Biting My Tongue

by  Deb Costello  |  Leadership Development

“The language we use to communicate with one another is like a knife.  In the hands of a careful and skilled surgeon, a knife can work to do great good.  But in the hands of a careless or ignorant person a knife can cause great harm.”  ~author unknown

**Author’s note.   This post is about language and discusses the use of profanity which necessitates using some words that the reader may find offensive.

I have been a math teacher for more than 20 years.  In mathematics, profanity is the deliberate misuse of a beautifully elegant and logical numerical system.  It’s closer to lying than anything else, lying with numbers.  Mathematicians are offended because the behavior is either intentionally misleading or “ugly” in a mathematical sense.  The rest of the world probably doesn’t really care.

For the past six years I have branched out into other areas.  I have been forced to wrestle with non-numerical language, a task that is difficult for me.  I have been in a literal “cage match” with my native tongue, struggling to express my thoughts as elegantly and beautifully as I speak in numbers.  I have not always succeeded, but the effort has made me a better writer.  More importantly, it has made me a better thinker.   This weekend I was reminded that I still have a lot to learn.

I was at an engagement party with friends, and we were sitting around a table talking about our children.  One parent shared a story about how his child had recently participated in a sports tournament.  His child had played four games and the team had won only once.  Yet every member of every team had received a medal and there was no discussion of winners or losers.  He was disgusted.  Someone in the group responded, “Yep, just another example of the ‘pussification’ of America.”

I was surprised by this word and called him out, flatly stating that his use of the word was offensive.  In essence he was saying that the sports tournament was an example of how our culture is making our children weak, weak like women.  By using this word, he was offending all women, equating being a woman with weakness.

We all talked about it some more and then he asked me a question.  “Have you ever called anyone a ‘dick?’”  He set me back on my heels, and I had to admit that I had.  I had used that word to refer to someone as a jerk, but in essence I was offending men, equating being a man with being a jerk.  I was wrong to use the word.   I admitted it then and do so now.

We may think that we have carefully chosen our own educated, civilized community, but we all know people who are a little more profane.  In fact, our culture promotes and embraces the use of strong language.  Consider well-known radio host Rush Limbaugh’s recent remarks.  Limbaugh makes his living by being on the edge, pushing boundaries.  By using the words “slut” and “prostitute” in reference to Sandra Fluke, he equated being a woman who uses birth control with being sexually promiscuous.  But more importantly, his implication was that women who wish to be sexually active are morally reprehensible.

Some may feel that I am being oversensitive, but this is not the profanity of using the f-word.  In each of these examples, language is used to denigrate a single person and an entire subset of the population.   Using language in this way is a far deeper profanity, as it does much more than simply express the speaker’s emotion.  It is a practice designed to humiliate and degrade not only the intended target but also a much larger swath of the population that the speaker deems unworthy of respect.  And because this language is embedded in our culture and widely used, it is significant but largely ignored problem.

I find I am a long way from the profanity of the mathematical world, and I have a lot of questions.  I want to understand my role in creating this problem and in trying to solve it.  As a leader in my job and my larger community, what is my responsibility?  Certainly I must lead myself first, and I am often reminded that it is never too late to apologize and bite my own tongue.  But in this land of free speech, this nation of great debate, do I also have a responsibility to ask others to bite theirs?

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What People Are Saying

Erin Schreyer  |  15 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Ooooh, Deb. Way to put this out there and make people think!! So many words in our culture are mindlessly used, without regard for how others may receive that message. What a great reminder to pause before we speak. Really think about what we want to say, and IF we intend to offend (hopefully not!)

Deborah Costello  |  15 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Thanks Erin for dropping by… it is an interesting dilemma, walking that line between free speech and censorship. Maybe I am more sensitive to the power of words because I deal with young people and issues of bullying are ever on my mind. I like that you remind me that how our words are received is as important as our intent. Apologies are necessary at times, but perhaps a little mindfulness before the words are uttered is a more effective plan.

Page Cole  |  15 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Thought, action and language are the most powerful and impactful tools of humanity… and when any of these is abused, the potential for damage is phenomenal. Thanks for the article Deb… a reminder to us that we can build up or tear down with our words…

I’m reminded of this passage from the Bible, in James 3 (The Message translation)…

1-2 Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

10-12 My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?

