When McKay Hatch entered junior high school in Pasadena, CA, he noticed that a lot of his friends started cussing, apparently so they would fit in with the older kids. McKay refused to go along, and asked his friends not to talk like that around him. When they were 8th graders and about to head for high school, his friends informed him that his conscientious stand had influenced them to stop cussing, so he asked them what they thought about starting a “No Cussing Club.” They liked the idea, so they carried it out when they got to high school. It caught on, and today, there’s a web site and more than 30,000 members, representing all 50 states and several foreign nations.
This would be a human interest story to which I’d pay zero attention, if it were not for the death threats. That’s right, death threats. McKay has by now received more than 60,000 hateful emails, including several that threaten violence against him and his family. They’ve received phone calls on their answering machine, too, threatening enough to involve the FBI. And, they received some $2,000 worth of pizza due to a hateful prank. Of course, most of the emails are not threats, they’re just … well, strings of obscenities. What else?
Take a look at Fox’s news story:
It sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? Just knock off the rough language. Use language to build people up, not tear them down. So, what is it about this that enrages some folks — a lot of folks, apparently — about a kid starting a No Cussing Club?
Here comes the obligatory disclaimer: I cuss. I cuss like a sailor at times. I have anger issues, and when I get steamed, I use angry words. I dislike the fact that I talk like this, but I’ve never disliked it enough to change my linguistic habits, which I acquired early in life from my father. So in a way, I understand the angry folks who are writing nastygrams, even though I would never write one myself, and even though I think young McKay is doing a very good thing.
The issue is that everybody wants to think of themselves as decent, even if they’re not, and everybody really knows when they’re doing wrong, even if they claim they don’t. Consequently, as soon as somebody demonstrates genuine virtue, those of us who lack that virtue feel as though we’ve been exposed and belittled. Let’s be clear: the guilt does not come from the virtuous person, but from inside ourselves. Some have the good sense to know that they feel guilty because they ought to. Others, though, rev up their rationalizations and fire them off, and the deeper the sense of guilt, the angrier the rationalizations. As Whittaker Chambers once pointed out,
Experience had taught me that innocence seldom utters outraged shrieks. Guilt does. Innocence is a mighty shield, and the man or woman covered by it, is much more likely to answer calmly: “My life is blameless. Look into it, if you like, for you will find nothing.” That is the tone of innocence.
My own experience confirms this. When an accusation has no merit at all, I can take it calmly. It’s when I’m afraid inside myself that there might be some merit to the accusation that I react with rage. Notice that this does not mean I’m necessarily guilty as charged, only that I’m afraid I might be. However, I’ve also found that in an uncomfortably large percentage of cases, we feel guilty because we are guilty.
Guilty of what? In this case, that’s the reasonable question. Many of the objections to young McKay’s club come in the form of rationalizations about the meaninglessness of words. “There’s really no difference between ‘Oh, darn,’ and ‘Oh, shit,’” moderns are fond of philosophizing. Young Mr. Hatch is not impressed. “Words mean things. Everybody knows which words to avoid when you don’t want to offend anyone, or when you’re interviewing for a job,” he replies. It cuts to the heart of the matter. We really do believe, somewhere inside ourselves, that using harsh words is wrong.
Some apparently feel so sensitive about this topic that the mere presence of a 15-year-old somewhere in the world who encourages a higher standard sends them into a seething, frothing rage, a rage so deep that it prompts them to send strings of obscenities, dozens of unsolicited pizzas, and even threats of violence. I have to conclude that the topic is more important than anybody cares to admit. I’m frankly shocked.
Many social progressives among us love to scold, but on topics where their own opinions judge them superior. These are usually politically relevant topics about which one can call oneself righteous simply because one cares: equal rights for women and blacks, empowering the poor, protecting the environment, and so forth. Vote the right way, advocate the right social policy, and voila! you’re a righteous man or woman, regardless of any inner faults of character that you can’t control (or won’t try to.) It’s holiness on the cheap. In this manner, social progressives managed even to call President Clinton, manifestly a narcissistic, compulsive liar, a “good man.”
And so easily defended, too. The fact that one’s adversaries claim to care about the poor, for example, but do not agree that the socially progressive approach is helpful to the poor, can easily be dismissed. They don’t really care about the poor, you see. They’re just protecting their greed. If they really cared, they’d agree with us. See how easy it is?
