The #%@*&! problem

by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
June 17, 2012

BY A VOTE of 183-50, town meeting members in Middleborough, Mass., last week approved a bylaw making public cursing a civil offense and authorizing police to enforce the ban by fining offenders $20.


This is the kind of blight that can make a public space become unbearable.

Town Hall may find it hard to collect on those fines. Assuming Cohen v. California is still good law, the First Amendment’s protection of free speech extends to using four-letter words in public, and as soon as the new ordinance is challenged it will almost certainly be struck down. Legally, town authorities don’t have a leg to stand on. But their concern with enforcing public standards deserves better than the eye-rolling mockery it has been getting.

Cohen was the 1971 case in which the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Los Angeles man arrested for disturbing the peace after he appeared in municipal court wearing a jacket with the F-word on it. (The jacket, with the word spelled out, read: “F— the Draft.”) Writing for the majority, 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” — and “it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.”

When it comes to freedom of speech, my convictions are generally libertarian: The proper response to bad speech is better speech. The First Amendment wouldn’t be worth much if it protected only anodyne and sensible expression. What makes it such a vital safeguard of American liberty is that it shields ugly and obnoxious speech as well — even that of odious hate groups or lying propagandists. I line up with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote more than 80 years ago that the Bill of Rights safeguards not merely “free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Freedom of expression, however, isn’t the only value a healthy civil society depends on. Common courtesy and reasonable standards of public conduct matter too. In other areas most of us take it for granted that the rights of communities, not just those of individuals, are entitled to some deference. Middleborough wouldn’t have made national headlines last week if town meeting members had voted to impose fines on anyone trashing public spaces with litter or graffiti or dog droppings. Should it really make Page 1 when civic leaders look for a way to curb the befouling of public spaces with loud and unrestrained cursing?

Maybe Middleborough merchants and officials are exaggerating what they say has become a plague of public profanity, especially among the young. (“They’ll sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language,” says former selectwoman Mimi Duphily.)  But there can’t be much doubt that vulgar speech now courses openly through American society to a degree that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

The potty-mouthing of our culture is ubiquitous. Go to a new play, take in a movie, turn on a prime-time TV show, and you’re all but guaranteed to encounter the kind of language that used to get mouths washed out with soap. Some shows revel in their crudity: “South Park” is notorious for its foul-mouthed fourth-graders. One episode of “The Wire” contrived to use the F-word 38 times in under four minutes.

One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric? These days it can be another’s Grammy-winning hit song: Just ask Cee-Lo Green. Or it can be another’s campaign rhetoric: When he was publicly flirting with a presidential run last year, Donald Trump delivered a profanity-laced speech to an audience that cheered and applauded each time he dropped the F-bomb.


This is, too.

Let sewage flow into a river long enough, and eventually it may catch fire. 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?

“That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is … not a sign of weakness but of strength,” the Supreme Court said in Cohen. “In what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse … fundamental societal values are truly implicated.”

But that was in 1971. Today we are a lot further down the slippery slope. The crudity polluting American life no longer seems merely “trifling and annoying.” Middleborough’s solution is all wrong, but the problem it’s trying to address is no small matter.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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1 Response to THE #%@*&! PROBLEM

  1. Curt Stoller says:

    Maybe we are witnessing a subculture that is slowly becoming the culture. I have had the opportunity to see many old movies made before I was born, including many in black and white. To my surprise, many can be described as modern versions of medieval morality plays. I lived through the period in history when Hollywood turned away from this and began to idolize what was called “the antihero.” It became fashionable to shock people. Sometimes even the promotions for these anti-morality films bragged about “presenting the controversial adult issues the modern audience craves.”

    Often in these “modern” films, the “moral” of the story was the “might makes right” ethic of the ancient Greek sophist Thrasymachus, who debated against Socrates. It is interesting how this appealed to “sophisticated” audiences. Most people are unaware that the word “sophisticated” comes from the word “sophist.” Foul language was idolized too. And it was considered “cool” to be antinomian. I am thinking of the many films of the 1960’s and ’70s that idolized the outlaw, such as the film “Bonnie and Clyde.” The glorification of evil in a film is almost a predictor that the film will win some kind of prestigious European film award.

    It is interesting how people who “idolize” outlaw behavior and idolize the hatred of law, actually depend on what they despise. A bank robber fleeing a crime depends on other folks obeying the traffic laws. As he speeds along in his getaway car he counts on people at every intersection stopping for the red lights. He also depends on God to not suspend the laws of gravity during his getaway. That is why lawlessness is self-contradictory. A prison group involved in gang rape will expect a fair trial and fair and humane treatment by the warden and the prison guards and may run to the ACLU if their rights are not respected.

    I once witnessed a police chase and noted that the criminals that zipped by me made the sign of the Cross as they passed a Roman Catholic Church. In the big box stores I often see people wearing T-shirts with skulls and the heads of demons and four letter profane words. And one sees the same individual with tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the rosary. Apparently they do not see the contradiction here.

    Profanity is a kind of violence. If you don’t believe that, just look at the children who live in homes where profanity is used against them. Children are the most powerless members of a family. And verbal abuse can be every bit as damaging to their souls as physical abuse is to their bodies. One wonders whether the “might makes right” masculinization of men has something to do with the current feminization of men, as if maybe, one extreme has bred another.

    I was at a discount store recently looking for a t-shirt. It amazed me how it was impossible to find any without some form of demon, skull or profanity on them. Scary to see a little toddler wearing a shirt with the image of a vampire or a demon.

    The anti-hero trend has also swept through modern literature. The idea that a person could be basically good is now considered to be naive and “unsophisticated.” To be “sophisticated”, any biography must be able to dredge up some terrible evil in a hero. I call this, probably unfairly, the New York City intellectual counterpart of the National Enquirer approach to everything: scandal, scandal, scandal. Look at how modern theologians view the lives of the Saints or even worse, how they view the life of Our Lord. Goodness, since Freud, is seen as a psychological illness. Modern literature and films portray “good people” as sick and evil, while evil people are seen as healthy and good. Subtle transformations are made in theology too. The fact that Jesus hung about with prostitutes and tax collectors in order to save them has now become the idea that Jesus just hung around them because he liked hanging around them. Even some modern films have portrayed Jesus as a sinner!!!

    Where this will all end up is anyone’s guess. The prognosis, however, is not very bright.

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