April was an especially cruel month in Boston. It was also a profane one. In the wake of the marathon bombings, the Dominican-born Red Sox slugger David Ortiz dropped an f-bomb before the team’s April 20 game. “This is our f**king city” he declared to an approving roar from the “Boston Strong” crowd.
A week later, a filmed confrontation between Cambridge resident Roger Nicholson and Dan Bidondi, a correspondent for the conspiracy theory website, InfoWars, went viral. At a press conference earlier in the week, Bidondi had implied that law enforcement officials knew about the marathon attacks hours before they happened. Nicholson told Binondi that he was not welcome in Cambridge, where the citizens have “half a f**king brain.” “I don’t care if people think I’m an ***hole,” Nicholson said, “ I’m not saying the FBI blew up innocent people.”
Under ordinary circumstances, both Ortiz and Nicholson might have been censured or fined for their emphatic use of expletives in public space. But less than an hour after “Big Papi” addressed Fenway Park, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski tweeted that all was forgiven. Ortiz, the chairman noted, “spoke from the heart.” Nicholson’s tongue-lashing earned its own kind of public sanction when Nicholson was invited to appear on MSNBC’s Martin Bashir show. Bashir extended a warm welcome to Nicholson and agreed that the idea of government involvement in the Boston bombings is a “risible theory.”
Both events raise a question with which a liberal democracy must occasionally grapple: When is profanity justified?
Forty years ago, near the fractious end of the Vietnam War, these same questions came to a head when the Supreme Court heard the case of Cohen v. California (1971). In a narrow 5-4 decision the Court ruled that Paul Robert Cohen’s t-shirt, imprinted with the phrase “F*** the Draft,” was a form of protected speech. “People bring passion to politics,” Judge Harlan wrote in the majority opinion, “and vulgarity is simply a side effect of a free exchange of ideas—no matter how radical they may be.”
In the 1960s and early 1970s, profanity became a kind of oppositional discourse, a means of expressing firm, unequivocal dissent or of radically reframing mainstream assumptions. What is indecent and obscene, new leftists argued during the 1960s, was not bad language or sex, but violence, bigotry, and poverty. The idea was arresting. And so it remains today.
Of course, profanity is sometimes merely indecent, and sometimes merely titillating. In 1972, a year after the Cohen decision, George Carlin famously enumerated his seven words you can’t say on TV, which walked a fine line between political expression and mere titillation. That line is not always obvious nor defensible.
The politically expressive power of profanity (just like its comic effect) resides in its restricted and selective use. Employed too often and without thought, profanity devolves into coarseness. Liberal democracies require the civil (and yes, decent) language that shields our social interactions, collective endeavors, and commercial enterprises from the unrelenting siren call of the id.
But Ortiz’s f-bomb and Nicholson’s remind us that profanity can sometimes perform an invaluable public service. When pointed and well-conceived, it can bring egregious false-dealers to light or express deeply felt grievances in a poignant way. In other words, it has the capacity to stir us from our collective slumbers.
We just shouldn’t grow too dependent on it.