Eric Metaxas has been criticized after video was published online of his encounter with a protester in Washington, D.C. In the video, a man on a bicycle loudly chants, “F*** Trump, f*** you” in the direction of a line of people coming from Donald Trump’s speech for the Republican National Convention, a line that included Metaxas and his wife. The angle is somewhat obscured, but in the background of the frame Metaxas appears to hit the protester (though not hard enough to knock him to the ground).
The overwhelming consensus on Twitter, including among most of the evangelicals I follow, is that Metaxas took a cowardly cheap shot and is perhaps even guilty of assault. I’m not particularly moved by this argument. I don’t think Metaxas should have hit the guy. But moral indignation toward Metaxas seems to implicitly let the protestor off the hook for a behavior that, while increasingly common, is still hateful and destructive at its core.
Profanity has always been a fact of life, but what hasn’t is the cultural acceptance of profanity in general public spaces. Elite journalistic institutions, such as The Atlantic, now regularly print the unobscured F word, despite being the kind of resources assigned to school-aged children. Doubtless the editors would defend this practice as essential to accurately quoting sources. But that’s just the point: the idea that everything should be fully reproduced in a public space seems to me a serious error.
The profanity the protestor screamed at Metaxas and those around him was hateful and degrading. That its targets have probably heard such language frequently does not mitigate its nastiness, any more than, as Lewis once pointed out, the passage of time does not make sins of selfishness or deceit less wrong. The F-word has made a stunningly quick journey from cultural stigma to cultural mainstay, but that does not change its meaning or the imagery it is intended to conjure up. Until very recently anyone who shouted such a thing at a mixed group would have been publicly shamed at a minimum, and likely physically confronted.
It is of course ironic that such abusive language could cause no great stir from the masses on social media, in an age in which conversation is policed with such vehemence and strictness for other things. In five minutes of looking you can find thousands of words about the evils of using words or phrases like “handicapped” or “committed suicide” or “overweight.” No cultural offense is more universally understood than the racial epithet. It’s not that most people don’t understand the power of what they say to each other. We are not at all lacking for moral strictness in our speech.
So why do abusive expletives cause nary a twitch? The easy answer is that pop culture has made these words more common and watered down our innate response to them. That’s probably true. But I also think it’s probably true that the anti-neighborliness expressed in public profanity is embedded further than we realize into our social fabric. We police speech when it comes to race or disability out of an ethereal deference to “humanity,” but we unload crassness because we don’t actually care about the people next to us.
I love the way Trevin Wax put it in a recent article:
Having read much of G. K. Chesterton, I now look askance at anyone who seems to speak primarily in the abstract: “fixing the economy,” or “changing the culture,” or “loving humankind.” Why? Because it’s easy to succumb to self-righteousness when you pursue utopian visions in regard to great and massive things. It’s when you are faced with the smaller things and the people nearest you where you begin to spot your own flaws and diagnose your lovelessness.
The prevalence of public profanity might be a better measure of a community’s compassion than their repetition of egalitarian or inclusive vocabulary, because the latter may carry performative rewards while the former just spills out. Reciting a commitment to equality while using (or not caring when someone uses) sexualized expletives to attack and humiliate those we disagree with is transparent hypocrisy. The fact that we struggle to even recognize or respond when the latter is happening raises serious questions about whether our inclusive language really is virtuous, just like a president’s hateful and divisive rhetoric raises serious questions about demonstrations of “patriotism.”
Should you punch the next person who shouts the F-word at you? No. But there’s something to be said for doing something that expresses the dignity of human beings. There’s something to be said for getting angry when something that should cause anger happens.
I once watched a documentary about the famous TV encounter between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. I noticed that all of the talking heads in the documentary assumed that Buckely was grossly immoral for threatening to punch Vidal. Not one of them, however, expressed any outrage about Vidal’s calling Buckley a Nazi. I’ve always wondered: Maybe Buckley threatened to hit Vidal because he really was listening to him and taking him seriously. Maybe the rest of us think Buckley was crazy, because we really aren’t doing that.