So to speak

If perchance there are gentle and refined readers out there, be advised that in this post I use coarser language than I usually employ–in writing.

I once told my boss that if so-and-so told him such-and-such, they were full of bullshit, because it wasn’t so. He replied, “Oh, you said ‘bullshit.’ You’re all grown up now, I’m so proud of you.”

I have never attempted to say or act as though certain words were scary and taboo and naughty. It seems that for a while I managed to limit my use of such language to the point where it was generally perceived that I would not swear. I have heard some ripe things and I have probably used every phrase I have heard at some point in time. I do not believe that the language, by itself, is sinful. The meanings of particular sounds and symbols are determined by our usage and have no external significance; what was an obscene word may not be today, and what is today an obscene word may not be tomorrow; and also, what once was clean language may become vulgar. “Gay” used to mean happy, carefree. “Bitch” used to mean female dog, with no more pejorative than female dog necessarily implied in that culture (which did not think of dogs so much as pets).

I have read someone approximately my age who wrote that “bitch” to him and his peers has a familiar and jocular sense of one-upmanship or superiority, something like the term “loser.” I see that usage becoming more common around me. Perhaps by the end of my life people will barely remember that it meant anything else, as is current with ‘gay’–which is now being used to mean silly, pathetic, or odd, but not necessarily homosexual and certainly not happy and carefree.

But understanding language as relative and not intrinsically good or bad does not give us free license in its use. On those occasions when my boss has remarked on my language–and the incident above is not the only one–besides showing a very affected sort of paternalism, he is demonstrating an awareness that I am using language which I have demonstrated myself to consider inappropriate. And yet as someone I work with said in response to one of those paternalistic remarks, “Oh yeah, Arlan swears like a Marine.” And the person speaking was a Marine. I am sure he was speaking hyperbolically; I am not that profane, yet. I have thus far kept my coarse language to informal conversations and not business meetings where other employees have freely used it.

Yet I think it is clear that I have condemned myself. While I am saying that language is relative, and all a matter of how your audience understands you, I am also clearly being understood by my audience to use vulgar speech. It would be nice to pretend that they are only seeing the shedding of a self-righteous veneer I never intended to employ. The truth is, I swear, and I shouldn’t.

In the first couple of months in my current job I also tried very hard to ignore the ribald banter. Several of my current coworkers can be quite explicit before they are even attempting to be titillating or obscene. One in particular fires off colorful retorts on the least provocation.

The truth of the matter has always been, since long before I took this job, that I can drop innuendo as easily as about anyone I’ve met. As with language in general, I don’t agree with the view that all sexual references are automatically bad unless necessarily used for medical discussion. Humor that plays off of an awareness of sexuality is not in all cases different than humor about intelligence, hunger, or misfortune. But if we should avoid language or humor that is meant to demean, humiliate, or antagonize, and if we should avoid encouraging or accepting sexual relationships contrary to the created order, then a lot of my banter goes beyond recognizing what is to encouraging what should not be. So many times a coworker has said, “You’re worse than the rest of them,” with mixed surprise, amusement, and sometimes disgust, and I accept this with a grin because I love to get a reaction.

On Monday night at a relative’s house I saw an episode of the popular children’s TV show “Hannah Montana.” On Tuesday morning I complained to a coworker that it was not appropriate for the pre-teen children it is aimed at, and popular with; although there was no nudity or use of Forbidden Words, the show runs on a backdrop of physical desire. It took me until Tuesday evening to actually realize the irony of that complaint, coming from someone who likes to look askance and exlaim “Whoa!” so as to imbue whatever someone just said with a sense of indecency. Even when notorious coworkers are not being suggestive I “misinterpret” them in that direction, as if that somehow absolves me of responsiblity for the flavor of my remark, since I was only responding to what was said. Such conceits pronounce by themselves more condemnation than most sermons on righteous living can muster.

Old Testament prophets sometimes use very graphic language, and New Testmant authors do not spare on invective when they wish to make a point. I doubt that gracious language always sounds as serene as we might imagine. But if proper speech for a Christian sounded no different than what everyone else is saying, apostles would not remind us to avoid idle and profane speech. My tongue is so far from being tame that one could hardly call it housbroken.