Private Virtue and Public Speech
Religion & Liberty Online

Private Virtue and Public Speech

rileycooper1Sometimes we are not aware of the foolishness of our private speech until our words go public. This is one of the morals of the story of Philadelphia Eagle’s receiver Riley Cooper’s n-word slip. In a video taken at a Kenny Chesney concert in June, Cooper became frustrated that an African-American security guard would not allow him backstage. With a beer in his hand Cooper responded, “I will jump this fence and fight every n***ger here, bro.” Cooper’s gaffe serves as a wake-up call for all of us, now that the dust seems to have settled from the controversy, because Cooper almost lost his job because his private speech went public.

In an apologetic press conference, Cooper repeatedly expressed regret over his response to the security guard by saying that he was “ashamed and disgusted.” Cooper continued, “This is not the type of person I want to be portrayed as. This isn’t the type of person I am. I’m extremely sorry.” It may be too late to avoid negative perceptions in the eyes of many because of the way he said it. It was his gut response after being challenged by an African-American in authority. It was not forced nor thoughtfully contemplated. Cooper’s response was visceral, natural, and raw.

“I don’t use that term. I was raised better than that. I have a great mom and dad and they’re disgusted with my actions,” Cooper said with a self-loathing gaze. But for those of us in the African-American community, though Cooper may not realize it, it will be hard for many of us to believe him. Generally speaking, words that you do not have in your lexicon are not usually spoken when frustrated. In fact, when a person is angry, especially when alcohol lessens inhibitions, we often see a person’s true self. We see their heart.

We extend grace to Cooper by taking him on his word that what we heard was not the real him. However, it is highly possible that he is “ashamed and disgusted” because, for the first time in his life, he saw the real Riley Cooper and it scared him. We resist the truth about our real selves at all cost because the exposure demands change. Cooper needs to change. It is simply easier to deny that we need help to be virtuous, in private and public, and explain away our moral limitations as isolated events. Cooper’s apology would have been much more compelling and powerful had he said that he did not realize that the man we all heard was that bad. Nevertheless, given his contrite disposition during the press conference, we accept his apology.

Thankfully, many of Cooper’s African-American teammates have forgiven him as well. “Riley is still my teammate,” says Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. “And he just stood in front of us as a man and apologized for what he said. And somewhere deep down, you have to find some level of respect for that. Riley wished he never said it.” Eagles Linebacker DeMeco Ryans reportedly agreed, “I accepted his apology. It’s very unfortunate that it happened, of course we all make mistakes and say things that we shouldn’t say, that people are not going to hear and see,” Ryans said. “In this day and age . . . everybody with a videophone, you have to watch what you’re doing.” Ryan’s words are an important reminder to us all. In an era where microphones and cameras are everywhere we cannot carelessly live lives as if the real disparity between our private and public virtue does not matter. The words of James are even that much more important: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

The problem is not simply that we need to watch what we say in public, but that we need to cultivate private virtues that free us from worry about our public actions. Admittedly, this may seem too lofty, but we are reminded of the wise words attributed to Earl Wilson, “If you wouldn’t write it and sign it, don’t say it.” Cooper is learning the truth of this proverb the hard way as he seeks to rebuild his reputation. What Cooper really needs, like all of us, is freedom from the self-deception that the virtue of our private speech doesn’t matter because eventually, if we talk enough, we will be exposed.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.