Opinion I swear, our profane society is a disgrace
May 15, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
"When we lived in a previous house, my wife used to joke that whenever I trekked to the basement to change the filter in our old furnace, the expletives that floated up the stairwell reminded her of the father in the 1983 film, “A Christmas Story,” tackling his own heater.
Narrating from the vantage of adulthood, the film’s protagonist, Ralphie, described his dad’s swearword artistry: “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” Substitute the Ohio River, and the description fit me to a T.
Most of the time, though, I don’t like to swear. If foul language slips out in the heat of an appliance battle or similar aggravation, I usually quickly apologize to anyone within earshot. In this increasingly profane world, however, my remorse seems positively quaint.
Many blame former president Donald Trump for coarsening our dialogue, and indeed he tosses out some unfortunate vulgarities, including on social media. He seems particularly fond of “bullsh--” and, of course, allegedly referred in private to “sh--hole” countries.
But President Biden more than matches Trump when it comes to salty language. The most famous example came during Biden’s vice-presidency, when he was caught on a hot mic telling President Barack Obama that signing the Affordable Care Act was “a big f---ing deal.” As president, he employed the same word in a typical example of macho man bluster, declaring to a Florida mayor that “No one f---s with a Biden.” For variety, he was also caught calling a reporter a “stupid son of a b----.”
To be sure, many presidents were known to be prolific private swearers. But Biden, like Trump, is particularly loose with his routine public utterances of “hell” and “damn.” In 2019, he called an Iowa voter a “damn liar.” At a 2021 town hall in Cincinnati, he promised to fix a “damn bridge” connecting Ohio and Kentucky and said he was “damn proud” of his son Hunter. Just a few days ago, Biden said in an interview that he had “acquired a hell of a lot of wisdom” over the years.
Biden’s casual public use of “hell” and “damn” — and the fact that many people these days think those words barely qualify as profanity — is a reflection of our lowered standards. The crude language we hear every day in public settings is remarkable.
I was at a gas station last week when the man at the next pump apparently spotted someone familiar emerging from a grocery store across the parking lot. “Hey motherf-----!” he shouted loudly, extending his middle finger high above his head with a big smile on his face. “F--- you!” came the equally vociferous reply as the one-finger salute was returned. And this was apparently a friendly greeting, piercingly bellowed as shoppers walked by, some with children.
Consider how far we’ve regressed. In 1939, the Motion Picture Association had to pass an amendment to its production code so that Rhett Butler could utter his famous “Gone with the Wind” parting shot: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Today, by contrast, basic cable and even streaming platforms are littered with profanity.
My wife and I used to enjoy watching the legal drama “Suits” on the USA Network, but the show was laced with cursing, especially the “g.d.” expletive. I know many attorneys with major law firms, and even in private they are careful with their language and demeanor. Hollywood writers seem to think that high-powered lawyers inject obscenities into every comment.
The moral aspect of excessive cursing is perhaps concerning primarily to the more religious, but the lack of discipline it reveals is a universal blight. If we can’t muster the nominal restraint required to regulate our speech, there’s not much hope for bringing order to the rest of our lives. We should all strive to recapture the vanishing art of taming our tongues — and presidents should be especially conscious of the example they set.
Biden and Trump might reflect on a sentiment expressed by an authentic macho man who became our first president. “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing,” Gen. George Washington wrote in an order to his troops, “is a vice so mean and low without any temptation that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.”
Or perhaps try some substitutes. In “A Christmas Story,” the “old man’s” furnace-fighting diatribe was translated for a PG-rated audience into this, according to IMDb: “Blasted poop flirt rattle crap camel flirt. You blonker frattle feet sturckle frat! Of a womp sack butt ratter bottom fodder smick melly whop walker. Drop dumb fratten house stickle fifer!”
“No one sturckles with a Biden,” the president could boast. We’d still get his drift."