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Timothy R. Clark: Profanity and leadership

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 11:05 p.m. MDT

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I grew up in locker rooms and spent several years in heavy manufacturing, and because humans can’t close their ears the way they can their lips, I heard more profanity than a gangster lyricist can stuff into a rap ballad. Extemporized swearing took on an art form.

Today, our popular culture drips with profanity. In business and politics, profanity has a long and distinguished past as well. But I mean distinguished in the G.K. Chesterton sense of the word, as when he said, “The vulgar man is always the most distinguished, for the very desire to be distinguished is vulgar.”

My question is whether profanity should have any legitimate role in society and in leadership. Consider the meaning of the word. The term profanity comes from Latin roots that mean “before or outside the temple,” thus referring to language that is irreverent or indecent.

In modern usage, profanity refers to language that is vulgar, crude, profligate or immoral. Effusions of profanity have always echoed through the halls of power. But why?

Members of the refined and genteel class are said to use profanity sparingly and for effect, as “garlic in the salad of taste.” As English essayist Jonathan Swift once said, “A footman may swear; but he cannot swear like a lord. He can swear as often: but can he swear with equal delicacy, propriety and judgment?” So apparently there’s a proper and sophisticated way to profane.

Teens sprinkle their language with scatological references to be cool and gain social acceptance. Sometimes they do it out of rebellion. I’m sympathetic in this case because adults are the ones who teach teens that it’s adult to talk that way, though it has nothing to do with adulthood.

Soldiers swear exuberantly as an extension of teenage bravado. Unfortunately, profanity is a central and cowardly artifact of military culture that represents the lowest possible barrier to entry to a fraternity that is supposed to be defined by bravery. Now, that’s a contradiction. If you beat your chest and lace your language with expletives, you too can join this elite club.

Shock jocks use it as the “weapon of the witless” because they have no real talent, but that doesn’t matter to a market that has no real taste. I listened to Howard Stern once for about two minutes and that was two minutes too long. Take out the profanity and he’s dead air.

Writers attempt to use it judiciously to be endearing, authentic (whatever that means), down-to-earth and even enchanting to the reader. Profanity has become a crutch for those who can’t write. Can you name a great writer who leaned heavily on profanity?

How about corporate executives? A lot of them use profanity as a menacing display of alpha behavior — the human equivalent of urinating on the fire hydrant. It’s a way to express dominance, claim territory and warn would-be challengers. Some CEOs even think profanity is inspiring. These must be the ones who watched George C. Scott play General George Patton when he stood resplendent with his white pistols demonstrating his verbal erudition with an uninterrupted flow of unchaste language. What they don’t realize is that Patton wielded a verbal peashooter. If you want to see a big gun, listen to Shakespeare’s Henry V hold forth in his St. Crispen’s Day speech. That will knock your socks off.

Finally, profanity can be an emotional relief valve in moments of pain. As Mark Twain, one of our greatest humorists, put it, “There ought to be a room in every house to swear in. It's dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.” Keep in mind that Twain was a humorist and he didn’t carry a peashooter.

Clearly profanity is overused and overrated. We don’t like to admit it, but profanity is vanity. In most cases, using it is an indulgence. It’s a form of narcissistic satisfaction. It’s exhibitionism, but not in any distinctive sense. These days it’s about as original as getting a tattoo. In other words, it’s an act of conformity.

So I dare you to rebel against popular culture. I dare you to be a nonconformist. I dare you to leave the sheep. I dare you to have something to say and find the strong and powerful words to say it. Build a verbal arsenal. The English language is beautiful, flexible and inexhaustible. I dare you to put the peashooter down and pick up a real gun.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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