Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/30/2009 (8:24 pm)

Death Threats for the No-Cussing Club? (Updated)

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.

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January 31, 2009 @ 8:30 am #

I think you have hit the nail on the head on this one. I curse like a drunken sailor, but I never even think of cursing around my parents or grandparents. It is not really a conscious effort not to do so, I just do not.

This however, does raise some interesting points, not just at the words we have inserted into the common discourse, but also the ones we have taken out. Please, Thank you, and You’re welcome. Sir and Maam.

You’re welcome is kind of interesting really because we seem to have replaced it with “No Problem.” I have caught myself doing this on occasion. One might ask what the difference is between the two phrases and the only thing I can think of is which way it is directed.

You’re welcome is You are welcome. You are welcome to what I have given or done. It is focused on the receiver more than the giver and implies a more lasting connection and possibly further aid at need. When actually you think about the way language is used this phrase is important. Please, followed by a thank you should really be all you need, but the reply from the person who gives or aids tells whether or not aid will be forthcoming in the future. You are welcome implies that if you need anything else, I willbe glad to help again.

“No problem” is more focused on the person giving the aid. No problem… for me. You have not put me out… yet. Focused on the self or the giver rather than the receiver. It also implies that aid will only be forthcoming as long as there is no real burden on the person being asked.

I may be overthinking this a bit but words do matter. There was a good test related by one of the commentors at NRO one time (Derbyshire I believe):

He was at a dinner party and was speaking with a woman and she took the opinion that words did not matter and intent was all important.

He asked her if she had small children.
She said she did.
He told her “Then repeat after me: ‘I want all of my children to horrible, torturous deaths before their 21st birthday.’”
She, of course, refused.
He told her that since words did not mean anything in of themselves and since she obviously would not INTEND them, then what was the problem? The woman did not have an answer.

As you said, most of us know the difference between right and wrong, but do wrong anyway and mentaly try to convince ourselves that it is right. And we wonder why people are so miserable.

January 31, 2009 @ 12:29 pm #

An incredibly relevant post here, Phil, and the type that really sets your blog apart. Hope it generates some discussion. First, mea culpa, there are some generalizations in what I am about to say. For those who disagree, play past it, it isn’t the point I’m trying to make. There are good and bad conservatives and there are good and bad liberals. OK.

I believe you have hit on something very deep here that helps unmask the difference between the left and the right.

“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.”

This extends far beyond this group. I see this same rage or urge to destroy directed at for example, the Boy Scouts. My son has been involved with the Scouts for about 10 years now. He camps (they don’t leave a trace behind, believe you me), they do community projects, they cut the lawn and rake leaves at the church where they meet. Never, never, in that time from any leader have I heard one single snippet of anything remotely related to gay bashing, or even of conservative political views. Or even of politics at all, come to think of it. They simply are not relevant to what the guys are doing. They are way too busy trying to figure out how to cook and organize their campsite in the dark in 20 degree temperatures to focus on that stuff. I have had liberal friends insist, “Oh, yes, they do hate gays.” I don’t know how to get it across that at the local level, where the tires hit the pavement, IT SIMPLY IS NOT ON THEIR RADAR SCREEN, THEY COULD CARE LESS.

Now, you can make a case about the policy at the national level. Let’s save that for another time. But to me the point is, the hatred and urge to destroy the Boy Scouts goes beyond the perception of politics and whether they should or should not pay market rent for a building owned by the government, etc., etc.

There is a core of quiet, simple goodness in the organization and in the mentoring of the leaders that hits a nerve of the left, and which makes them want to destroy the group that fosters these virtues. I am not as actively involved as I was a few years ago, but the adult leaders are some of the finest, most decent people I have the privilege to know. I would and do trust them with my son’s life. Heck, I start feeling guilty when I compare myself with some of these folks whose lives outside their jobs are focused, pure and simple, around helping boys become good young men. Why would you want to destroy that unless you yourself were lacking something very fundamental (a soul?).

