Whatever Happened to Common Courtesy and Decorum?

By Pauly Fongemie

This column is a departure from our usual subjects and was prompted by a recent discussion by a few other women and myself. The immediate topic was the increasing use of profanity and even outright swearing in everyday conversation. The tone of the exchange itself soon grew heated with aspersions cast against those of us who were held to be "intolerant" of others. Those who sided with the absolute "right" to use profanity whenever and with whomever one pleased, regardless of the circumstance, were not only intolerant themselves, but they completely missed the point of the conversation.

Now, I want to stipulate that none of these participants uses profane speech herself, at least when with others, but their viewpoint seemed to be that, as long as someone liked another person, then any so-called indelicate language was okay. I will quote one from the pro-profanity side: "I like [she named someone we knew], so it doesn't bother me." Which led me to ask, if you already did not like someone, does this mean the use of such phrases is wrong or unacceptable [to use another person's characterization]? The response, as was to be expected was, "No, of course not." Which gives the lie to the claim that as long as the person is held in esteem, swearing, cursing and related invective displays are not to be discouraged. In other words, this was a pretext only, because likability turned out not to be a real factor as she admitted, ergo the only logical conclusion is that she is willing to accept the use of such language in everyday discourse as par, normative for others and we all ought to just go along in order to be tolerant. This is actually insulting to those using this profanity, for it strongly suggests, whether intended or not, that such persons are incapable of self-control or if they are, we ought not expect it of them although we do for ourselves. Meaning we are better than they are, ultimately.

Young children will blurt out impolite references from time to time and have to be taught discipline for the sake of courtesy and the respect of others. For instance, at a social gathering I once overheard a child ask a rotund woman why she "was so fat?" No normal adult would ever ask such a question, for obvious reasons. The child did not realize the blunder and the real possibility of the hurt to that woman; she was merely curious as the women in her family were slender. Her mother was mortified, apologized, and explained very briefly to her daughter that this sort of question is not a part of good social decorum. I am sure that at home the teaching was expanded on and why. No one turned to the mother and said, "Oh, why don't you just be tolerant. We like your daughter, so who cares what she says as long as she truly feels this way?" While this event occurred some years ago, it does not matter, for this still holds true today. We all expect children to grow in self-mastery, not only in skills but in the art of the social graces. I know for certain that the above women who insist on "tolerance" also have taught their children well. Yet suddenly when the child is an adult it is supposedly acceptable to set aside that self-discipline. This is irrational. For what other purpose is training in social decorum and self-restraint but to turn out a civilized human being who is conscious of his God-given dignity and especially the dignity of his neighbor? Surely it is not for a mere exercise to keep a child occupied.

This is equally true for "bad" words, not only personal questions. No one I know wants their children to learn such usage and parents go to great lengths to ensure compliance coupled with an understanding that is part of internalization and virtue. I do not know of a single soul who has trained his children in such wise who thinks it is morally acceptable for the child to veer from these standards when he reaches the age of majority. No one.

The culprit in the loss of self-control in daily conversation? The unchallenged and unexamined notion that "tolerance" is an absolute "principle" that must be applied in all situations, and that this principle includes deliberate rudeness or the right to be mindless of the feelings of others, that self is paramount or narcissism. I am not arguing that one should use flattery, deny truths, or applaud the moronic in order to avoid hurt feelings. However, there is simply no need for certain phrases expressing anger or disapproval that include the taking of our Lord and Savior's Holy Name in vain, a sin under the second commandment, and or commonly held profane usage, such as the D word, etc.

The original discussion arose from an incident in a workplace, a public one, where not only laxity of language is permitted but vulgarity and by this I mean more than simply bad taste, which is bad enough on its own. We all know the kind of thing I am referring to, so I shall not list the various phrases now considered but clichés by some who ought to know better. One of the women who was particularly incensed that anyone would bring the topic up at all quipped in a snit "If you don't like it, you don't have to be there." As if this was an argument par excellence and closed the discussion. Again, she completely missed the point. Common courtesy has nothing to do with whether someone is present voluntarily or not, which is immaterial. The fact that another is present at all, is central. Since when is it imperative to take the Name of Jesus Christ in disgust? in the name of tolerance? Would not authentic tolerance have to include an understanding of the beliefs of another and the wish not to affront the sensibilities of one's neighbor in this regard? When I posited that people who are so offensive to Christians are by and large the very same people who go out of their way not to offend Moslems, for example, I was met with muted shrugs at first, and then, another attack as if I was the crass one, in order to avoid having to seriously argue the case. The silence was deafening and revealing, would you not say?

As for the matter of expecting those who are offended by profanity to "just stay away" this is unreasonable and unjust. In order for this principle to be effectively operational, such persons would have to scout a priori every situation, investigate the personal habits of everyone known to be present, etc. Not doable, even if someone would consent to this impossible demand. However, for those who are not selfishly inclined to the point of narcissism, it is easily accomplished that one refrain from crude or vulgar language in the presence of others at least, simply as good form, much like donning our good apparel for a wedding, rather than the garb we might wear while changing the oil in the car. The fact that people now feel free to disregard such a common sense approach to social intercourse in the matter of speech, but not in the other necessarily, reveals much about the miscomprehension of what free speech truly consists of and for what purposes. Freedom itself is much misunderstood. Instead of liberty for the sake of doing what we ought in keeping with the purpose God created us, it is now simply license as individually defined. And this has implications and consequences that are far-reaching.

