The Demise of Civil Discourse

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I was falling asleep one night awhile back, listening to the radio as I always do, when I happened upon a preacher reflecting on the Letter of St. James, particularly the section that describes the power of speech.

In part the passage says: “The tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire . . . No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3: 5-8)

My last thought, before drifting off to sleep that night was, “Hm . . . I’ll have to write about that someday.” Well, in light of the ferocity of the recent debate about immigration in Rhode Island, the day has come.

Without a doubt, the immigration question produces a very complex and emotional debate. Certainly we should welcome the discussion of this important public policy and recognize that there are various legitimate views about the issue, even among good people who are devout followers of Christ and active members of the Church.

What I can’t understand, however, and what disturbs me to the core of my being, is the angry, vitriolic, bigoted, even violent language that comes from individuals who are opposed to approaches different than theirs. Their language is absurd, their attitude is hateful. Consider the following passages from letters I’ve received in my office on the immigration issue.

“I would petition [the Department of Immigration] to increase the number of raids to remove this VERMIN from our country . . . I’m sick and tired of paying taxes for these CRIMINAL LEECHES.”

“I pray that God will continue to let your mouth and your sexual deviations continue to destroy the scourge of Christians in the world – the Satan influenced and ungodly-run, so-called Catholic Church.”

“I am convinced that the Roman Catholic Church has been and is the most corrupt, money grubbing, vile and disgusting collection of self-serving SOBs whose only interests are in stealing money from the parishioners and committing pedestry [sic] against the parishioners that has ever existed.”

As bad as these sentiments are, believe me when I say that there are other, even more vicious letters far too vulgar to print in this or any newspaper.

You’d need a psychologist to analyze these letters and determine the mindset that produces them. It’s obvious, though, even to the untrained eye, that’s there’s lots of anger, mental instability and even dysfunction at work here. I wonder what kind of people these are; what they’re like to live and work with; how they treat their families, friends and neighbors.

The broader problem though, it seems to me, is that our culture now condones and even encourages angry and vulgar discourse. We’re saturated with it. Children hear it at home and practice it freely in the hallways of their schools. We regularly find coarse language at sporting events when fans disagree with the referee’s calls, and at social gatherings when the liquor’s freely flowing; on radio talk shows that employ obscene images to make a point and on cable comedy shows that depend on scatology and blasphemy for their survival; in popular PG-13 movies and in the contemporary “music” that our kids listen and dance to.

Now, I’m far from being a prude and have dropped a few “bombs” myself along the way. But the pervasive verbal pollution of our society makes me feel dirty, uncomfortable. And I wonder if it’s just a passing social phenomenon or if we’re on a steady downward spiral that will degrade our culture and leave us all in the gutter. As St. James wrote, “even a small fire can set a huge forest ablaze.”

There are other sins against language that also contribute to spiritual pollution .

How about the times we’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain, casually abusing that holy name “that is above every name, the name of Jesus.” (Phil 2: 9-10)

How about the dishonesty that marks our daily conversations? How readily we accede to “little white lies that won’t hurt anyone.”

How about the filthy jokes, the adolescent bathroom humor we impose on one another, either in person or now, increasingly, via e-mail?

How about the slanderous gossip and rumors we spread about our relatives, neighbors and co-workers – either for personal advantage or just because we enjoy the sport of it all?

As St. James observed two thousand years ago, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

We should consider very carefully the warning of St. Paul, who wrote: “No foul language should come out of your mouths . . . All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice . . . No obscenity or silly or suggestive talk which is out of place.” (Eph 4:29, 31; 5:4)

In short, dear readers, as a society and as individuals, we really need to examine our conscience on the use of language. It’s a powerful gift of God that can be used or abused. It can lift us up to the heavens or cast us down into the slime.