June 28th, 2022


Watch your #@&*$! language

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published Dec. 22, 2020

Watch your #@&*$! language

In an interview with Glamour magazine published last week, President-elect Joe Biden's soon-to-be White House deputy chief of staff, Jen O'Malley Dillon, dropped several F-bombs, including one in which she referred to congressional Republicans as "a bunch of f***ers." O'Malley Dillon was Biden's campaign manager and before that she worked on other Democratic political campaigns, so there is nothing surprising about her animosity toward Republicans.

It is, however, a little surprising that she would so crudely and publicly insult Republican lawmakers that the Biden administration will have to find ways to work with — especially in the context of an interview in which, just moments earlier, she had extolled the importance of compromise.

Naturally, O'Malley Dillon's vulgarity was promptly assailed by some Republicans. Most notably, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany fired off an indignant tweet that began "Biden Campaign Manager called us "F***ers" !!!" and ended with "They think we are deplorable, irredeemable "F***ers". SICK!!" Something about McEnany's tweet struck me as a touch insincere. Perhaps it was the use of two F-words to criticize Biden's aide for one of hers. Perhaps it was the five exclamation points.

Or perhaps it was the fact that McEnany represents a man who has been using profanity in public for years, including at rallies, in interviews and on social media.

Unlike McEnany, I really am put off by gutter language. I don't mean the expletive you utter in pain when you stub your toe in the middle of the night, or in frustration when a snowplow heaves a mountain of snow onto the end of the driveway you just laboriously shoveled out, or in alarm when a heedless driver suddenly swerves in front of your car.

I do mean the intentional use of the F-word in book titles and song lyrics and Comedy Central cartoons. I mean the "raw bushels of casual swearing" in innumerable stage plays, to say nothing of the now-routine deluge of profanity in Hollywood movies and cable television. And I mean the deliberate dropping of F-bombs and other obscenities by politicos in an attempt to seem more candid, determined, daring, or sincere.

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Public officials, however blue their language in private, used to take pains not to be heard uttering smutty words in public. Now some of them take pains to make sure they are heard uttering them. O'Malley Dillon is only the most recent example. There have been plenty of others:

Beto O'Rourke to reporters during the Democratic primary campaign: "You know the sh** he's been saying. He's been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. . . . Members of the press, what the f***?"

Representative Rashida Tlaib, on the day she was sworn in as a member of Congress: "We're gonna go in there and we're gonna impeach the mother***er!"

Senator Cory Booker to CNN, in an interview about gun control: "We are not going to give thoughts and prayers, which to me is just bullsh**."

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to New York magazine: "If we're not helping people, we should go the f*** home."

John Kerry to Rolling Stone: "Did I expect George Bush to f*** it up as badly as he did?"

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark on C-SPAN, as he ran for president in New Hampshire in 2004: "I'll beat the sh** out of them."

Vice President Dick Cheney on the Senate floor, telling Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy: "Go f*** yourself."

George W. Bush to Talk magazine: "They think it's like a high school election. . . . They've lost their f***ing minds."

Those are just a few instances of a phenomenon that has become almost ubiquitous in recent years. According to a news analysis conducted last year by GovPredict, a government-relations software firm, politicians are swearing more in public and online than ever before. Research "shows a stark uptick in the overall usage of curse words by legislators on Twitter," GovPredict's CEO told the congressional news website The Hill. In 2018 alone, the S- and F-words were tweeted out by lawmakers 1,745 times.

I am no Victorian prude. I don't get heart palpitations at the sound of a bad word or a racy lyric. I would be lying if I claimed that no one has ever heard me utter a profanity. And I understand that language norms change over time, and that words once regarded as beyond the pale can gradually become innocuous or hokey .

Yet even people who drop F-bombs all the time can generally be chastened into cleaning up their language by a reminder that small children are present — which suggests that the word has not lost its ugliness or aura of taboo, even among those who use it all the time.

To decry the potty-mouthing of American culture in 2020 may be the very definition of a lost cause, but it is hardly the only issue on which I am, if not alone, then in the minority. (Then again, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for, as Jimmy Stewart says in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ). In my view, the vulgarity that has become so ubiquitous in our politics and culture is both a cause and an effect of the coarsening of American society. To people who insist that public cursing is benign, I would point out that until recently much the same thing was said about blackface, ethnic slurs, and secondhand smoke.

(To reiterate, I am not writing here about private four-letter eruptions caught on a hot mic, such as the time Biden exulted to Barack Obama that the Affordable Care Act was "a big f***ing deal," or when Bush murmured to Cheney that New York Times reporter Adam Clymer was a "major-league a**hole." What people say when they think they can't be heard may not be pretty, but my objection is to the use of foul language in public, by people who want to be heard using it.)

In a 1971 landmark case, Cohen v. California , the US Supreme Court held that the First Amendment's protection of free speech extends to using profanity in public. The justices overturned the conviction of a Los Angeles man arrested after he appeared in municipal court wearing a jacket emblazoned with the message: "F*** The Draft. Stop the War." In his majority opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan conceded that "the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most." Nevertheless, he continued, "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric."

Fifty years later, that "lyric" is inescapable. Are we better for it?

As a near-absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech and expression, I don't for a moment suggest that George Carlin's seven words you can't say on TV should be banned by law. But it would be a fine thing if most of them were once again banned by convention, by a sense of respect, and by an appreciation for social hygiene.

"Let sewage flow into a river long enough, and eventually it may catch fire," I once wrote in a column. "Ignore graffiti and broken windows long enough, and eventually anti-social crime can make a neighborhood intolerable. What happens to a culture in which obscenity and raunchy language are omnipresent?"

Politicians and other public figures who resort to profanity aren't more authentic or edgy or fearless than those who don't. They're just more lazy. It doesn't take increased mental effort to deploy a few F-bombs in a conversation; it takes less. Promiscuous cursing may attract attention and fluster the bluenoses, but that doesn't alter the fact that it is trashy and cheap. Its effect over time is to build up resistance to gentleness and patience. Sometimes salty language is exactly what a situation calls for. But like saltiness in cooking, too much can ruin everything. When everyone talks like the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross," society hasn't become more authentic, only more uncouth.

To her credit, O'Malley Dillon retracted the expletive she used in the Glamour interview. "I used some words that I probably could have chosen better," she said on Thursday. Good for her for saying so. Politics will always be a fierce and contentious business. All the more reason not to let it turn the air blue. =