The veteran Catholic editor A. E. P. (Ed) Wall begins his Easter message: “Jesus Christ, whose name is heard in careless expletives by the vocabulary-challenged in TV and film, we know you as Eternal.” He’s on to something.
The status of a language determines the status of a culture. And contemporary culture seems less capable of dealing with what words like Jesus Christ and God really mean. In the old catechesis Catholics categorized bad language as vulgar (“Hell,” “damn” and bathroom expletives), profane (“God damn it!”) and obscene (the F word, etc.). But now we can hear “Jesus Christ” on television talk shows—“Jesus, Christ, I was so drunk that night that…”—or on subway cars—“Jesus Christ, who does he think he is?”
And “O my God!” has been twittered down to “OMG,” which simply signals astonishment, indignation or ridicule. Words that traditionally have reached out in prayer—“O my God, save me from this situation”—are trivialized to express passing annoyance: “OMG, my hair is a mess.”
What can be done? Not much, formally. It would not help for the bishops in concert to condemn vulgarity, profanity or even obscenity, as if all expletives were sinful. God is not hurt. But we are. When we diminish the full meaning of sacred words, we diminish ourselves and cut ourselves off from our meanings.
Teens and Torture
According to an American Red Cross study, almost 60 percent of U.S. teenagers think forms of torture like waterboarding and prolonged sleep deprivation are acceptable; and more than half approve of killing captured enemies when the enemies have killed Americans. How do we explain this streak of brutality?
First, it is in the air and in our homes. The dominant American moral philosophy is not Christian, with its emphasis on human dignity and forgiveness. It is a primitive utilitarianism: Whatever works for me is O.K. to do.
Second, it is in the streets. From schoolyard bullying to gang protocols to fraternity initiations, the assumption is that force rules: Break the code and we break your neck.
But the pervasive influence is the media. The “torture porn” film genre: teenagers in an old house are terrified and dismembered by a bloodthirsty killer. A video game ends with the enemy’s guts spread on the pavement. In eight seasons of “24,” the ruthless “hero,” Jack Bauer, who tortured even his own brother, killed 266 people onscreen to protect us from “terrorism.” Clearly “24” was in the spirit of the Bush era, which made torture integral to national policy, arguing the old “ticking bomb” scenario despite international law and the testimony that torture never works.
But for those young people who have not been taught much morality and have seen films where severed heads go flying in a purple splash of gore, torture is “cool.”
At a conference in Copenhagen on May 4 about Arctic warming, scientists stressed that people at all levels of society need to be concerned about the “anthropogenic” impact on the environment. It is just that they would rather not put it in those exact terms. James White, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, urged the conference’s crowd of nearly 400 scientists to use simple language when communicating their latest research to the general public. The U.S. climate scientist Robert Corell suggested substituting human-caused for words like anthropogenic so that the basic message gets across more clearly: increasing greenhouse gases will adversely affect the earth’s climate.
Recent projections reported at the conference are cause for alarm and increased urgency. Melting ice in the Arctic will increase global sea levels by five feet within the next century, a projection higher than previously thought. The rising waters could cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage, not to mention displacement of people, particularly the poor, who lack resources to relocate or rebuild. As it stands, the world is not on track to handle these changes.
While getting the message out is extremely important, speaking more clearly about the problems faced is only half the battle. The global community must move from debate and discussion to collective action, quickly and decisively, with an emphasis on curbing the use of fossil fuels. If we do not work harder to conserve energy, we put the most vulnerable people on our planet at risk. Plain and simple.
As Others See Us
In an interview with The Times of London, the renowned biblical scholar and retired Anglican bishop N. T. Wright has struck out at the killing of Osama bin Laden as an act of U.S. exceptionalism. “America is allowed to do it,” he said, “but the rest of us are not.” President Obama, he continued, “has enacted one of America’s most powerful myths, the vigilante executing ‘redemptive violence’ against a notorious outlaw.”