Laetitia Thompson, age 17 was one of the two hundred 16-20 year-olds present for the MTV “Enough is Enough” town hall meeting in Washington, D.C. Held on April 19, 1994, the meeting was supposed to explore the issue of violence in America with, then president, Bill Clinton.
Questions ranged from teen suicide to handgun legislation and showed the depth of angst being experienced among Gen Xers.
Then Laetitia raised her hand. “Mr. President, boxers or briefs?”
It was an iconic moment. A teen-aged girl was asking the President of the United States what kind of underwear he wore and simultaneously showing how far we had tumbled on the civility scale.
What happened on the way to asking “boxers or briefs”? Laetitia didn’t just wake up one morning thinking that the President of the Free World was dying to tell her what he had on under his slacks.
The point of the question is not to criticize Laetitia. It was inevitable that such a question would eventually be asked. Now “boxers or briefs” seems almost innocent compared to all those erectile dysfunction, menstrual cycle, and incontinence commercials that make us numb to the explicit, crude, and blunt.
How to speak to a president is learned through teaching, not osmosis. Without intentional instruction we risk becoming a feral culture that loses its gentility, becoming a servant to meandering and cretinous forces like hate speech, foul, four-letter music, and anti-human violence. Laetitia was only a litmus test of what was and is happening throughout the culture.
Laetitia might have reconsidered her question had she been trained to think in certain ways about her life in relationship to other lives around her. Here are four principles that would have given her a better foundation for her question to the President.
- Familiarity or friendship are earned over time. Gossip magazines, tattle television, and other tell-all media give the illusion of intimacy, but, in point of fact, the right to know, inquire, and confide are gifts we give to each other over the course of relationships. “Boxers or briefs” is rude and intrusive.
- Unrestrained speech makes one look stupid. It takes grace and intelligence to be appropriate and to choose the right words. It takes no social skill to simply say what comes to one’s mind. The proverb, “Better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” seems germane.
- Gratitude makes people more attentive and respectful. Much of what we enjoy comes through the work and sacrifice of others. Being aware of that cultivates an attitude of respect rather than entitlement. Respect acts like a governor on speech and changes the way one talks to another.
- Objectifying people leads to crass talk and behavior. Witness the rise of sexually explicit and women-hating music which ignores the humanity of others. Or a question such as “boxers or briefs” which does not consider how such a question would affect the person being asked. If the question is being asked to an “object” it doesn’t matter.
Why couldn’t Laetitia ask another question? Perhaps about Ms. Clinton’s greatest interest or how to reduce the incidence of bullying in our nation or what the President recommends to those who want to be involved in public service.
She would have then sounded like a person who reads, thinks deeply, and wants her country to prosper. Much better than “boxers or briefs?”