Biting My Tongue

“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?