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FIRST-PERSON: A symptom of social sickness

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–The American Heritage Dictionary defines civility as courteous behavior. In the book “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,” Stephen Carter writes, “Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.” If Carter is correct, then civility is waning in America.

Day in and day out we are subjected to tasteless bumper stickers, crude radio personalities, sensuously garish advertising and vulgar non-verbal expressions — and all this is on the commute to work.

Conversations on street corners and in offices and restaurants are peppered with crude and profane slang. Television is saturated with sexual innuendo and bathroom humor. I attempted to watch an episode of the popular program “The Osbournes” but found I could not follow the dialogue due to all the bleeped out words.

Somehow, I don’t really believe the founding fathers had in mind the defense of someone spouting foul four-letter words when they crafted the First Amendment. The freedom of speech was intended to protect an individual’s right to speak out in protest against the government. While profane language existed in the early days of our country, it was never used in public conversation or polite company. Civility was a given.

Once was the time when a person would not dare utter a curse word in public. The now-classic film “Gone with the Wind” premiered in 1939. Moviegoers were shocked when in the closing moments of the picture they heard Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, utter his now famous line, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a —-.” Now people are shocked if a movie does not contain a fair amount of explicit conversation.

What was once considered rude, crude and socially unacceptable language is now encountered almost everywhere.

I was herding my family through an airport recently. As we approached the line that had formed for security checks, we passed a woman — in the line — conversing on a cell phone. Now the fact she was talking on a cell phone is not what caught my attention. It was her vocabulary. She was nonchalantly and verbosely cussing into the phone like the proverbial sailor.

When I am alone, I usually ignore anyone using foul language. However, when there are women and/or children present, I make it a point to somehow register my disapproval — especially if it is my wife and my children.

As I rushed my family past the woman, I glanced at her, attempting to make contact. She was oblivious to anyone around her. Once I was passed her, I glanced back and caught my wife glaring at the woman. Trust me when I tell you that it really takes something severe to cause my wife to glare. We were both stunned to encounter someone expressing themselves so freely with so many children within earshot.

The leaders in one community have taken steps to try to clean up the conversations in their town. Recently, the Associated Press reported that a city in western Mexico had banned the practice of swearing in public. Violators of the language law are subject to fines of up to $400 or jail terms of 36 hours. Police must determine if an utterance fits into the category of “bad words” which are defined as being against “morals and good customs.”

While I admire the intentions of the Zapopan city council, I don’t really think it is possible to legislate civility. Courteous actions, and words, flow from a heart full of respect for others. When a people do not curb their language in public venues it is symptomatic of severe selfishness, a total lack of self-control or the absolute absence of respect. Whatever the case, it does not bode well for the future of society. America, it seems, is in dire need of civil reform.
Boggs, whose column appears in Baptist Press each week, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs