearing about the wrong things is what should trouble.

      • what is a conformist? Aren’t you a conformist to what you believe? If I have examined all world views objectively and believe truly that the Catholic church is the truth, isn’t it my obligation, at least intellectually to submit to its authority? Or, am I going to say I refuse to submit to its authority even though I believe its true? Isn’t that being false? Submitting to rightful authority is honest not mindless. One has to examine all things and if truth means submitting to authority then that’s what your intellectually obligated to do.

        • A conformist is someone who is not free, a free man is a questioner and a critic to some degree of his society (a philosopher). The true Christian legacy is not that of what modern American Catholicism (Catholicism actually had confidence in itself in the medieval world). The true Christian legacy is that of the early church which was united in faith and was the truest expression of religion, which placed more importance on God than mankind.
          In other words the true Christian is NOT a humanist. He is almost an anti Humanist. That is the main mistake of Modern Catholicism and Protestantism. It is based on the false theologizing of the Renaissance.

        • I am a little late in reading this excellent essay! Words are so important to the ability for conveying meaning, especially toward a truth. Every discipline has its own language; words that specifically lead to knowledge and understanding the core of thought in say, philosophy, medicine, law, theology, etc.

          I take exception to the word, submit, when speaking of one who is a member of, let us call it Chriatiandum, for simplicity. A Christian is a person of Faith, a faith that comes by hearing and not by submitting. This hearing has brought one to the Faith in God’s redeeming grace. Submission is the language of a threat toward non obedience.

          I am only aware of the gospel message of salvation throughout the Bible as being God’s deliverance in His mercy. The law kills, but the Gospel brings life.

  7. Thank you Mr. Birzer for saying what I have been holding back for many years. I used to work with a man who employed the f**** word in every other sentence and when attending a party at his home found that his wife used it equally as well – and she was the vice-president of a bank! I regret that I once, yes once, blurted it out in frustration and to this day it has bothered me. My spouse and children now grown respect those around them and never resort to profanity.

  8. I was recently in a large department store, at the checkout, while a young male employee, perhaps 16, was chatting up the young lady working the cash. I had my young son, and next in line was a Muslim women with two or three young kids. He was recounting his great weekend with his buddies, using “F” -this and “F”-that, and it was obvious that he had no idea, that what he was doing was more than inappropriate. The young girl at the cash just focused on her register, and her body language suggested she wanted no part of his conversation. I figured I’d give this kid a good verbal “kick in the butt”, and in my sternest voice, said “Hey! Can’t you see there are young kids here? Watch your language please”. Well – I’ve never seen a white kids face turn so red. It was obvious he had never experienced such embarrassment. He mumbled some kind of apology, and scurried off to find something to do. The young cashier just kept registering my stuff, and I sensed a relief that this uncomfortable situation, was at least acknowledged. Nothing more needed to be said.

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