Watch your mouth!

Am I being an elitist snob when I demand that people refrain from using foul language?

By MICHELE KLEIN
November 14, 2007 10:28

 
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Just two days after Yom Kippur 12 years ago, some religious Jews gathered outside the home of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Wrapped in prayer shawls, they uttered a curse, pulsa de-nura (in Talmudic Aramaic, a "fiery lash"). The curse adjured the angels of destruction to kill the wicked Yitzhak, son of Rosa. These religious Jews were severely worried by Rabin's peace agreement in Oslo. They thought that the only way of stopping the return of land to the Arabs was to kill the man who engineered the return. They believed that the curse would work within 30 days. In biblical times, a slandered man cursed his slanderer. The Talmud mentions a case where a father cursed his son, uttering the Divine Name, and the boy died. It warns that the curse of an ordinary person, as well as a sage's curse, should not be taken lightly. Just as Jews pray for the good of another person, so too, on occasion, Jews curse in the hope of inflicting harm on another person. Rabin was murdered one month later. No rational person believes that he died as a direct result of this curse. I doubt that Professor Hillel Weiss of Bar Ilan University believed that the curse he uttered two months ago would come true, but it certainly projected his desire to inflict harm on a person who made him very angry. Furious over the eviction of settlers in Hebron, he cursed an IDF commander: "May your mother be bereaved, may your wife be widowed and your children orphaned!" The security officers doing their job, he reportedly said, were "worse than the Germans." The professor's "verbal assault" or "incitement" was caught on film and caused a scandal. Following the outcry, the professor admitted: "I feel I must apologize for my hurtful outburst and for cursing… there is no doubt that even in the heat of the moment I should have found the way to control myself, control my tongue." A recent disciplinary panel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev considered the language of another academic, Professor David Ohana: Five women complainants found him offensive and sexually threatening. Although it declared his behavior "highly impulsive" and his conversation style "blunt," the panel deemed he was not guilty of sexual harassment. While the Walla! news website quoted a few of his alleged phrases by way of example, I refuse to reproduce such disgusting language. One of the defendants said: "He is a rude man, but does not sexually harass." And a colleague at the university admitted that he had asked Ohana several times not to speak as if he were on a soccer field. Unlike the Rabin and Weiss situations, Ohana did not wish to harm anybody. His bad language is merely habit. And yet, according to Psalms, when the mouth is full of cursing, mischief and vanity lie under the tongue. Rude language may fit naturally into the culture of men's locker rooms, pubs and teenage truants, where curses are also part of everyday life. But outside these mini habitats, certain phrases may be interpreted as verbal assault or sexual harassment: harmless in one milieu, threatening in another. A professor should have the emotional intelligence to know when bad language is inappropriate, but a teenager may not realize the importance of minding his tongue. We may make allowances for adolescent swearing. It does not surprise me to find foul language in a hostel for youth-at-risk from the slums, from overcrowded homes rich in deprivation and frustration. The boys in the Wing of Love hostel in Gedera come also from the streets, where they learned how to use a knife and their tongues for self-defense. But in my opinion, even these adolescents need to learn how to speak properly, and if their parents don't teach them, then their teachers and counselors should. 'B', a 17-year-old boy at the Wing of Love hostel, curses and uses foul language. When I protest - "Don't talk like that in front of me!" - he immediately apologizes and tells me I'm correct to protest. But five minutes later, the filth resumes. It's just a habit, his manner of speech, not unlike Professor Ohana's. The curse on Yitzhak Rabin came from ancient magic traditions, whereas Professor Weiss's curse comes from the Yiddish tradition. Curses, contempt and abuse were part of the old Yiddish culture, where the Jew was the victim and used his tongue as a weapon of attack or shield for self-defense in moments of insecurity. English also has a lexicon of curses that once made the proverbial sailor blush, mostly of a sexual nature or related archaically to the Christian religion. But genteel Anglos don't curse or use rude language. I haven't tried to find the roots of Ohana's or B's expressions, but I know from the tone of voice when bad language has malicious intent. "It's my way of releasing aggression. It's harmless!" protests B when we discuss his habit. I know that swearing is cathartic. I also have no doubt that his father uses the same dirty language at home, and that his friends speak this way too in the street. Do I have a right to object? Am I being snobbish or elitist in wanting him to speak nicely? Most of the time B's language is indeed harmless - as he claims - even though it is peppered with foul phrases. Those who know him accept it and don't react. But I do. The main reason that I react is because I see his language as symptomatic of a serious problem: his aggression and lack of respect for other people. B's cursing is the tip of a volcano; most of the time he is just harmlessly letting off steam, but at any moment I feel that his cursing could erupt into verbal assault, if he is provoked. My greatest fear is that one day he may get carried away, into nonverbal assault. Clearly, cursing may be a forerunner of verbal violence, and even nonverbal violence, and this is a good enough reason to forbid it. When B was 14 to 16 years old, he was on the streets and stealing. He has been in the Wing of Love rehabilitation framework for about a year. He has caught up with the studies he missed out on, and is a reliable worker who works outside our shelter one day a week, getting ready for independence. Wing of Love rehabilitates B through a structured program of working and learning. We also organize activities where he can volunteer to help others and mix with normative society as an equal. But he knows that his rehabilitation will not be complete until our staff has helped him to deal with his aggression. This is now his primary priority. The cursing must stop, and also the hostility and mischief that lie behind it - at the professorial level and among adolescents too. Michele Klein is a volunteer at the non-profit Wing of Love hostel for rehabilitating youth at risk.

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