Awesome and thought provoking article.

Deborah Costello  |  15 Mar 2012  |  Reply

I agree Page that we often dismiss the power of words. And of course I love the reference to teachers in your passage. :) A big part of this discussion has to be the idea that something small can have a big impact as in your text, a rudder, a bit, a few words. More importantly, we often give more weight to the negative than the positive, as in this quote: “Tell a girl she’s beautiful and she’ll believe it for a moment. Tell a girl she’s worthless, and she’ll believe it for the rest of her life.” ~unknown

In the end you are so right. We can use our words to tear down or to build up. It is our choice.

Fanny korman  |  19 Mar 2012  | 

Thanks Deb! You have really given me pause to think about how cavalier we can all be with our use of language. You’ve touched on a subject That I often think about – the question lies on whether we can be responsible in our use of language without fearing censorship to the point of losing our focus and intended message. Thoughtful leadership with a measure of moxie -without careless offensive language; a challenge worth taking!

Deborah Costello  |  19 Mar 2012  | 

Thank you Fanny for dropping by to comment. I find that I grow ever mindful of the line I try to walk, wishing to express myself fully, wondering if my words will cross the line, trying not to censor my beliefs, passionately wishing to express them well. You are so right. This is the challenge. I think it is easy to spew language thoughtlessly with little thought for purpose. It is true that we can poison an entire garden and the unwanted plants will definitely be killed, but the chore of careful weeding yields better and more beautiful results.

Lali  |  15 Mar 2012  |  Reply

I am not against offensive speech. I think it actually serves a very important role in social dialogue. Much like when children test boundaries and learn limits, we use speech (most often with humor) to flirt with boundaries. Sometimes we cross over. And that’s ok. Where I have the problem is when people refuse to accept the consequences for their mistakes. Just like the child who goes to time-out, and hopefully remembers where the line cannot be crossed, so do we have to take our lumps as adults. There is no bible or manual for acceptable speech. The human gift of speech (and writing, by extension) is how we come to know each other. Otherwise, we’d just be locked in our own heads. The definitions of offense are fluid and contextual. Limbaugh’s recent “apology” failed because he didn’t do the one thing that accompanies all sincere apologies – accept responsibility. Without that, his apology basically translates to “I’m sorry sluts are so sensitive,” and that’s not good enough.

Page Cole  |  16 Mar 2012  |  Reply

I understand that there is some speech that is offensive to some and not to others. I get that. I also understand the need for firm, even harsh correction or direction that may come across as offensive. However, I’m still convinced that some things are always wrong. You mentioned the recent episode with Rush. I am a conservative Republican, and I believe Rush was absolutely wrong in what he said. It is always wrong to denigrate based on gender, whether male or female. It has been just as wrong for Bill Maher to do it regarding Sarah Palin, and Ed Schultz in his remarks about Laura Ingraham. But they argue that their comments are different, because of the public nature of their targets. That’s BS. (there’s some of that offensive language!). It is always wrong to denigrate or use offensive gender terminology, period. It is always wrong to be verbally abusive to children, attacking who they are instead of what they have done. That same standard should apply in all of our relationships, whether it’s in the family, workplace or the sale aisle at Wal-Mart. I know we’ll all never agree on everything regarding what’s offensive and what’s not. But we ought to all be able to agree on somethings.

Deborah Costello  |  16 Mar 2012  | 

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the conversation you two have been having and I thought to go find the actual transcripts of all these comments just to be sure I remembered everything correctly. It’s not as easy as you think. You’d think everything is on the internet, but some things have “disappeared.” I’m sure they are still out there somewhere, but I’m tired of looking. As a result I refuse to comment on which of these men offended women the most, which offense was ok in context and which was not. I was offended as by Limbaugh’s remarks, as were a lot of women. I don’t know if Maher and Schultz offended a lot women or just their intended targets. People were offended. Apologies are warranted.

In the end, I think I come back to Erin’s comment earlier in the stream in that we have to remember that the receiver in the commentary actually helps determine the offense. We see that in schools with bullying. If the receiver is afraid and feels threatened, then it’s bullying, regardless of intent.

