The Virtue of Self-Restraint in Expression

September 15, 2021 Updated: September 15, 2021

Commentary

Two or three generations ago, a common parental admonishment was, “Hold your tongue!” There’s a lot to be said for controlling that impulsive little bodily member (see James 3:1-10). It shows both consideration for the feelings of others and demonstrates mastery over one’s own reckless and destructive impulses.

Social standards often swing like a pendulum between extremes—from repression to licentiousness, from modesty to vulgarity, from politeness to boorishness, from respect for others to self-indulgence that ignores the sensibilities of others. In recent decades, traditional social morés that frowned upon, discouraged, and suppressed public expressions of sexual licentiousness, profanity, rudeness, and abusive language have given way to an ethos that individual self-expression is an absolute right.

The First Amendment

Here, a word about the First Amendment is needed. When the founding generation adopted the Bill of Rights, their overriding concern was to protect people from despotic political controls. A free people must always have the right to criticize and even denounce those in office and the policies they advocate; thus, acknowledgment of and protection for the right of free political speech were made explicit in the very first amendment in our Bill of Rights.

That did not mean, however, that the right of free speech was absolute. As the standard first-year law school example explains, nobody has a right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. “Free speech” does not include the right to recklessly endanger others. In the eyes of most Americans during the Founding Era (and for many later generations), speech or other forms of expression that could injure others by morally corrupting them were just as illegal as shouting “Fire!” at the wrong time. The predominantly Christian value system that prevailed in America from the late 18th through the mid-20th centuries regarded such things as pornography and public profanity as flagrant violations of social decency. They were seen as vicious and harmful attacks against the purity and morality of communities and individual members of society. I doubt that the Founders ever dreamt that the First Amendment would be construed to mean that government (particularly at the state or local level—see Tenth Amendment) could not censor obscene language, depictions of nudity, or other forms of expression that were deemed morally offensive.

As time marched on, though, Christianity’s influence in American culture gradually eroded. This process accelerated starting in the 1960s (see Charles Murray’s 2012 book, “Coming Apart,” for an account of the declining religiosity of American society). Given that cultural backdrop, both government and citizen-initiated censorship became increasingly difficult to sustain. The Supreme Court, taking the First Amendment literally and at face value, felt that they had no choice but to admit the legality of forms of expression that had previously been deemed immoral and impermissible. The ’60s mantras “Do your thing” and “Let it all hang out” received legal sanction as operative legal principles.

Has the adoption of freer standards of public expression been beneficial? It probably has in some ways while being quite problematical in others. Let’s take a look at some of these changes.

Popular Music

There was a sea change in the 1960s about what kind of language was acceptable in popular music. I can recall when The Rolling Stones released the two-sided single of “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” in January 1967. The latter was banned from radio play—at least, in the Detroit area where I lived at the time. There were no inherently vulgar words, but Mick Jagger’s plea to “spend the night together” to satisfy each other’s needs was deemed unacceptably explicit. When performing the song on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Jagger partially complied with Sullivan’s request to revise the lyrics, singing perhaps the only performance ever of “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”

Censorship of language in rock songs was demolished less than two years later. The MC5, a Detroit-area band, shouted out an M-F-bomb at a live performance at the Grande Ballroom on Devil’s Night (Oct. 30) 1968. The performance that night was recorded and quickly released as an album. This was a shrewd marketing move. Rock’n’roll listeners flocked to the record stores in droves to get their own copy of the historic taboo-shattering recording. For better or for worse, you can still hear the original on YouTube today. (Apparently, the ultimate “dirty word” doesn’t offend YouTube’s delicate sensibilities the way an anti-COVID-vaccine virologist does.)

Another example from the world of popular music that encapsulates the major shift in public sensibilities over the course of the 1960s: In 1962, Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red” featured the lyrics, “Roses are red, my love; Violets are blue. Sugar is sweet, my love, but not as sweet as you.” That sounds unbelievable corny today, and the instrumentation was as wistfully saccharine and sentimental as the words. But Americans loved it. The song went to #1.

Fast forward to the end of the decade: In late 1969, Led Zeppelin released “Whole Lotta Love,” which peaked at #4. Lead singer Robert Plant, sounding like a man possessed (or perhaps in heat), howled, “Gonna give you every inch of my love.” Accompanied by a sonic avalanche of bombastic, testosterone-rousing drums, bass, and guitar, “Whole Lotta Love” was as raw and unabashedly lustful as “Roses Are Red” had been tender and sentimental.

Those two songs epitomized the coarsening of our culture from the early ’60s (which, up until the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was an extension of the straight-laced 1950s) to the late ’60s, when the Woodstock Festival unofficially inaugurated the do-your-own-thing, self-indulgent ’70s. As I wrote in an earlier article about chastity, that coarsening—the increased exaltation of lust over love in pornography that we now see took place in popular music as well—has been accompanied by increases in divorces, unwanted pregnancies, and broken families.

