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Coarse correction

Protests against the R-word. Anti-cussing measures vs. free speech. What's up with all the profanity?

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / March 11, 2010

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The assembly at Winthrop High School began with a collective oath. “I pledge and support the elimination of the R-word,’’ promised several hundred students, teachers, parents, administrators, and visiting politicians last week. For the next hour, speaker after speaker described how hurtful and insulting the R-word, meaning “retarded’’ or “retard,’’ is to people with intellectual disabilities. No longer would its use be casually tolerated on school property, they vowed, or go unchallenged off-campus.

“Intentional or not, it conjures up a painful stereotype,’’ said Winthrop life skills teacher Chris Donnelly, who organized the assembly.

The gathering was part of a “Spread the Word to End the Word’’ campaign mounted across the country last week through the website r-word.org, which claims to have collected more than 106,000 such pledges. But it was far from the only battlefield where profane or objectionable words are coming under fire.

California lawmakers first voted for, then tabled, a resolution declaring last week “No Cuss Week.’’ South Carolina has been debating a sweeping anti-profanity bill. Organizations like the Parents Television Council, a conservative interest group, have been complaining loudly about vulgarities like “douche’’ and “ass’’ seeping into family-hour network television shows. A parade of public figures - such as presidential aide Rahm Emanuel, whose use of the R-word during a White House strategy session was leaked to the press - have been left red-faced and apologizing for their crude remarks.

From movie theaters to sports arenas to the blogosphere, F-bombs and S-bombs are detonating like Fourth of July fireworks. Meanwhile, civil libertarians fret about the Federal Communications Commission going after broadcasters too zealously and individuals losing free-speech rights. Language watchers weigh in, too, pointing out how words seldom remain static in their capacity to shock and offend somebody. Or not.

Is public discourse really getting coarser, or does it just seem that way? How effective can grassroots efforts like the one modeled in Winthrop be in curbing insensitive or potty-mouth language? Some campaigns may lead to widespread behavioral changes, according to experts, as has happened with blatantly racist, sexist, and homophobic terms. Others have failed, becoming minor skirmishes in the larger culture wars.

It’s safe to say, though, that an expanding universe of media outlets and advocacy groups means we’ll be hearing more about the issue. Including some details not fit for a family newspaper.

“Swearing is part of how we express ourselves. And as I predicted, it’s gotten worse,’’ says James O’Connor, a public-relations specialist who published his book “Cuss Control’’ 10 years ago and who runs a website offering tips on curbing one’s use of profanity. O’Connor often speaks to school groups and says that when he asks young people why they use vulgarities so casually and liberally, the reply usually boils down to: because no one complains or calls them out on it.

“Somehow, we’re afraid to say, ‘Tone it down,’ ’’ says O’Connor, who neither advocates censorship nor opposes swearing altogether. Mostly it’s what he calls the “lazy’’ use of profanity in casual conversation that irks him, or in movie and TV scripts where the swearing seems purely gratuitous.

O’Connor theorizes that swearing has become more prevalent because the F-word and other vulgarities have lost their sexual connotation, and because the terms are versatile, expressing a variety of emotions including anger, amazement, bemusement, disgust.

But yelling “@#$%&!’’ after hammering one’s thumb is different from toilet-talking teens at the mall. Or from bullying, hurtful language that serves no purpose other than inflicting pain.

Timothy Jay, a language and censorship expert at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts says the pushback against naughty language, while often well-intentioned, is seldom as effective as its champions hope it will be. California’s “No Cuss’’ initiative, he notes, was sparked by an Orange County teenager whose No Cussing Club claims 20,000 members - and who got plenty of press long before lawmakers took up his cause.

“These are always cute news items, because who doesn’t want the world to be a better place?’’ says Jay. “But they never cover ones that fail,’’ he adds, referring to anti-profanity measures tried in Indiana and Connecticut schools, which he maintains had little success.

David Hudson, a scholar at Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center, says anti-profanity efforts typically hit a wall once the courts get involved. Still, at least a dozen states, including Massachusetts, California, and Virginia, have enacted laws governing profanity in public places. Massachusetts prohibits swearing at participants in sporting events, for instance, while Utah bans cursing on buses.

“You can’t shield the public from bad taste, though,’’ says Hudson, observing that the Internet has amplified all forms of expression, good, bad, and ugly. While he applauds the anti-R-word campaign for raising awareness about hurtful language, he adds: “I do see a shift from self-censorship to institutional censorship, and that’s what I have a problem with.’’

Ohio State University law professor Christopher Fairman, whose specialty is taboo language and the law, questions whether demonizing the R-word makes sense, however distasteful the term is when used in debasing fashion. Not long ago, he points out, “retarded’’ was the more sensitive way to address a group once labeled “moron’’ or “idiot.’’ Moreover, should it become as un-PC to utter as the N-word is, another pejorative word or term will likely take its place.

When it comes to profanity, Fairman says, “there’s something much deeper in our psyches at work’’ than simply speaking cruelly or crudely.

So why do we curse? In a New Republic piece, Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker wraps his essay on profanity around a much-publicized incident, Bono blurting out “[expletive] brilliant’’ during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards telecast. Millions watched, and the FCC later weighed fining NBC a hefty sum for the singer’s slip.

Swearing falls into several categories, writes Pinker, from cathartic (e.g. reaction to pain) to angry (getting cut off in traffic). Tracing its historical roots from religious blasphemy to sexual and excretory references, Pinker calls swearing “a fact of life,’’ one that when used judiciously can be funny or poignant but when overused becomes offensive and annoying.

“I don’t think swearing has increased in all sectors,’’ Pinker wrote in an e-mail from England last week. “But there has been an increase in the use of profanity among women, and in public media such as cable television and print.’’

The biggest pushback he’s seen? The backlash against what he calls “the emphatic and idiomatic uses of the F-word in casual speech and writing.’’

UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg says many legitimately feel that the culture is coarsening. And that it’s only natural to want to restore some measure of civility to daily life and pop culture.

“Do these campaigns work? Yes and no,’’ says Nunberg. “With vulgarity, no. With offensive terms, yes and no. Maybe some will stop using [the R-word] the way Rahm Emanuel did, unthinkingly. Still, deploring the rising tide of incivility is an old story.’’

A word like “sucks’’ has almost no vulgar connotation for younger people, adds Nunberg, one more sign of shifting senses and sensibilities. “You can now use [the F-word] in The New Yorker but not The New York Times,’’ he says. “I find that a little odd.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.