OUR use of language tells others what kind of people we are. The effective and proper use of language can also go a long way toward shaping the concepts, thoughts, and even actions of others.
In the last two weeks it would have been hard to avoid noticing two sharply contrasting kinds of language. The first has to do with some of the current pop stars, their use of four-letter words and lyrics that at least pretend to incite violence; the second was the measured prose of the Supreme Court's decision reaffirming Roe v. Wade.
No one living in a major US city today should be satisfied with the state of race relations. There has been far too little progress in the last two decades.
At the same time, the brutalization of language itself, the bankruptcy of ideas demonstrated by resort to four-letter words will not capture the sympathies or even the attention of those whose sympathy and attention are needed. In a few months or a few years the outrageous words of an Ice-T will be forgotten, and they will certainly not have contributed anything positive to the solution of the problem as blacks see it.
It's perhaps an unfair comparison, since speeches and song lyrics serve different purposes. But has anyone forgotten Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech? The dream has not been fulfilled, but those simple words still evoke the job to be done.
At the same time one finds the New Yorker magazine resorting to vulgar language, at least in quoting others' speech. Is there no legitimate line between the language many people use casually, even if distastefully, in speech, and what is printed in respectable journals? In many respects language is the guardian of the culture. When a literate magazine drops yet another barrier, is it a sign that the culture itself has become bankrupt for words?
Then we turn to the Supreme Court's decision in the Pennsylvania case, and find evidence of the power of words to shape our thinking.
Not everyone agreed with the middle ground on which Justices O'Connor, Souter, and Kennedy agreed and wrote the majority opinion. But the language they used will be used again and again to express the main issues of the abortion debate. Listen to some of their phrases:
On the position of women: "The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice."
On Roe v. Wade: "No evolution of legal principle has left Roe's doctrinal footings weaker than they were in 1973."
On the dependability of the Supreme Court after deciding a controversial issue: "Only the most convincing justification under accepted standards of precedent could suffice to demonstrate that a later decision overruling the first was anything but a surrender to political pressure, and an unjustified repudiation of the principle on which the Court staked its authority in the first instance."
All do not agree with the court; four of its own justices dissented. The point is that the language commands respect; it calls on those who disagree with it to understand the intellect and moral commitment in the words and to answer in language as compelling.
It may be fortunate that the nine robed justices do not write our lyrics; the lines might be too long. But somewhere in the world of commerce and entertainment there needs to be respect, even love, for language that can pull us together instead of pretending to put us at each other's throats. As for the four-letter words, a descent into vulgarity in print is no sign of an advanced culture. Maybe it is a sign that we need to start using our dictionaries more.