The same is true with offensive language. It’s not always 100% clear what people will find offensive. I’ve had an interesting discussion with some younger people on facebook regarding this post in which a young woman has posited that her generation is going to change the meaning of slut so that it is no longer an insult, but rather a term of female empowerment. I imagine she would feel less offended by the word slut.

As a result, I think you are both right. I do think that we cross lines on occasion and although we may not intend to offend (or maybe we do), we have to apologize regardless. And sincerely. But I also think you are right Page. There are some lines we all know we should not cross and if we do so, we should expect to offend and must accept the consequences.

I certainly agree that children must always be protected. But there is also this belief that adults must be able to defend themselves. I actually reject that premise. Why do I have to defend myself rather than my position when I disagree with you? Our discourse has become so toxic that we no longer debate, but attack each other personally rather than on the merits of our position. And there is no longer any chance for middle ground or the idea that we will agree to disagree, a practice that adults often achieve because they must live and work together.

I want us to get back to the business of leadership in this country, in government, in communities, and in our homes. One of my students commented that the best she could do is lead by example. I hope this is happening right here, This is what is looks like when adults discuss a problem, remain on point, and disagree without denigration.

Thank you both for your thoughts.

John  |  17 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Tonight I heard a mother scream “shut the f— up ” to her 4 year old. Does language matter? Absolutely! Are you going to turn the tide? No! You are going to have to deal with it. What do you claim as your resources?

Deborah Costello  |  17 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Hi John,

I imagine we all have witnessed acts such as the one you describe. It is often incredibly difficult to step into such situations and stop the behavior. But I wonder if turning the tide is actually impossible. One of the things we all can do is speak out about such behavior, just as you have done. Whether the mother you saw actually reads this or not, some people are reading this and perhaps it will make them think next time they speak. As an educator I know that the impact I make on kids is not always immediate. Sometimes years down the line students come back to say, “you were right.” This leads to my firm conviction that we each make a difference in our world. It can be positive or negative, but we each have a role to play. Thank you for joining the conversation and helping to make a difference.

As for your last question, I am not sure what you are asking. What resources are you asking about?


Jane Perdue  |  17 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Powerful, Deb! Becoming self-aware of how we perpetuate unconscious bias and stereotypes through labels, perjoratives, etc. is the beginning of change. You just walked the talk for Drew Dudley’s TED talk about changing one life at a time and how those ripples spread without us even knowing it. You are into some deep and meaningful topics.

Deborah Costello  |  17 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Hi Jane,

So of course I had to go watch the talk as I had never seen it. I post the link here for anyone reading through the stream. It’s about 6:20 and worth every second.

This is a funny and deeply inspiring talk that I believe with my whole being because I know it to be true. We are so powerful in ways in ways we do not always understand. Every moment of every day is a potential impact moment.

Thank you Jane for sharing this talk and reminding us that labeling and stereotypes are powerful and ever-present and that our own self- awareness is the first step. As always I learn from you and this community every day.

Kim  |  17 Mar 2012  |  Reply

{Note: I left an ever so slightly different version of this comment on Deborah’s facebook page (I feel like a naughty child for not saying Mrs. Costello, which I guess goes to show a little bit of the power words have over us). It was originally two comments, the second of which was responding to Deborah’s reply to me, but I’ve combined it here to attempt to make it a bit easier to read and to try not to force anyone else to essentially copy and paste their own comments. I thought I’d post it here as she said she wished some of the conversation happening there was happening here, even though that was probably not aimed at me, I AM part of the narcissistic generation, and therefore I’m pretending it was. I’m also adding this here to show a point of view of someone from my generation (which I am in no way claiming to represent) and show a slightly different way of looking at things. WARNING: some people may find some of the language below to be inappropriate, but I in no way apologize for using it, seeing as I personally do not find it to be so.}

I think the problem isn’t so much with the words themselves but with the implications that are put behind them. There is, for example, nothing wrong with the word “slut”. Some girls are sluts. There is nothing wrong with that, and they are perfectly happy with that fact.. To say people should not use the term “slut” is enforcing a somewhat sex-negative view point that’s its own brand of slut-shaming (even if accidentally so). Banning such a word is as equally guilty of trying to regulate how people (women, in the most common usages of the word) refer to, think about, and ultimately use their bodies. “Slut” can be (and is often) used in a completely sex-positive way. The problem, like I said, isn’t with the words it’s how people are using them.

