The Brine of Caustic Comments

“No one,” we read in St. James’s epistle, “has ever been able to tame the tongue. It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison” (3:8). One wonders if Phil Montag, until very recently an official for the Democratic party in Nebraska, ever read, or understood, St. James.

Montag was properly fired after he was caught on tape saying that he wished Republican congressman Steve Scalise had died following an assassination attempt recently. “I’m glad he got shot,” Montag reportedly said according to the Omaha World-Herald. “I wish he was [expletive] dead,” Montag continued.

Montag later insisted that his comments had been taken out of context. He might have as easily, logically, and credibly insisted that his comments were all meant just in good fun. His vile comments, though, indicate far more than ignorance about the subjunctive mood.

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Debauched and expletive-laced comments such as Montag’s are a wretched example of stunted verbal—and, far worse—moral development. His tongue, evidently, is “evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison.”

Some maintain that we are what we eat; others, with Aristotle, more sensibly claim that we are what we repeatedly do. Montag, for his part, should greatly fear that we are what we say. One is reminded of the late Joseph Welch, who during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, having heard Senator McCarthy stigmatize a young lawyer in his law firm, plaintively asked McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

One wishes Welch had been present to ask Montag that question.

Recently, though, there were instances of comments about Barack Obama that were just as evil and poisonous as were the morally malevolent remarks of Mr. Montag. Georgia Senator David Perdue told attendees at a conference that “We should pray for [Obama] like Psalms 109:8 says: ‘May his days be few and let another have his office.’”

Here is one translation of that psalm (109:8-9): “May his life soon be ended; may another man take his job! May his children become orphans, and his wife a widow!” So the bumper stickers citing this psalm were an utterly blasphemous reference to sacred scripture.

Of course, it was just meant in fun. And it is about as funny as comedienne Kathy Griffin, strutting around with the bloody effigy of President Trump’s head, or perhaps as hilarious as Johnny Depp’s jokes about an actor’s assassinating the President. Of course, Depp was “only trying to amuse” people. Some in the audience were, apparently, quite amused by Depp’s jocularity. Killing presidents is, to them, a matter of some merriment.

It would be altogether too easy, of course, to dig up numerous examples of President Trump’s vulgarity. It may be time to read again the warnings of Neil Postman, whose book Amusing Ourselves to Death is as germane to political commentary today as it was over thirty years ago.

Another admonition comes to us from St. Paul: “Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort” (Eph. 4:31). “No insults or obscene talk must ever come from your lips,” St. Paul taught (Col 3:8)—as did St. Peter (see 1 Peter 2:1). The Catechism, in fact, instructs us that respect for others’ reputations “forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them injury.” One sins when, “without objectively valid reason,” [he] discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (CCC #2477 and see 2479). That is the sin of detraction.

The Montags, McCarthys, Perdues, Griffins, Depps, Trumps, and so many others (including, sad to say, ourselves at various times and in various ways) all misuse the tongue, which is “like a fire. It is a world of wrong, occupying its place in our bodies and spreading evil through our whole being” (James 3:6).

Now imagine politics, comedy, late-night TV, or—mea culpa—our ordinary conversations conducted without, as the Catechism teaches, “rash judgment” or “detraction,” or “calumny.” If we have a biblical command and warrant to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), we also have the responsibility of observing the laws of logic in what we think and say, for logic—that is, right reason—always complements scripture. We have that on the authority of Christ’s Church, and in the apothegm of St. John Paul: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio).

We have seen our politicians and comedians master the argumentum ad hominem, which is the fallacy in which the character of the speaker is attacked rather than the content of the speech. Precious little attention, however, is given to the argumentum ad rem, which is reasoned discussion about the principal point, or substance, at hand.

This is not to say that we should ignore the qualifications or credentials of a speaker; and it is not to say that an argument’s context or consequences may always be safely dismissed. Neither is this suggesting that we must supply a logician’s Venn diagrams, mentally applying them to every statement we hear. But if it’s true, as Chesterton once said, that “reason is from God, and when things are unreasonable there is something the matter,” then we already have the nascent understanding we need to separate wheat from chaff when it comes to matters of ordinary logic. Does it, after all, take a rocket scientist to know Griffin’s display of the bloody head of any human being is grotesque?

We have, as Joseph Welch might have put it, an inborn “sense of decency” (cf. CCC 1954-1957) which leads us—if we have the courage to rise above the hectoring of the madding crowd—to be sickened by bloody effigies of heads, by gutter humor, and by the blasphemous blather of ignorant men rejoicing in the sorrows and scars of the wounded.

There is, as Cardinal Sarah has recently told us in his splendid book The Power of Silence, a great need for the “silence of adoration and listening by a person who stands in the presence of God. To stand silently in God’s presence is to pray … so as to hear and listen to God.” When such silence is interrupted, the interruption should inform, inspire, and, to use the cardinal’s word, “irradiate” us with what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable (cf. Phil 4:8).

Does anyone think that such is a description of what we have recently heard? Does anyone else think that we would do very well in praying for the intercession of St. James in the use of the tongues that are given to us? We use our tongues “to give thanks to our Lord and Father and also to curse our fellow-man, who is created in the likeness of God.” He continues: “No spring of water pours out sweet water and bitter water from the same opening” (James 3:9-10). We have had much bitter water, have we not?

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Murder of Julius Caesar” painted by Karl Theodor von Piloty in 1865.


  • Deacon James H. Toner

    Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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