There has recently been a bit of – ah – discussion in the world of Catholic online presence about what constitutes acceptable speech by writers known publicly to be Catholic. Much of the discussion I've read has taken place along the axis of personal freedom of expression vs. what is proper and suitable for people who are published in Catholic periodicals. While I doubt that anything I say is going to bring that dispute any closer to resolution, I wanted to share from my personal experience an aspect that isn't getting much attention in the discussion; specifically the aspect of evangelical witness.
I was raised in a home that had what you might call a high propriety level – my father had been raised a Southern gentleman and rarely used “strong language” at all, and certainly not around ladies. I followed suit, but when I left home it was into the military service, specifically one of the floating ones, where my immature and malleable personality was constantly exposed to people who swore like, well, sailors. Initially I began to follow suit, but since this was also a time when I was seeking to more consistently live my Christian commitment, it wasn't long before my newly acquired vocabulary faced the question, “Is this kind of speech honoring Me?” Since it wasn't yet an ingrained habit, it was an easy one to drop, and I continued through my career speaking as I'd learned at home. This differentiated me from nearly all my shipmates, but I never thought twice about it. I didn't consider myself as “The Sailor who Didn't Swear”, nor did I dream of censuring my shipmates for their salty language. I simply lived, and spoke, in an environment where foul language came as naturally as breathing – I was just careful not to pick up any of those habits.
It was a while before I began to notice that my unconscious abstention was impacting those around me. I was astonished once when a shipmate next to me swore at something and then promptly apologized – to me! I was hardly such a fool to think that I could stop sailors from swearing! But I began to notice that they did swear less when speaking with me. I also noticed that if I was alone on the ship (which was often), some would seek me out just to converse – conversation that was almost devoid of foul language, no matter what the shipmate's verbal habits normally were. I began to see that talking with me was, for some of them, something like a verbal oasis, or a calm patch in the midst of the steady gale of profanity that was normal conversation aboard the ship. The conversations were rarely about anything noteworthy – how things were going at home, or hopes for their next duty station, or how their career was progressing, that sort of thing. Just casual talk, but it was conversation, not a stream of profanity.
It took me a while to perceive that my verbal habits were to these men a signal, a public and audible statement that I was different. Speaking with me could be at the least a gentler experience than dealing with the sandpaper edge of profanity-laden conversation. Furthermore, the change in the nature of the medium usually impacted the content. Speech thick with profanity is more commonly used to express criticism, cynicism, and contempt. One can express those things without cursing, but it's more difficult. But mostly I think it was simply the absence of the foul language that was a relief, like breathing fresh air after being trapped in a smog-laden valley for months or years.
The recognition that I was different in that way led to recognizing that I was different in other ways, too – specifically that I was a Christian who sought to live my faith seriously. Some may have expected that to be expressed as censure of their verbal habits, but when I didn't do that, they got to wondering just how I managed to avoid picking up this most obvious and contagious aspect of my environment. Nobody was proud of the fact that they swore, as evidenced by where and how they sought to curtail it (e.g. when they were trying to impress some girls, or around children.) I sensed that everyone wished they could swear less than they did, yet the habit had them in its clutches. They would have thought it was inevitable, but there I was (and a few others aboard with me), not succumbing to the tidal pull toward toilet mouth. I think it gave them hope. I know it ultimately provided me the opportunity to share with some of them why it was I didn't curse, and where they could find the strength to follow suit, if they wished.
From what I've seen, this aspect of public witness has been missing from the discussion of how we should be speaking. In my experience, even (and perhaps especially) in environments where profanity was not only unsurprising but as common as wall paint, people who do not conform their verbal habits to that environment are distinctive and noteworthy. What they do with that distinction is up to them. If they choose to emphasize how different they are, and how others should follow their example, it might send a different message than if they simply offer an alternative, a quiet witness that speech does not have to be profane to be effective. It may even open doors, as people seek refuge from the rising tide of caustic verbiage found in more and more places. Maybe St. Paul knew what he was speaking of when he says “Let your speech be gracious” (Colossians 4:6), because as I learned, our very patterns of speech can be a channel of grace to those around us – or not.
I realize this goes against the cultural flow, particularly for those who equate profanity with some kind of emancipation. Our speech isn't just about us, what we want to say and how we choose to say it. Our speech is about helping others, hopefully toward grace. Maybe this isn't what is common in popular music, or what's found in popular Broadway musicals, but if we're to be God's people, we need to be conscious of what is forming our speech patterns, and whether what comes out of our mouths is gracious.
Because the world is listening.