Rodney King’s plaintive words echoing across the decades are more on point than ever in the wake of our most recent national shouting match that leaves everyone sullied.
First, comedian Roseanne Barr referred to two educated, professional African-American women who served key roles in the Obama administration as “apes.” Within hours, another comedian, Samantha Bee, called the daughter of our current president a word that cannot be printed in a community publication, if anywhere.
How on God’s green earth did we get to this low point?
Years ago, when I was an adolescent, I – like most young people just beginning to feel their oats – tried out a few forbidden words, including some with meanings I did not fully comprehend. At some point in my linguistic rebellion, my mother got wind of it. A grammarian, a lover of the English language and a proper Southern mother, she was appalled and, as we say in the South, “was having none of that.”
She and I had a sit-down on the topic of being kind and respectful to others and using the beautiful flexibility and versatility of the English language both properly and with care. I came away from our conversation understanding something I had not considered before … that unkind, uncivil, and “dirty” language reflects more on the speaker than it does on the intended target.
Name-calling is cheap and easy, revealing a mind that either does not know or is too lazy to search for a precise and insightful word or phrase that actually means something. Referring to others as “apes” or with a four-letter expletive is not creative. It reveals minds too challenged or too lazy or both to come up not with scattershot but with words that have express meaning.
Barr and Bee should be embarrassed not only for what they said about others but also by the sheer mediocrity of their choice of words.
Clearly, our nation is as divided politically, geographically and educationally as we have ever been during my adult lifetime. I would have a difficult time scanning my circle of family, friends and acquaintances without being aware of which side they take. In other words, no one is neutral. There are next to no true “independents.” Virtually all Americans are in one camp or another. We agree with Barr or we agree with Bee, though we might not have used their cheap words, and no end to our current vitriol is in sight.
Whatever else they may be, Barr and Bee symbolize two deeply disturbing aspects of American culture in 2018.
An alarming percentage of us no longer value civility in our everyday lives or in other people. Courtesy matters less and less, as a trip down any roadway in the country quickly demonstrates with fist-shakers and fingerwaggers abounding. We barely notice profanity in person or in various media. Instead of shocking us as it did a generation ago, it has become the wallpaper of daily living. Barr’s and Bee’s language is so common that this column – a week or so after their utterances – may well be the last you hear about either of them.
We also value language less. Finding and using the words that match what we want to express seems too hard for many of us, so we take the easy route – simple and overused words that have no clear meaning and “dirty” words so overused they have little meaning at all.
In my dreams, we would all take Rodney King’s heartfelt admonishment, “Can’t we all just get along?” to heart. We can agree to disagree as we obviously do, but we do not have to speak like Barr and Bee.
We could all learn from Winston Churchill as well. Churchill did not call names, but he was a world champion at the clever and targeted zinger. When Harry Truman remarked that Churchill’s replacement as prime minister “seems like a modest sort of fellow,” Churchill shot back, “He’s got a lot to be modest about.”
That puts all expletives in their proper uncreative and below average place.