The year 1946 is special for me as is 1949. In 1946 George Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language in which he demonstrates how the poor written language of his era influenced its politics. In 1949, Pastor Howard Thurman published Jesus and the Disinherited to show how his culture treated the poor and outcast. Oh, the other event of 1946 is my birth, but that happening almost 73 years ago is important to others and me, so enough of it except to say that the essay, book, and me are contemporaries of sorts.
Jesus, in my reading of the Gospels, never uses crude or vile language. Yes, He does call the Pharisees “a nest of vipers”, but just as he is with the Samaritan woman at the well, the rich young man, Legion, and so many others, his language is direct, firm, but reassuring. In Matthew 5:22 Jesus does not use the word raca but says it to make His point concerning prejudice.
Orwell warns us that our language will have a strong and direct influence on our thinking, which leads to our beliefs and actions. If we use common words, trite words, and gross words, we will soon think those ways. So, if a coach or teacher or both uses crude language, then she or she will eventually think and act crudely. Worst of all, the athletes and students will imitate, reducing the entire team or class to a crude level. Now, no one wants a crude team or class. In fact, all teachers and coaches want a “well-oiled machine.” Crude language is sand in the gears.
In 1949 when Pastor Thurman wrote his book, segregation was the norm. Of segregation he writes, “Most of the accepted social behavior-patterns assume segregation to be normal—if normal, then correct; if correct, then moral; if moral, then religious. Religion is thus made a defender and guarantor of the presumptions.” Thus, what is viewed as normal is actually wrong, as we clearly see now. But what of our times and our “accepted social behavior patterns”? What of the team that has a tradition of hazing younger members or the class that is taught in the same manner as last year and the year before and so on? Like our language, our social behavior rules our beliefs—whether we are Christian, Muslim, agnostic, or none. If we do it, it is normal, thus right.
I identify with both Orwell’s essay and Thurman’s book because I grew up in a segregated, Southern society. It was my norm, just as the Baptist church, Plant 1 cotton mill, and
mill hill, little money, lots of love, and few possessions were. Like all lives, it was what I knew, so it was my normal. But as I grew and my horizons expanded by college and travel, I saw the tears in the fabric of my earlier life. It all came in stages: I saw race differently, I began to argue for social justice, and eventually I returned to religion.
When I was an educator, I was known for being strict because I was. I did not abuse my students or athletes, but they all worked because I believe in work as the way to improve if you are reading Homer or learning a single-leg takedown in wrestling. I told wrestlers that losing the right way was better than losing the wrong way. Students who did not read the assigned lines from The Odyssey, copied them that night. Tough, without what I called “wordy dirds”, or crude ones. Not from me or my charges.
It’s all a privilege, sharing knowledge with young people whether on a mat, field, or in a classroom. As the teachers, we should do our best to elevate our charges. Good language and team traditions will do that. Just try it, this year.