I once asked a retired public school teacher friend what was the biggest change during his thirty years of teaching, from the sixties to the nineties. Without even taking time to reflect he answered: "The language people use - both students and teachers." He went on to tell me that when he started, one almost never heard a swear word but when he retired, one heard profanity everywhere, including in the teacher's lounge.
We are awash in a sea of profanity. But it's not just ugly words, it's ugly ideas, expressed in crude and even violent language. People call the president of the United States - not just the current one but also his recent predecessors - by vulgar names. Pop stars talk about blowing up the White House, and it seems like everyone peppers their language with expletives.
What's going on? Do people think that a large dose of profanity will make them seem more grown up? Maybe they think that using vulgar and violent language is the only way to get people to listen to what they have to say.
When I was younger, even the most foul-mouthed people were careful to refrain from using profanity in certain situations. A man (and I say "man" because it was mostly men who swore) would never curse in front of a child--or a woman, or a preacher, or in school. But now, it's the children (and women, and even preachers) who are doing the swearing.
Of course, many people think, "So what?" A growing number of professed Christians, especially millennials, consider profanity harmless. They say it is just a word, a combination of voiced or unvoiced sounds produced by the vocal tract as we exhale. Yes, that is all it is. And a bullet is just a small piece of lead, adhering to a brass casing with a little black powder in it. But aim either of those at a person, or just fire them at random, and terrible things are going to happen.
It is no coincidence that the current breakdown in civil discourse has occurred at the same time we've seen a rise in the use of profanity. The two go together. The same impulse that give rise to one gives rise to the other. In fact, they often occur - uncivil discourse and profanity - in the same conversation.
Profanity not only betrays the presence of anger in the speaker, it is designed to produce anger in the hearer. Profanity, along with contempt (its constant companion), are to anger what nouns and verbs are to English. A person who constantly uses profanity is a person who chronically deals with anger.
The trouble with profanity and the language of contempt is not primarily that it comes out of our mouths but that it has taken up residence in our hearts. With scalpel-like precision, Jesus exposes this truth: "What you say flows from what is in your heart." Rudeness and vulgarity don't come out of nowhere. They come out of us.
We don't want to face this awkward truth. We excuse our rudeness because we are tired. That expletive was a slip, the unkind remark a regrettable mistake. That's like calling a baby an accident. Maybe we didn't intend to produce it, but it didn't fall from the sky and the stork didn't bring it. We did.
Anger is a witches' brew, and woe to the person who drinks it. Yet influential people in our society are serving a cocktail of anger and contempt, and urging us to drink it. They tell us that if we are not angry there is something wrong with us. They believe that anger alone can produce the energy necessary to end the injustices that characterize our social order.
Anger doesn't end injustice. It merely replaces old injustices with new ones. This is what St. James knew when he wrote, "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because man's anger does not produce the righteous life that God desires."
It is love that ends injustice, not hate. Evil will never be overcome by evil, only by good. And no witches' brew of anger and contempt (and the four-letter word incantations that go with it) can produce that.