badwords Obscenities and Harsh Words in Our Common Life

Obscenities, insults, slurs, and other harsh words are a bitter part of our common life together. Unfortunately, we cannot escape them. They are everywhere. We hear them on television, in movies, at grocery stores and restaurants, and at kids’ activities. They are expressed by politicians and other public figures, by friends and strangers, by coworkers and gas station attendants.

The significance of written and spoken words has recently been a focus of public attention. College football fans were disgusted by obscene words uttered publicly by Jameis Winston, a star athlete. Not only were the words obscene, but they also conveyed a profound disrespect for women. For weeks after this student-athlete uttered his words, which were retweeted by observers and disseminated widely through social media and the Internet, his behavior remained a matter of public discussion. That his words were an obscene Internet meme only underscores the problem with our language today.

Many strong moral judgments were expressed by members of the public and the media. For some, the student-athlete’s statement reflected immaturity and poor judgment. For others, it was the public nature of the statement (i.e., it was made in front of women) that made his words wrong. And still others thought that the statement was wrong because it would make others feel bad or would be offensive to those who heard it.

With these three assessments, the statement itself is not condemned for being morally wrong. Rather, it was the speaker’s situational insensitivity or poor judgment regarding time and place that was morally problematic. Those who offered these assessments essentially suggested that the athlete should have shown more maturity and exercised better judgment regarding context and audience and thus that he should have reserved his statement for a nonpublic setting when he was among “brothers” in the locker room.

For others, the demeaning and disrespectful nature of the statement as to women made it morally wrong. According to this assessment, the statement treated women as objects rather than persons, as means rather than ends, and failed to respect their dignity. The attitude toward women reflected in his statement represented a threat to women and held the potential of making them victims of sexual aggression.

In addition to Jameis Winston’s obscene statement, I have recently been reminded both at work and at home about the significance of our words. As a law professor, I am tasked with helping to prepare students for professional careers in the law. In their professional lives, they will communicate with judges, lawyers, clients, the media, and the public. At times, they will become frustrated and be tempted to use harsh words. In those situations, they will be called upon to exercise restraint and good judgment. Consequently, the communication habits and practices they learn in law school, the self-discipline they develop, and their training in exercising good judgment will carry over into their careers, determine their effectiveness, and shape their professional reputations.

Like sponges, our school-aged children absorb attitudes and hear harsh words from peers, media, and other sources in their lives. Before long, they try out these harsh words in their own communications with siblings and playmates. My wife and I labor to instruct our children, address their attitudes and words, and help them learn to exercise good judgment, and we strive to ensure that our own attitudes and words model the sort of the behavior we desire them to exhibit.

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