I’ll go a step further. I believe, in every core of my being, that some of the rage toward Sarah Palin was because she walked the walk and seems so, gulp, just…fundamentally decent. She is part of what appears to be a good family living a conservative, family oriented life. It’s clear they love and care for each other. She and her husband, in a quiet, non-flashy mode, have carved out a successful life that reaches out to their friends and their communities in a number of ways. They appear (as much as we can know) to have a balance to their lives, and strong core beliefs that they adhere to. I’m not trying to put them on a pedestal, but you know what, they seem like good people. If she were elected, they would set a standard of just plain old basic virtue that could be hard to emulate, as opposed to living in a manner that would make people feel comfortable with their own weaknesses.

One step further. Was some of the seething hatred toward George Bush not just because of his policies, but because whatever else you thought, you knew he was adhering firmly to his own core principles, that he would not bend in the wind based on what was popular? When you get beyond the politics and reach down deep, how many of us could do the same under the pressure he was under?

It is simplistic, but one difference between the right and left is that conservatives typically do not try to tear down people who are trying their best to lead a good, moral life in the manner of their choosing. There is something in the left that leads some of them to need to destroy things of virtue, or groups, or individual people who live their lives differently than they do. It’s why hypocrisy is considered such a huge sin by them. To the leftists, it seems better to lack a core set of beliefs and to not even try to live a good life, as opposed to trying and failing from time to time.

Great topic.

January 31, 2009 @ 1:11 pm #

Thanks, RM.

You and I have some ideas in common. Yes, I’ve been saying for years — since 2000, actually — that the source of the hatred for GWB was that he was three things which leftists hate above all else: he was a Republican, a businessman, and a Christian. They hate each of these, and he was all three.

I have some of your experience with the Scouts, as well. My old scoutmaster died last year, and the email traffic that invited us all to his funeral highlighted him as “an environmentalist before it was vogue.” It never occurred to me to think of him that way; he just had a simple rule, always leave the camp site BETTER than you found it. It was a minor nuisance that marred the fun of the weekend slightly, and a life lesson I still act out reflexively. The notion that anything about the organization expressed hatred toward gays is just too silly for words.

The building issue is one I recognize. For those of our readers who are not from Philadelphia, the Boy Scouts were granted a very generous lease on a prime downtown building IN PERPETUITY by the owner of the building, which happens to be the city of Philadelphia. In the last few years, the mayor and several councilmen forced the city to renege on the grant, and charge BSA market prices for the space. They claim it’s about gay rights, but that’s just an excuse; it’s about the city wanting the revenue from leasing the building. And it does not even matter; the lease was airtight, and reneging was a violation of an agreement.

February 1, 2009 @ 7:59 am #


Thanks for the response. Not to go too far afield from the original point of the thread, but as to the building in Philly: It is also ironic that the Boy Scouts built and paid for the building themselves, and turned it over to the City with the understanding that they could occupy it rent free in perpetuity.

Words mean things, except when they don’t.

February 1, 2009 @ 2:11 pm #

Horatius and RM (and Phil of course) I am just jumping up and down with excitement (inside – I’m pretty reserved on the outside) over your outstanding comments.

“most of us know the difference between right and wrong, but do wrong anyway and mentally try to convince ourselves that it is right. And we wonder why people are so miserable” – but I feel so much better after I’ve pinpointed the cause of my misery and repented!

The virtue/hatred scenario hadn’t occurred to me regarding Sarah Palin, and it’s so much clearer to me now. That had been bugging me. And it’s good to realize it’s part of the Bush hatred too. We received an email from my mom this weekend – a pictorial “Tribute to George and Laura” – the marriage they’ve shared for over 30 years… it was a little sappy but really worth seeing, made me tear up, there’s real love, real virtue there.

OK, the Philly Boy Scout building thing just s- stinks. Is it OK to say sucks in this case? Hmm… our pastor said sucks from the pulpit this morning I think…

Phil, congrats on finally managing to remove those old strangely configured wiper blades and install the new ones without a single cuss word. And thank you McKay for your inspiration. … a child shall lead them…

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