Not only have we decided to tolerate almost as if to anoint the profanity, but we now expect others, if not always ourselves, to socially undress, what used to be referred to as "spiritual unveiling." Many people no longer consider it untoward that a complete stranger announces with no sense of shame or embarrassment, that he or she is living with a lover. Back when back when meant something, one could have occasion to meet someone who 'fessed up to living in sin, knowing it was immoral and that one ought not scandalize others. That normalcy has now practically evaporated. The only people ever accused of sin in the year 2012 are those whom others describe as still having a sense of sin, rather than the updated "mistake." If I arrive at an incorrect sum while doing addition, it is accurate to say I made a mistake. If I bear malice toward my neighbor out of envy, this is not a mistake, it is a sin, period. It is a mistake to say it is a mistake. Mistakes do not have moral components because they are errors committed either without personal fault and or without malice at least, often due to faulty memory, incomplete or misleading information, and so forth.

And again, it is usually the same people who spurn the Sacrament of Penance or confessing before a priest, whom they consider a mere person and not another Christ, who see nothing wrong in total strangers forcing all kinds of private matters onto others who never ask to know or want to know. It avails one poorly to insist that you do not want to know. For some inexplicable reason this seems to spur the "penitent" onward and he falls all over himself and you in his insistence that he tell all. Frightful to contemplate and frightfully bad manners at the very least. Yet they expect some kind of absolution or why else unburden oneself in such unsavory manner. Only the priest empowered, consecrated to act in Christ and through Him can absolve, free another from sin. But then, sin is no longer sin, except in those cases reserved for those people who are not very much liked.

I do not know if it is the abortion mentality or the "culture of death" that pervades the very marrow of society that makes men so willing to act less than an animal would want to if it could, or some spirit of contrariness for its own sake, but there appears to be an epidemic of such behavior. Perhaps it is the denial of sin as sin itself, which is counterintuitive to the person created in the image and likeness of God and loved by Him so much that He sent His Only-begotten Son to the Cross to save men from their sins, that induces some people to want to "blab" so much that is private and intensely personal as if it is all to be applauded or at least not objected to.

 There is a true dignity in knowing that one is an abject sinner, although there is no dignity in the sin itself. The sinner is able to ask for mercy, an immensely noble yet humble act; the non-sinner, only vainglorious approval. There is real decorum in thinking first about others, because they, too, are created in the image and likeness of God; it is the clothing of fraternal love. We do not have to agree with one another on many things
RAY AND MEthat we are free to disagree about, but surely we ought not betray our very worth as persons loved by God by unseemly comportment and the deliberate disregard of their dignity with the willingness to sully oneself with such disreputable language. It not only shows one to be a selfish dolt, but truly a vulgarian. The lack of such self-mastery that is a requirement for a civilized society is growing exponentially, how long before the center no longer endures? Who is there to uphold and insist on standards, the same ones we still instill in our sons and daughters and grandchildren, day after day?

To paraphrase from Bishop Sheen, "It is time for a little more intolerance."

From time to time people address me as Mr. Fongemie [Paul], and more often as Fr. Fongemie. It is beginning to become wearisome, although there is no blame in anyone.

Here is a picture of my husband and myself, taken in our backyard. My name is not a nickname for the Christian name of Paul, but a variation of Polly or Pollyana, which in turn was the sobriquet given to me as an infant. My first name is Mary-Judith [Marie-Yvette in French], my middle name that of Edith. Mary-Judith or Marie-Yvette is a serious, sedate mouthful to call a little baby who was as bubbly and energetic as I was. Immediately people began calling me Pollyana, an old-fashion name not much in use anymore, synonymous with being happy-go-lucky as the phrase went. The name stuck, we changed it to Pauly to avoid the usual Polly wants a cracker cracks, etc. Sacramentally I have always used my real name, of which I am most proud, but socially and legally I use Pauly in order to avoid confusion in general.

If you want to address me by my given name, as my maternal grandmother did, though, I would find it most agreeable as I am grateful that I should have been blessed with such an elegant name, that of Our Lady and her prototype, another Queen, Judith, from the Old Testament. Edith means happiness. I must have taken the name to heart without consciously knowing it, because I am easily contented. Judith means praise and ever since I can remember, I have wanted to praise God, more so when things go badly in human terms. The meaning of the name Mary is considered by some to be problematic because it is not known for certain whether it is a derivative word with compound meanings, such as sea of bitterness [Hebrew] as was thought by St. Jerome or "Star of the Sea [the hymn, Stella Maris]" or dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians, meaning beloved, or loved by God. Since we know how exquisitely beautiful the Mother of God is, her name now represents the perfection of beauty. I see beauty and its God-given splendors almost everywhere, even in the midst of sorrow. I have thus sometimes been called "unrealistic". My father said that as a small girl I would shriek with joy at every flower, everything that most people would describe as beautiful, almost bubbling over with plenitude. I don't recall that far back, I am seventy this year, but I believed him. I no longer express exultance so lavishly or loudly, as I was indeed taught self-restraint by that same father who delighted in my delight. But a smile is never far from my face, even when I am trying to be serious, as we both were when the picture was taken. I guess I am a true Pollyana after all. Ray was holding a smile in also, but you can detect it about to get loose. That afternoon we both wanted to be quiet and thoughtful, there was a sense of awe and peace in that garden guided by the hands of God and the intrusion of a photographer somehow almost disturbed it. We were caught unexpectedly, but consented. I do not like posing for pictures usually and wanted to hide, in fact was trying to somewhat do so by standing a little behind my husband. Even at this I was overcome with happiness.

The embellished image of the Holy Family is by SASSOFERRATO, a Baroque painter, 1609-1685.