Listen to “No Words” By Fred Smith
When I came out of the Navy I had developed an acute allergy for profanity. All four years I had listened to men young and old who could not speak five words in a sentence without cursing – even when it did not fit or make sense. I had always heard about that mythic sailor who could curse a blue streak or whose mastery of profanity was such that it left everyone around him speechless and in awe. I never met that man. Instead, what I met were men not having any other vocabulary forcing five or at most six words to carry the freight of whatever they wanted to say about almost any topic. It was not the desire to be vile but the inability to express themselves in any other way. It was not clever shorthand or poor character but a genuine lack of the ability to find words to say what they thought – and so gradually they thought less. Like people who cannot hear well often become angry and people who cannot find the right word grow frustrated, their tempers became short and they were easily upset. It was not only a language issue but it became obvious that anything disagreeable, complicated, or requiring more than six well-worn words was not worth discussing. So they swore in almost ridiculous ways about any topic. The effect was sometimes funny but over time I realized the inability to have a profane free thought or conversation would handicap them for the rest of their lives. The only words they had mastered had reduced them to people incapable of truly expressing themselves and they were likely to need others to do it for them.
With the arrival of memes, gifs, emoji, and buzzwords I am having the same allergic reaction. While not vulgar in one sense, they are reducing language and expression to signals and symbols. The effect is the same. While the issues that divide us become increasingly complex, people are retreating behind a few words that make the world simple. The new profanity is not what I experienced in the Navy but is still creating the same inability to express what we believe, feel, and consider important. We stand, like the armies of the Israelites and the Philistines, on opposite sides of the valley shouting curses at each other and then retiring to our camps feeling we have each won the day.
That is why I am hopeful when I read about organizations like Our Better Angels founded by David Blankenhorn, Colossian Forum founded by Michael Gulker, and Living Room Conversations, founded by Joan Blades and Debilyn Molineaux. I am missing many more organizations forming in response to the combative tone of the country and the rifts that have developed over time. These divisions are not new. We have been headed in this direction for decades. From something as simple and effective as categorizing people by brand choices, demographics, political leanings, sports affiliations, socioeconomic status, and a host of other descriptors, we have so sliced and diced the population and divided it up into categories (often competitive with each other) that it should be no surprise we find ourselves a nation of tribes having little in common with anyone except our kind of people. Innocuous but ingenious marketing tools opened up Pandora’s Box as a way to sort us into ever smaller categories of commonality. We are now segments pitted against each other and no longer what we had considered a melting pot. So, we latch on to simple things like memes, emoji, and buzzwords that don’t require or encourage explanation. In reality, we are each a bundle of opposites, nuances, and incongruities that don’t fit the rigid descriptors but how do we express that in a world that wants us in a category to be counted, courted, and co-opted? Like my Navy friends, we curse because we cannot find the words. We find others who pledge to speak for us.
It is not the promise of a civil discourse rather than bomb throwing or plain rudeness that is so appealing for me. I am not looking for us to settle our differences or even understand each other in an evening of conversation. In some ways, civility and conversation have themselves been reduced to buzzwords like common good, flourishing and discourse. What is most encouraging to me is these organizations and others like them are giving us an opportunity to rediscover the importance of words and the discipline of finding words that mean something and express what we think and feel.
We will not all be George Will, William Buckley or Mary Oliver but we will, hopefully, find the words again to speak to each other and ourselves.
Art by Clement Haupers