Let me tell you a couple of stories.
I’ve always been conscious of language and people’s use of language, but that sense has been sharply heightened by the arrival of my children. Now that I have a small, sponge-brained three-year-old tag along behind me everywhere I go, I am more conscious than ever of the language we absorb from our environment. I am reminded, almost daily, that he is listening, and listening intently, to what we are saying. After all, he repeats what he hears (often with superb comic results).
Just the other day I sat with my family on a Saturday night in a crowded family restaurant. When I say ‘family’ I mean family, as in not a bar or a sketchy truck stop, but one of those places with kids menus, balloons, eclectic kitsch on the walls, and servers who awkwardly sing a generic birthday song every twenty minutes or so. We had hardly been seated and opened our package of crayons when I couldn’t help but notice, at the table directly behind us, the boisterous cursing of our fellow diners. It was a table of young men, late teens early twenties, whose language was spicily peppered with an abundance of what Spock would call “colorful metaphors.” It was obvious that they were surrounded by families, clear that young children were in their presence, but they could not be bothered to edit their personalities for public consumption. The only thing that silenced them was the eventual arrival of their food; at which point, their mouths full, they were rendered unable to speak further. (Such, I might add, is the fate of all who live for their appetites alone.)
Another day, another store. This time I was with my son in a large, well-known shopping center. We were waiting in the express line with, as I remember, nothing more than a box of cereal. Behind us came and stood a young couple, thirty-something, professional, but at their ease. Because they spoke loudly, there was no need to eavesdrop on their conversation—it was telegraphed. She made a joke to him, and he in response offered a full-throated f-word in retort, at which point both of them laughed.
Perhaps these scenarios don’t startle you. Perhaps you think this is normal. Perhaps, if that’s the case, you don’t have a three-year-old. Perhaps you think it’s cute when children swear or sing startlingly adult lyrics. I, personally, would be horrified to hear a child utter the words, “I kissed a girl and I liked it,” or jaunting around the house repeating Will-I-Am’s “Hell Yea!” And under no circumstances whatsoever do I want him or her going anywhere near Flo Rida’s “whistle.”
For my part, when I encounter people like this I’m horrified and saddened. I find myself asking, “What happened?” Where does this disregard of others come from? The degradation of common language, of self-awareness, of courtesy? Whatever happened to class?
We appear to live in an era where the tenets of class and character are becoming a lost art; where virtue is void and maturity is meaningless; where being an ‘authentic’ person merely means to be a crass, discourteous person. It is, in short, a colossal, culture-wide wave of social immaturity. After all, swearing of this kind has, till now, been the business of eighth graders and eighties movies; the stuff of kids smoking and ‘rebelling’ out behind the school. When I was an eighth grader I thought that swearing was the coolest thing in the world, and sex jokes were guaranteed winners with friends. But what was merely immature when I was 12 is absurd when I’m 19, tragic when I’m 30, and hellish when I’m 50. Similarly, while smoking may have been cool when you were 13, lung cancer at 50 is never cool; the adulthood of our immaturity is always tragic and stupid. Today’s adults behave like eighth graders, and back-of-the-bus moronics are the common denominator for adult behaviour, snickering and laughing at the basest and crudest of things. They think they’re cool, but the truth is that they’re just giving themselves a kind of cancer; an inner, disgusting, tarring effect on the soul.
Another social move lends strangeness to this trend—the move to legitimize crudity; to normalize the crass. Scholars and pundits alike write about the benefits and propriety of swearing. They argue that, “A well placed swearword is perfect in some circumstances.” In response, my mind turns to Proverbs 30:22, where, listing a series of social abominations, the proverb writer states that the earth cannot stand “a slave when he becomes king.” This is a topsy-turvy world, and under such a vengeful reign the tyranny will be unrelenting, slicing and hacking at everything that smacks of its former slavery. To praise the crude is to invite the death of all class.
Nowhere is this self-justifying trend more tragic than in Christian circles, where those desperate to be culturally relevant bend backwards to accommodate their inability to elect the higher road. They ignore the clear teaching of scripture, that we should avoid foolish talk and coarse joking (Ephesians 5:4). In its place they color their disobedience with thin arguments. Their salted language proves the poverty of their inner lives.
In short, I am speaking of crass versus class. Only one letter separates the two, but that letter makes all the difference in the world. And what bends the ‘l’ of class into the ‘r’ of crass is the victory of attraction over character. Attraction is a way of thinking that is popular; it derives its value from others, it pulls its identity from how many people are looking at it. It is attention-seeking and expedient. What gathers views is good; what doesn’t gather views is to be discarded. Sex sells? Use it; dress provocatively, tell dirty jokes, make everything a double entendre. Swearing is provocative and ‘funny’? Use it; fill your speech with colorful metaphors, forget the wealth of vocabulary available to you. Crudity, crassness, incivility? Let them reign because people will laugh, and if people like me, the inner reasoning goes, then I’ll have value. And through such means the upright ‘l’ of class bends down and worships the attention of others. But it is not cool; it is merely crass.
Class, by contrast, is upright—it takes its cues from what is true and right and good, not from the popular. It chooses the high road ethically and culturally. It draws from what is above, not from what is below. Class always stands upright and fearlessly; the crass is always sniffing at the ground. And as a consequence, to choose class may always involve an embrace of the unpopular.
Jesus once taught that the exterior of a man is not what makes him good, but the interior; not his outer life, but the stuff in his heart that gets brought up and comes out of his mouth. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). When it comes to class versus crass, the same principle applies: what goes in is what comes out. And therefore if you wish to reform your character—to move from the crass to class—then you’ll need to begin with your consumption. What you watch, and what you listen to; what you hear, and where you go; who your friends are. Much of this will begin with your choices of media. There will be discomfort among your so-called ‘friends.’ But through it all one scripture rings timelessly true—that “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on such things” (Phil 4:8, paraphrase). Only then will you be a mature, upright person—one who exudes and exemplifies the very image of class.
Perhaps you are unconvinced. Perhaps you think that our changes in culture are for the greater good—that the idea of class and character are archaic and oppressive bastions from an ill-thought post-Victorian reaction against modern liberation. Perhaps you are like the girl I once opened a door for during high school. We were at a speech meet and I had only met her that day. I, out of courtesy, held the door for her. In response she announced, haughtily, “No thanks, I’m a feminist.” I stood there speechless and eventually let go of the door. Perhaps you, like her, see in the actions of courtesy the oppressive hand of dominance. If you’re such a person, then the truth is I feel sorry for you. You will tear down the very walls that make this earth hospitable. I suspect that life, for you, is going to be a very disappointing place.