Wednesday, June 12, 2013

When is Profanity Justified?

Maura Jane Farrelly and Chris Beneke

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.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Profanity is fantastic when judiciously used. Unfortunately, very rarely, in my experience, is it used to make a collective point and express a public/communal outrage. Usually it is extremely effective in expressing my personal outrage. I love the idea of profanity-as-public-tool.

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Lisa. Something tells me that we make more regular use of it here in Boston than do folks in TN!

Randall said...

There is certainly a regional component to this. What's $#@&ing ok to say in Massachusetts is not ok to say in Kansas, my home state.

The history question: I wonder how far back this goes? Did antebellum American's comment on regional patterns of profanity? Also, how does the northern/southern bit work out?

In Norway and in England it's a common assumption that northerners swear more often--and possibly in more creative ways--than southerners.

Todd Arrington said...

I agree with Lisa's assessment that profanity can be glorious when used the right way and at the right time. I must admit, I'm a huge fan of a few certain obscenities that I really can't use in the professional or home environments. I try to get them all out on the drive home, I guess. But historically, I'm not sure what to make of this and am interested in the question Randall poses. Additonally, when was profanity first used by the masses to make some point or argument that seemed to warrant it? I was born in 1973, so I missed the 60s, but the anti-Vietnam War "one, two, three, four, we don't want your f***ing war" jumps to mind. But surely there are many instances of it prior to that. It's just the first (and perhaps most well-known) one I thought of when considering this question. Really interesting and thought-provoking post!

Chris Beneke said...

Great questions Randall and Todd. My bet is that there's as sharp an urban/rural contrast as there is a regional one. Todd, I'd forgotten about that anti-Vietnam chant. Thanks for the reminder.

Randall said...

Here's a recent NPR story on a new OUP book: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr

"This history of swearing looks at both obscenities and oaths, from the Roman era to the modern age. Both swearing on the bible and shouting curses have a long and complicated past, one mingling civility and censorship."

Eric Schultz said...

Interesting topic. I know in a corporate environment the Top Dog can get away with language others wouldn't dare to use--so to regional and urban/rural, let's add a kind of "pecking order" dynamic as well. And for those of you who watched "Deadwood" on HBO and couldn't believe the language the cowboys used (and rightly so). . .here's a little more color.

Randall said...

Eric: Very interesting piece.

My brother, Dave, was an extra on Deadwood in one of the last seasons. I remember talking to him about the swearing and how dirty, unwashed all the characters looked.

Gregory Dehler said...

Having grown up on Long Island, I have to admit I do not have a saint’s mouth. However, I feel that cursing, and our increasing acceptance of it, is corroding our use of language much in the same way that texting is doing. A lot of very nice descriptive words are falling out of service because they are being run out of usage by our new all purpose mega modifier, the so-called “f bomb” and its poorer cousins, “freakin’” and “friggin’”. Same thing with the word “pissed,” which has replaced at least a dozen words and what they represent in terms of nuanced thought. By pissed do mean upset, angry, enraged, agitated, or dare I say bat shit crazy?

hcr said...

Wasn't Stephen Douglas famously profane? Was it him, or one of those other antebellum politicians? I remember reading Oates's Approaching Fury (I think that was it) in which he adopted the voices of the historical figures, and cringing my way through the profanity, not because I'm a prude (I grew up on the docks!) but because it seemed to me so anachronistic to paste the rhythms of 20th C profanity onto a 19th century speech.

Daniel Webster was also pretty rough-and-tumble, as I recall. And Lincoln's stories were often scatological, I believe.

I wonder how shocked we would be if we actually got dropped down in the past-- I'll bet an awful lot has been edited out.