February 23rd, 2023
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably
to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
— 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Somewhere along the long slouching road to the new millennium, it became possible to do what in a baby boomer’s childhood was unthinkable and what landed Lenny Bruce in stir: the regular enunciation of profanity in public venues, often nightclubs, but more typically the airwaves and the general fiefdom overseen by the FCC, that being everything from the old standbys of major broadcasters to the more coven haunts of music stores, streaming media of the wondrous world wide web, e-zines, and blogs (an expression whose onomatopoetic echoes call to mind the sucking sound of boots wading through mud or something which small animals get mired in and drown, which speaking figuratively is probably the case). Such words, four-letter and otherwise, were once the mainstay of the local burlesque and “girly” magazines (a curiously demeaning expression as used among manly men, but employed here to allude to their illicit joys). Today, however, profanities are no more secret than the day’s weather or the inner lives of celebrities or politicians (though the latter could well be an oxymoron, but that is another story altogether).
Growing up in the twilight of Ike’s presidency, a child could go for years or seasons or moons, without encountering so much as a friggin,’ let alone a hardy fuck or fuck you. One might even recall with fondness poor Holden Caufield’s wish to protect children from such vile assaults on their sense and sensibilities. In the 21st century, such a wish could find no ready believers, having been blessed as we are with a steady parade of comics finding the easy road to the risqué by sprinkling their routines with daubs of Fs, FUs, CSs, MFs, and MFCSs (that we all can easily divine the meaning of this alphabet spew says something in itself, whether that be our worldliness, our childishness, or our long acquaintance with government agencies, computer gizmos, or license-plate speak is hard to say).
Many would have us believe that the license to spray profanities is protected by the Bill of Rights, in this case the right to free speech, though what is freed by this speech is a bit of a mystery, other than the instincts of the puerile or the emotional outpourings of junior high schoolers. It also has its defenders in those who seek to protect the anger and bitterness of the urban poor’s various mouthpieces—the many rappers and DJs and MCs and bling bearers who have found it more profitable to sample other artists’ music and pretend that what they are doing isn’t plagiarism if not outright theft than to actually align a series of notes on a bar and write lyrics that might offer richer voice to their pain, no matter how far it might fall short of the speech of such singers as Ishmael Reed or Dr King.
But we digress. The steady demeaning of our sensibilities through a constant satellite feed of profanity has made it impossible to accent our anger or raise the bar of our horror or tap the root of our bitterness with expressions once reserved for the basest of miscreants and their deeds. We toss off fucks and fuck-you’s as casually as we once said damnit or shit, which in turn we habituated ourselves to after crap and Jesus lost their piquancy and emblematic heft.
So, what to do, if anything? It might be easy to believe that another more genteel era’s genteel speech would yield better human beings, a belief held and told by idiots. Yet, are we, and is our vernacular, worse for the wear from the steady wearing out of the caustic bite of words once Bowdlerized in the pages of The Naked and the Dead? Have we lost the raw, visceral voice we might reserve for those found guilty of lynching or the abuse of an infant, having used it instead to address someone who cuts us off in traffic? What is cheapened by our casual acceptance of profanity?
Of course asking this question is to run the risk of being tarred a censor, prude, or born-again nutcase, if not all three. It occurs to me to ask it, having just returned from a park where I overheard a half-dozen half-pints with the mouths of sailors extolling the virtues of each other’s mothers, sisters, and girl friends. These wee lads all seemed quite incapable of executing their desires, but their intimate knowledge of anatomy bespoke a good understanding of which members of which group did what and how to whom. Such schoolyard taunts are the stuff of many a childhood, but these boys’ young lives owned all the insight and attitude of the likes of Howard Stearn, who by himself is probably keeping several tens of millions of American males in a terminal state of arrested development, that arrest generally commencing in about the fifth grade.
One might say language is cheapened by the continued lowering of the bar and widespread acceptance of what were once jailable offenses. But can language be cheapened? Is it something that attaches such qualities to itself? Cheapening something means, if anything, diminishing its value. And the only value language can have is to communicate. If that it is so, then surely our current diet of fuck, fucked, fuck off, fuck up, and fuck it is robbing someone, somewhere of power of these words, for they certainly were once worth much more insofar as they could alarm passions, run radio stations out of business, get people slapped across the face, slapped in the cooler, or quality time with a bar of soap.
If we agree that language can be cheapened, are these particular coins worth saving? In other words, would hearing a toddler ask for a fucking candy bar have us wonder where the tyke came by his diction or simply leave us aghast that he was familiar with it at all? In the right setting, such an outburst could be funny, provided it were rare—which is probably how we might come by it. But with time, we’ll find this neither rare nor alarming nor humorous but typical. And being typical, eliciting no more interest or condemnation than smoking in bars once did. Ah, we’ll say, the good old days.
In debasing the coin of our lexicon, we may find replacements as we did for shit and damnit. Profanity inflation has increased the cost of being lewd, for it now takes ten or so fuck you’s where once one or two would do. But replacements for the bottom of the barrel are hard to come by and may require importing as well as an extended period of general dissemination before they can find ready adoption and exchange in the vernacular. In the meantime we have little choice but to either raise the cost for using profanities or withdraw some from circulation. Failing to do so, we may discover that we are, well, fucked.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.