Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On civility and temperance in speech

I am still working on moving this blog to a new site, but in the meantime, I wanted to comment on a current matter. Recently two Catholic writers were let go from a Catholic publication, with the reason given that some of their writing online in social media and other forums was not acceptable. I don't plan to discuss the specifics of the situation since I don't actually know the specifics of the situation, and engaging in speculation about those specifics wouldn't be right. The people involved can, and have, commented, and I sort of think they're the only ones who ought to.

No, my reason for writing has to do with general principles involving civility in written speech, and in particular as a response to some people who, with a sincere and, I think, charitable impulse to defend the two writers, are saying some awfully silly things. Without pointing fingers at any particular commenters, these are the sorts of things I've been seeing:

—The insistence that any "salty" language, vulgarity, coarseness, swearing, name-calling/belittling or other similar uses of words are perfectly fine because Jesus called the Pharisees whitened sepulchers, and St. Paul could get pretty earthy, and there's tons of stuff in the Old Testament too, so clearly writers who use any of these tactics are just following Christ.

—The comparison between cussing someone out on the Internet and the fabled crankiness of St. Jerome or other saints, with the obvious message that crabbiness is sort of a virtue, really, if we just understood it properly.

—The claim that nobody before the Victorians ever thought that immoderate or intemperate language was in any way a moral fault, and that because of the Victorians (or the Puritans or the Jansenists or all three) we have lost that manly, forthright language and become a tribe of "Dash it all, Aunt Agatha!" wimps incapable of expressing the full range of human emotions in our writings.

—The cry that "Keeping it real!" absolutely requires the flinging of F-bombs in Facebook comment threads, and that people who complain about such things are either hopeless fainting-couch addicts or else lying hypocrites who don't really mind the swearing so much as they oppose the steely-eyed soul-reading and calls to repentance which the F-bomb tosser is issuing forth like a prophet of old.

—The somewhat head-scratching notion that employers (even contract employers) don't actually have the right to hold someone accountable for their social media behavior or to end their relationship with an employee who is, however inadvertently, tarnishing their image.

Now, I have a feeling that the two people who were let go from their writing jobs would probably find all of this rather embarrassing, because they're not the ones saying any of this (at least, not as far as I know). Most of us know that just our Lord speaking rather directly to the Pharisees was because He is God, and saw their hearts; we, even the best of us, are just guessing and making assumptions and drawing conclusions, and we're not always right. The same thing is true with comparisons to the saints: sure, we might be a modern-day St. Jerome, but it's always at least equally possible that we're just being a jerk. Many Christian pastors throughout the ages have warned their flocks about the duty to be temperate in speech and modest in expression, and they were not Victorians by any means; it is no more "real" to throw F-bombs than to refrain from doing so (and, when you think about what the F-word actually means, it is often quite nonsensical to employ it in a conversational context where violent carnal knowledge of the item or idea in question is at the very least a physical impossibility and at the most an offense against God and man). As for employers, most of us remember the man who was fired for bullying a fast-food employee and posting a rather pathetic, boasting video of the event on the Internet; one could argue that he was fired as much for extreme cluelessness as anything, but he was fired, and for something that took place far from the context of his job.

The fact of the matter is that civility in speech, temperance in conversation, modesty in one's use of language, all are and all have been areas of concern to Christians throughout the ages. And while most reasonable pastors and confessors would agree that the occasional slip of the tongue is not likely to be a huge fault, especially under extreme provocation, they would also point out that one's written communications ought, quite properly, to be held to a higher standard. We are capable of thinking before we write; we are capable of editing after we write; and we are capable of reconsidering long before we hit the "publish" or "post" buttons. In the heat of an online discussion we may be inclined to forget these things (myself as well as anybody), but that doesn't change the reality that written communication is not intended to be immediate and thoughtless.

I myself have been called to account before for written expressions that failed to see the person on the other side of the screen as a precious child of God made in His image and likeness, and I have been, on the whole, grateful for those reminders. One blogger I know set up the precedent long ago of the "beer and pizza" rule for his comment boxes: you should conduct yourself as if you are sitting at a table with the other commenters sharing some pizza and beer and having a real conversation. His blog continues to be known as a place of unusual civility, where people who disagree about nearly everything can talk to each other with real kindness and compassion, and I have learned a lot from my interactions with commenters there.

Whatever the specifics of this present situation are, I think any Catholic writer would hate to see himself or herself used as the excuse made for a decrease in civility and charity online. Temperance in speech is as much of a virtue as temperance in eating or drinking, and we shouldn't get in the habit of claiming otherwise.

1 comment:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I tend to oppose interference by an employer in the activities, speech, opinions, of employees outside the scope of the job. I agree that at times, a public personality, which a journalist can be, although not always, sometimes tarnishes the image of the enterprise by publicly accessible commentary. But I think that sort of coercion or interference should be very limited. E.g., if I have a sales job at a large retail store, and I state on line that someday Obergefell will be overturned for the same reason as Bowers v. Hardwick -- both were wrongly decided, I would fight vigorously against my employer telling me that I must stop posting such comments from my home computer during my own time, because someone who was offended might enter the store as a customer, recognize my face, and be offended and refuse to shop there. To allow an employer such liberties would vindicate a primary axiom of Marxism, that a capitalist buys not merely an employee's labor, but their labor power, that the commodity purchased includes all that it takes to regenerate the employee's ability to show up ready to work another shift, justifying the term "wage slavery." As a practical matter, if you depend upon the employer for your sustenance, then they are the lord of your life, not just your hours on the job.

As to civility... I agree. It is probably true that most of us use some profane language from time to time, sometimes to our regret, sometimes perhaps not. But "making it real" by suffusing such language throughout all public aspects of existence is misguided, and in fact even mislocates the purpose, if there is one, of profanity. I watched a movie some years ago on the life of Jimmy Hoffa. When he was in male company with a small group of cronies, every other word out of his mouth was a ten letter profanity that crude "white" people tend to use as crude "black" people use a somewhat different twelve letter profanity. I have no doubt Hoffa spoke that way routinely to male cronies in private. But I am sure he would be shocked to see it bandied about in front of a large mixed audience of men, women and children, which is what making the film "real" actually does. Its not real, because the context of a public performance is inevitably different from the context of a private conversation. Ditto for bedroom scenes in movies.

I might add that "whited sepulchure" is not on the same level of profanity as the language under discussion here. Jesus had some taste, and some class, in his choice of language.