John McWhorter: A town's recent ban on public swearing is a hopeless cause
McWhorter asks: Where do you draw the line? Is hell a swear word? How do police enforce it?
Profanity is part of the cultural discourse; even mild-mannered people curse, he says
McWhorter: We need to rethink what is considered profanity in 2012 and just accept reality
Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University, is contributing editor for The New Republic and a columnist for The New York Daily News. His latest book is “What Language Is (What It Isn’t and What it Couldn’t Be).”
It’s not surprising that at a town meeting this week, Middleborough, Massachusetts, voted 183-50 to impose a $20 fine for swearing in public. Who’s not for civic virtue? Enough is enough. And so on. Plus the ban doesn’t apply to what people do “in private.”
But it’s an empty, hopeless move. Not to mention plain backward.
For one, it’s like trying put out a fire with an eyedropper. The police cannot monitor most public activities. Say they pass out some fines to teens waiting in line for a concert. Still, those offended by their language will be endlessly assaulted with it when passing the same teens as they walk down unpatrolled streets, or chat before a movie starts, or, basically, just exist.
Besides, the fines will only create the kind of resentment that makes it feel sexy to rebel. Nothing will feel more authentic to the Middleborough teen than to haul off with a few epithets when no police are in view – but plenty of other citizens are.
And all we have to do is wait for the cleverer ones to claim that certain uses of the words aren’t really profanity, which will mean messy cases of where-do-you-draw-the-line. Is hell in “It was so from hell that he called me” a curse word? Or, if someone says something is “f—— awesome,” is that profanity? Remember how at one point even the Federal Communications Commission, based on that reasoning, let Bono get by with saying that winning an award was “really, really f—- brilliant” at the Golden Globes ceremony in 2003?
Americans need to rethink what is considered profanity in 2012. We are taught that a certain collection of words is profane, but this no longer makes sense given the readiness with which even the most mild-mannered of Americans use such words.
Sure, there are an especially careful few among us who rarely use them. But they are exceptions. Most of us chuckle that it was considered a big deal for Clark Gable to say “damn” in “Gone With the Wind” – or that a newspaper wouldn’t have allowed me to use that word in print.
Or take a sentence like “We’ve got to get all of this stuff out of the garage.” How many of us can honestly say that there isn’t an alternate word we would quite possibly use for “stuff”? And a lot?
What our great-grandparents considered profanity is, for us, merely colorful. We teach our kids not to use it – but are hardly surprised that they start doing so later. The characters on HBO’s “Girls” curse like sailors, and yet we can assume that their parents were telling them in the ‘90s not to use bad words – while using them themselves, as we have heard the mother of the show’s lead, Hannah, do already.
We are an informal society. We dress scantily compared with earlier Americans. We talk openly about sex and excretion in a way that still shocks our grandparents. We cherish the “real.” Our sense of profanity lags behind our reality.
Now, don’t get me wrong – we do have genuine profanity. The N-word and the one beginning with C that refers to a female body part are the main curses today. These are truly taboo, in the sense an anthropologist studying us would recognize. To haul off with these words is to leave one’s moral legitimacy in question.
Note, however, that one cannot even shield one’s children from the N-word. It decorates their favorite music, rap, and not just the raunchier strains. Kanye West’s eternally infectious “Golddigger” hit enshrines it in its very chorus, for example. Or, a friend of mine, white, recently told me that her boys are attending a mostly black public school and making a lot of friends – but also picking up their way of using the N-word as a marker of fellowship. So, let’s fine them $20 for embracing diversity?
It’s hard to see what the benefits of an ordinance such as Middleborough’s will be. The smidgen less that people will hear profanity on Main Street will transform the linguistic environment about as much as a cold drink makes you think it isn’t actually hot.
Or is the idea that the ordinance will nevertheless get an idea in the air, in the way that smoking gradually became uncool and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes will happen with massive sugary drinks? Unlikely. Young people don’t model their language usage on what they hear at the shoe store. They will pick up the lingo from music, YouTube, Facebook and texting – not to mention their own parents talking about that, um, stuff in the garage.
Our job is to teach children that certain words are not to be used until a certain age, and even then, with care. That has worked pretty well for a long time after all.
As for the fact that we hear the words in public more than we used to, I suggest we bring our sense of “dirty” into line with the rest of our modern come-as-you-are American spirits. Or if we can’t see it that way, we might just accept teens’ potty mouths the way we do cracks in the pavement and overripe trash cans – inevitable dings in this thing called life.
Let’s face it: In 2012, an ordinance against public profanity is like fining people for burping. What kind of priority is this in an age when so many more urgent issues face us all?
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John McWhorter.