Friday, August 10, 2007

Legislating Civility

Back on April 18th of this year, I wrote an article in this blog titled, "Who Can Say What, When, and Why." You may want to go back and read that one before you read this one. I'll wait.

One of my friends sent me a link yesterday to an August 7th New York Times article that had me shaking my head in bemusement. The article was titled, "It's a Female Dog, or Worse. Or Endearing. And Illegal?", and it reported a measure introduced by a Brooklyn councilwoman to ban use of the word "bitch" (more genteelly expressed in the legislation as 'the b-word') because it "creates a paradigm of shame and indignity for all women."

Where I come from, this is called stupid.

I've often blogged on the topic of courtesy and the lack thereof in our modern society. From the halls of Congress to the streets of any city and even the halls of our schools, people are rude and use tasteless and inappropriate language to talk about - and to - each other. It's gotten to the point where the bad language has become so much the norm that it seldom registers any more. And, as I wrote back on the 18th of April, who you are often dictates what you can say.

Take the uproar over the dreaded "n-word." If you are white, use of this word is an unpardonable sin. If you are black, it's okay (although there are moves afoot to ban, or at least minimize its use). And it goes farther. I used to catch an occasional ride to work with a young black professional who always had his radio tuned to a popular local black station. The morning show featured liberal use of the "n-word" by the hosts and the listeners who called in, along with routine use of crude and racist language to describe whites...language that would have thrown posturing buffoons like Al Sharpton into a towering and indignant rage had it been similarly used on a "white" station to refer to blacks.

What's wrong with this picture? Why are some people given a pass to use inappropriate language, but not others? Do we really need to legislate civility?

My parents would have beaten me silly for using the sort of language that I now hear around me every day. Unfortunately, many parents today are absent, uncaring, or simply clueless, and fail to teach their children the lessons of common courtesy that some of us learned in a simpler time.

In another, unrelated New York Times article dated August 9th, reporter and military analyst Jack Jacobs wrote about changes in Army regulations on casualty investigation and reporting that arose from the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the failure of Army leaders to get the true story out. Jacobs wrote, "In many walks of life, legislating against unacceptable behavior is used as a barrier against potential misdeeds, but in most cases such laws and rules are really just substitutes for good leadership."

Those are wonderful words. In the context of the "n-word" and the "b-word," if we substitute the words "common courtesy" for "good leadership" we get to my point. All the laws in the world won't make people clean up their linguistic act if they haven't learned the basics of courtesy and civil behavior at an early age.

We live in a democracy which guarantees us many freedoms, including the freedom of speech. Sadly, as I've commented before, freedom of speech doesn't always come with freedom of smart. You need only look at Congress to see what happens when the lack of civility intrudes into the people's business - we're now stuck with 535 elected officials who snipe at each other rather than cooperating in a civil way to move the nation forward.


Brooklyn can go ahead and legislate against calling someone a bitch, but it won't solve the underlying problem that we just don't treat each other well any more. My parents taught me the Golden Rule as a guide to life. Unfortunately, nowadays many parents don't seem to teach any rules at all.

And that's sad for all of us.

Have a good day, and remember that words matter. Choose them well.

More thoughts tomorrow.



Jean-Luc Picard said...

It seems like it's a case of one law for one...

John A Hill said...

Very good post. It amazes me at the language used in the work place today by a younger generation. It seems that expressing yourself today has no boundaries and nothing is inappropriate!

As for our elected representatives...If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress? Could it be...Congress?