Foul-mouthed and Free

bad language 5I heard a story yesterday that was unlike any I remember having heard before. Today, I’m going to tell it to you, cutting back a little on the narrative and expanding a little on the theoretical implications. It is…sigh…what I do.

The story comes from Marv Mitchell, who runs Julia West House, where a number of valuable services are provided by the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon (hereafter, “my church.”) The service Marv was talking about yesterday involved providing food, coffee, and a place to get out of the rain for a group of Portland’s homeless, mostly men. [1’] These are the people Marv calls “our guests.”

This story could be started at a lot of places, but I want to start it at the staff meeting where Marv said that the language being used at Julia West was coarse, foul, and abusive and it had to stop. There were two kinds of objections to his proposal, both of which made a great deal of sense to me.

bad language 4The first was that foul language was the language these people had chosen. It was authentic; it was their chosen mode of communication. Someone may have hinted, Marv didn’t say this, that he was being just a little bit paternalistic. That kind of language wasn’t his choice, of course, but it was their choice and Julia West House should honor the dignity of their guests by allowing them to “be who they are.”

The second was that nothing Julia West staff did was going to work anyway. These people made a lifestyle out of being intractable and resisting any attempts by authorities to constrain them. That’s why a lot of them were on the street in the first place. You start to put the hand on them and they will just go somewhere else.

Actually, that’s not what happened. Marv continued to believe that change in a good direction was possible and in the face of the advice he got, he started going around among the guests, saying, “We don’t allow that kind of language here,” or whatever he said. Whatever it was, it wound up eventually on the Julia West homepage ( like this:

We have expectations of mutual respect and appropriate behavior. We do not tolerate language or behavior that is racist, sexist, misogynistic, abusive or violent. [2]

Nothing in this story so far was surprising. I have seen people making Marv’s point derided and defeated many times over the years and have, on occasion, played that role myself. That isn’t what happened this time.

bad language 3The first thing that happened is that Marv successfully talked down one angry man after another. He didn’t say how. Marv isn’t big and menacing. The second thing that happened is that people started to shush one another: “Hey, you better knock off that language or Marv is going to come over here.” That response is the first sign of a change in culture, which I like to represent as “We don’t do that here.”

And that’s really the end of the story Marv told. Currently, at Julia West, the guests really don’t talk to each other like that. But then a couple of things happened after the story and they are what made me think the story was worth telling.

One thing that happened is that everybody at Julia West on a given day began to get some warning that something bad was starting to happen. The reduced prominence of bad language and the reduced din of angry language provided a space where you could tell that something was starting to go the wrong way. You can hear the first angry voice at a meeting and maybe even deal with it. When everyone is already yelling and shaking fists, the early signs of serious trouble are going to be really hard to spot. When things were quieter, people got a chance to catch trouble that was just starting.

Another thing that happened is that “good manners started by break out.” That’s Marv’s phrasing. Being the social scientist, I began to wonder why that would be. My first guess—that’s really as far as I have gotten so far—is that polite words and polite behavior are a unit. They are one thing; something like a “mode” or a “gear.” They have always “belonged together” and when one is enforced, it cues the other.

I’m prepared to believe that, in any case, because I am a veteran of public elementary schools and high schools at a time when the administrations thought it would be good to have a “casual Friday.” Casual Friday was awful. “Casual” got to be “edgy” and then “provocative” or combative and a lot of behavior we spent time trying to prevent came right along with it. We had more talking during class; more fights on the playground bad language 1(elementary) or in the parking lot (high school). We had more smoking in the restrooms and more enforced trips to the principal’s office. Why? As I was looking at it, I concluded that the clothes cued the language, which cued the behavior. That’s what I thought of first when Marv said that “good manners broke out.” Of course they did, I thought.
Finally, and most surprising of all to me, guests of Julia West House began to come up to Marv and thank him for making and enforcing the rule. Here’s what they said. “This is the one place where we don’t have to talk like that.”

Did you catch that? We don’t have to. We are not compelled, here, to represent ourselves as foul-mouthed angry men and women. We are free, here,[3] to choose to represent ourselves otherwise. “We are free to,” is language that suggests to me that the person who said that had been wanting to present himself otherwise—as soft-spoken, perhaps, or gentle. Possibly even as a nurturing person. But he knew he didn’t dare show that part of himself because it would be taken badly. It could have been taken as a criticism of the others. “Oh…listen to Chauncey! I think we’ve hurt his feelings!” It could be taken as volunteering to be the butt of the jokes and later, outside, as the one who had volunteered to be abused.

He wanted to present himself that way and knew he didn’t dare. That’s the way I read “This is the one place where we don’t have to talk like that.” That was the most surprising new way of thinking about street people. It was the most surprising part of Marv’s story to me.

I don’t know what you will make of it. I’m not sure yet, what I will make of it. But I’ve heard it now, so I’m going to have to think about it.
[1] We don’t provide food anymore. It turns that there are lots of places in Portland where people living on the streets can get food. Since the time when this story is set, Julia West has concentrated on other things, such as the skills and the clothes necessary to get jobs.
[2]Whenever I see language like this, I wonder why misogyny is forbidden but misandry is not. One of the burdens someone carries who has an eye for symmetry and has read a lot of words over the course of his life.
[3] This is where the title “Foul-mouthed and Free” comes from. I didn’t think I dared to title it “Foul-mouthed OR Free.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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