Comedy

Stand-up comedy is another manifestation of the coarsening brought about by loosening the restrictions on public expression. If it has been a cause, rather than a symptom of the problem, it has been a relatively minor one, especially because adult comedy always has leaned toward the risqué. Still, it’s a fact that there used to be limits on it. For example, in 1964, entertainer Lenny Bruce was arrested in New York on obscenity charges for saying certain words in public. He was convicted and died not long thereafter. Interestingly, he was pardoned by New York’s governor nearly 40 years later, because what was forbidden in the ’60s was essentially mainstream a few decades later.

It’s hard to make a legal case against raunchy, R-rated comedy today. After all, nobody forces anyone to patronize night clubs or other adult entertainment venues. In fact, because alcohol is frequently served at such places, minors are automatically screened out. Participation is entirely a free choice made by adults. To each his own. I am no prude and will admit that a well-placed, clever or surprising expletive can hit my funny bone. The problem isn’t obscenity per se, but the overuse of it. It seems today that many aspiring comics confuse vulgarity with humor. They seem to think that the key to drawing laughs is to launch into a non-stop stream of raunchy, profane, potty-mouthed talk. Every verbal taboo was violated long ago, and many times since. Consequently, there is little originality or creativity in today’s adult comedy. Instead, obligatory obscenity is acutely, drearily boring—the kiss of death for any would-be comedian. (At least, that’s the way I remember it. I tuned out adult comedy a long time ago. I have heard, though, that the pendulum may be starting to swing back toward more restraint—toward comedy without the raunchiness.)

Social Media

In this age of social media, the absence of self-restraint in expression has proliferated alarmingly. Being a football fan, I visit websites that follow my team. One website in particular maintains a fairly respectful tone most of the time, but occasionally someone posts who is unwilling to respect other fans whose opinions differ from their own. Thus, instead of disagreeing politely or peacefully, they resort to ugly personal attacks. Instead of engaging in a respectful dialog/debate, a different opinion or point of view becomes a trigger for personal vilification. The atmosphere immediately becomes poisoned, seething with scorn, anger, and even hatred.

I was saddened to read about the abuse heaped on professional tennis players via social media. One of the stars of the recently-concluded U.S. Open tennis tournament, 18-year-old American Shelby Rogers, upset the world’s top-ranked player before losing her next match. Her reward? To have total strangers call her a “fat pig” and worse. Indeed, it turns out that posting death threats against tennis players is fairly common on social media sites.

We shouldn’t be completely surprised at this hateful behavior toward athletes. After all, it appears to have become socially acceptable to express the most vicious hatred toward our fellow humans in the realm of politics. As I have written previously, the venom that has poisoned political discourse is threatening to tear our nation apart. That such vileness is now directed toward fellow citizens in careers as non-threatening as sports is a clear sign that self-expression has gone too far.

Public Nudity

Let us briefly include another way in which today’s permissive attitude toward self-expression is unjustly offensive to others, and so essentially antisocial. I’m thinking of (how can I say this with a modicum of political correctness?) the person with a male body who entered a women’s dressing area, loudly announced that he/she was identifying as a female that day, and proceeded to bare male organs to the women and girls there.

In this day of hypersensitivity to the rights of transgendered individuals, I suspect that this individual was able to act with impunity. But what does that mean for all the women and girls who were minding their own business and just wanted a place that would protect their modesty while they changed? What about their rights? What about respect for them? Are we heading toward a society where the “right” of one to self-expression outweighs the rights of the many to be spared unnecessarily and gratuitously jarring and offensive conduct by others?

The Limits of Law

Questions:

Is today’s largely unrestrained exercise of self-expression a net positive? For some individuals, perhaps; for society as a whole, perhaps not. Too often self-expression has proven abusive to others, and to that extent, it has become antisocial.

Should music and comedy be censored? I don’t see how that genie could be put back into the lamp. Maybe a future cultural shift in values will result in popular entertainment attaining a more noble tenor. We will have to wait and see what people want.

Should steps be taken to rein in cruel and savage personal attacks on social media? Indeed, law enforcement has a role to play in curbing such vile aggressions, the First Amendment notwithstanding. But the fundamental problem is moral—moral in the sense of individuals exercising self-restraint, policing their own behavior out of respect for others so that social comity and pleasantness can survive and ultimately thrive.

Our society is ultimately confronted with a spiritual challenge. Yes, the offenders need to “hold their tongue” and “button their lips” as earlier generations of Americans would say, but the pitiable people anonymously spewing venom online need help. That those who engage in such antisocial behavior can bring themselves to such a low level indicates that there are lots of deformed psyches and spiritual barrenness to be healed.

Perhaps the ultimate answer would be a spiritual revival, a re-embracing of the Christian value system that—while sometimes too intolerant, unloving, and judgmental—nevertheless provided a solid foundation for social concord and individual flourishing.

George Washington gave us sage and sound advice in his Farewell Address (pdf) when he said:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity … [with] the security for property, for reputation, for life. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds … reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

I think the father of our country was onto something. If we want to have a peaceful society, perhaps we need to pay more attention to the teachings of the Prince of Peace.

If we did a better job of loving our neighbor, our whole society would be happier and healthier.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
contributor
Mark Hendrickson is an economist, who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.