Apparently this exercise of self-congratulation is extremely important to some, and also extremely fragile. The most narcissistic and self-absorbed cannot stand the existence of even a hint of the suggestion that they might be less than the moral paragons they imagine themselves to be. And a little snip of a kid, actually doing something to improve the way people speak to each other, addressing something that they, the narcissists, would like to excuse in themselves — why, it’s outrageous. He must be stopped.
Mind you, I can relate to the feeling a bit. The kid’s showing me up, too. He’s addressing something I have not changed in myself… and he’s just a kid! I’m a little ashamed of not having done this myself.
These same people like to claim that topics favored by conservatives are, by comparison, unimportant. They have it backwards; it’s the topics that address matters of family, love, commitment, and civility that truly matter. What determines whether one is a good man or woman has nothing at all to do with one’s political opinions, and everything to do with how we treat the person next to us. It is the goal of everyone committed to genuine virtue that they become harmless, doing good to those around them instead of hurting them while pursuing their own, selfish agenda. This is a difficult pursuit that often takes a lifetime to achieve.
So why is swearing so important? Harsh language seems like a minor thing, but it’s not. It’s not just the words themselves, but the harsh feelings in the words that matter. Harshness begets harshness. Politeness begets politeness. Love begets love. All of our lives would be more pleasant and less stressful if we just put a governor on what comes out of our mouths. Those who chant “All you need is love,” if they really believed it, ought simply to stop cursing just to spare the people around them from hearing things that make them feel uncomfortable.
Imagine yourself in a party in someone’s home, and you see somebody ball up a wrapper and throw it on the floor. The owner of the house comes up to the fellow and asks him not to throw garbage on the floor. In one scenario, the owner says, politely, “Please, if you don’t mind, would you put your garbage in the trash container under the sink?” In another scenario the owner growls, “What the (@*& is the matter with you, were you raised in a @#*$& barn like a (*&@ pig?”
Which approach is a) more likely to get cooperation? b) more likely to start a fight? c) more likely to make the person being rebuked feel belittled? d) more likely to make the people surrounding and listening feel uncomfortable?
If you’re inclined to rationalize the latter speech by saying that it’s not the cussing that makes the message so harsh, try doing the same exercise again, only this time make the only difference between the two scenarios be the expletives. Even phrased as roughly as it is, the rebuke without the cussing is less abusive than the one with it — and I think we all know it.
The publicity surrounding the”Don’t CUSS” nomenclature unfortunately obscures the more important message of the movement: “Use language to uplift, not to tear down.” This is the wholesome effect of McKay’s club, and it’s why the dupes of Hell want so badly to stop him. How we treat each other has eternal weight. Whatever you thought about cuss words before, you’ve got some evidence now that they’re a lot more important than you thought. I’m preaching to myself here.
I’m going to stop talking now and let the discussion begin. However, I have to warn you all that I’ll have no patience with “freedom of speech” complaints, because they’re just so far off the mark. A club where people pledge not to swear does not threaten any liberty of any sort. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the government from passing laws that abridge freedom of speech. McKay Hatch is not the government, and he’s not proposing any laws; he’s trying to make a case through social messages. If you don’t want to go along with him, you’re free to do whatever you like. There is no free speech issue here.
UPDATE: Shelly and I were discussing this article because we felt it was missing something, and we agreed what it is, so I’m amending.
There’s something afoot in the culture that’s deliberately unmaking Western civilization. We think it’s satanic. Whatever that is, whenever somebody good decides to champion goodness in some effective way, the demons jump on it immediately as hard as they can to try to stifle it.
It reminds me of a silly game at the arcade called Whac-A-Mole, where the player stands in front of a board with holes in it and a soft, black mallet in his hand, and smacks anything that pops its head up. Pop your head up and start saying “We shouldn’t cuss,” and Wham! down comes the mallet. “What gays do isn’t marriage.” Wham! “We shouldn’t murder our children.” Wham! “Our culture’s sexuality is out of control.” Wham!
This is not to rebut anything I wrote before. I explained the mechanism in human terms. I believe it has a demonic component as well, and that a lot of the people objecting to the No Cussing Club are motivated by things they don’t understand, nor do they even believe they exist. I regard the virulence of the reaction to this kid’s harmless goodness as evidence that such things really do exist, and I don’t regard the understanding of human motives to exclude the possibility in any way. They’re not mutually exclusive; they go hand-in-hand.