If you think about it, a word itself is a completely neutral thing. So if you don’t like a word (or its connotation), don’t try to stop people from using it. Educate them on why that word is offensive to you (which might actually make them stop anyways), and then maybe try to reclaim it. Pussy doesn’t have to mean someone who is weak. Meanings change all the time (after all, “pussy” originally referred to a cat), so why not try to change words to something you think is better instead of attempting to control or censor their usage?

To be totally honest, I completely agree with the idea that changing the meaning behind a word isn’t going to always be possible, and when it is, it’s going to take a long time and probably be quite difficult. Deb’s comment in her response to me on facebook about the generational difference of views on the word slut proves that it does take a while but it is possible. My generation (on the backs of generations of feminists before us) is taking it back and reclaiming it as our own. However, I also have to add about that particular comment (that not many “parents today would cheer for their daughters being called sluts”), that most parents also would not cheer at being told their daughter is having a lot of sex, possibly with multiple partners. In particular this case, it’s not the language that’s being objected to, it’s the act, or the thought of their child engaged in an act that they don’t believe to be appropriate for them. This is possibly due to generational differences or the fact that people tend to think a bit differently when it comes to their own children (or so it seems from my general observations of our society, as I’m not a parent, and therefore I don’t have first hand experience).

Also, I disagree with the assertion that words that started out as being derogatory, such as the n-word, can’t change their meanings. If we look at the n-word specifically, we’ll find that the people that it has been aimed at actually have taken it back. You just have to look at many rap songs by black artists in recent years to see that at least among parts of the African American community it has come to symbolize camaraderie. True, it’s not appropriate for races that have historically used it in derogatory fashion to use it in its new meaning, but that doesn’t mean that at least in some contexts the meaning hasn’t changed.

That said, I definitely don’t disagree that words carry a certain amount of power and that people have a responsibility to use that power appropriately. A knife in the hand of an angry, violent person can do a lot of damage, but that same knife, in the hands of a surgeon for instance, can help a lot of people. So like I said before, we need to educate people and change the use of language that is hurtful, instead of trying to ban it altogether.

Deborah Costello  |  18 Mar 2012  |  Reply

A couple of notes: I want to thank Kim for transferring the gist of our conversation over from Facebook. I am Facebook friends with hundreds of former students there, and it is as closed a space as Facebook allows. It is “public” in the sense that my friends can see it or copy and paste it elsewhere, but it is not searchable or readable by strangers. So I am grateful for Kim’s willingness to bring her comments to this much more public forum. I should also note that our school policy does not allow faculty and current students to be “friends” on Facebook, a policy I fully support. In addition, all alums are welcome to call me by my first name once they graduate, whenever THEY are ready. Some do so immediately. Some never do.

So in regard to you comments above Kim, I have continued to think about this. It may be true that a small section of society as claimed the n-word as one of camaraderie, but as long as the rest of the population is not able to use it in this way, and I am quite clear that they can not, I don’t think this is a legitimate “change” in meaning of this word. It’s just slang used by a small segment of society, and most will never understand it in that way. There are a lot of words that mean something to rappers, but those words are not used outside of that community. Whether folks will be able to say slut in a positive way as a matter of course remains to be seen, but I’m not holding my breath. As long as we live in a society that values monogamy, I think this word is going to remain negative.

One last thought. You warn people that your language may be offensive but do not apologize, as you do not find it to be so. The warning is great, but do you think it’s really that simple? Is it up to individuals to decide if their own speech is offensive? People say offensive things that are offensive to others all the time, sometimes on purpose, sometimes thoughtlessly. And it is the ability to offend that is part of the power of language. But if it up to the speaker to determine the offense, why is anything offensive? How does something become offensive? Maybe we can talk about this some more.

Thank you Kim for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. As I said to a colleague, I love talking with students and hearing new perspectives.

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