Profanity Revisited

In 2014, I wrote a blog post titled "Why There's No Profanity in My Books" (you can read it here). It remains, to this day, the most-read essay I've ever posted on this blog; responses to it were all over the map. But I think that one section of that essay just became especially relevant last week. Here's what I said at the time:

I want to live in a more polite society. The fact is that our society (I'm speaking about the United States here) has become far more coarse and far less civil in my lifetime. Our federal government is grinding to a halt because our leaders can't figure out how to agree on issues and maintain personal respect for each other at the same time; but that's just a symptom of what's happening among the body politic. We've decided that people who disagree with us aren't just misinformed or mistaken; such people must be downright evil, or at least so stupid that we don't have to respect them.

When did I have that epiphany? On Friday, June 25, 2004. (warning: there's profanity in the linked article and audio soundbite).

Do we really want to celebrate our national leaders verbally attacking each other like that?

I don't think so; but can we realistically expect our leaders to behave any better when the citizens who elected them talk to each other the same way? That's the beauty of and problem with democracy — the people get exactly the kinds of leaders they deserve. Swearing in public used to get the speaker shunned as crude and uncivilized. Now we elect leaders who insult each other in open view of the media and celebrate it, and then get frustrated when those leaders can't work together to solve serious problems. Well, it's our fault for putting them there and for creating a climate where those leaders think such behavior isn't merely okay but actually a sign of strength.

And here we are.

Assuming that you haven't been living under a rock, you know that last week during a meeting on immigration, the president of the United States used a hard profanity to describe third-world countries. The exact wording of the sentence is in dispute, but his curse word is the one constant in everyone's story. That set off a storm of public criticism, and rightly so—it was the most vulgar, derogatory thing a US president has said about foreigners in recent memory. He crossed the line from vulgarity to racism.

President Trump and his defenders swear that he isn't racist. To be generous, let's just assume for a moment that it slipped out without him really thinking about what he was saying. That kind of thing happens when profanity is a habit; but even if we are so generous as that, the problem is that he is clearly a man who is not in the habit of mentally screening his words. Look at his track record. He made a crude comment—recorded years before—that sparked the biggest pro-women's rally in historyHe cursed on the campaign trail and continues cursing during public rallies. He tweets whatever he thinks without bothering to ask anyone what the potential consequences might be. This is a man who has no filter between his mind and his mouth; and if he hadn't been so relentlessly crude and vulgar in the past, developing a habit over many years of spewing whatever he thinks, he wouldn't have to defend himself now for having said something that really is indefensible. The line between vulgarity and racism (and misogyny and homophobia etc etc etc) is much thinner than most people care to admit and the president has been skating absurdly close to that line for a long time. It was inevitable that he would cross it at some point; but even if this particular profanity was accidental, he gets no pass. He's the president of the United States. He has an obligation to watch his words because his words now carry real weight and so have very serious consequences.

On a more personal note—given our society's accelerating decent into public vulgarity, I believe that it was only a matter of time before we ended up with a president who uses such language in public and in on-the-record meetings. A culture marinating in public potty language cannot expect to produce political leaders who are dignified in their speech. So if we don't want more of the same, we need to clean up our language. We, the citizens, need to watch our own words; we need to stop giving our patronage to movies, books, TV shows, comedy shows, and other forms of entertainment overflowing with gratuitous profanity; and we need to tell our politicians that they will lose our votes if they fail to represent us with class and decorum when they open their mouths.