Rubel: Some Thoughts On The Rules Of Profanity
Commentary: I still have vivid memories of the day my grandfather taught my cousin Johnny and me the rules of profanity.
After letting one slip, he explained that it’s OK to use those words when the three of us were together, because they were “man words.” But if we ever used them in front of our mothers, sisters or other women or girls, we’d get punished.
I was probably 5 or 6 at the time, which would have put it in the early 1960s. It was unspoken, but the other side of my grandfather’s equation was obvious. If women were too delicate to be exposed to profanity, then obviously they could never use those words themselves.
It took me a while to realize that what my grandfather saw as protective was actually incredibly stifling. Men could express their pain, frustration and anger with loud bursts of forbidden words, as long as they weren’t in “mixed company.” Women were expected to respond to those same emotions with more restraint.
They still are, it would seem, based on the response last week to a profanity directed at the president.
At a celebratory gathering after her swearing-in, a new, female member of Congress referred to President Trump as an “m…fer” (with all of the letters included between the “m” and the “r” that makes that word special). The feigned outrage on the right was immediate – all in support of a president who has frequently and lustily used all seven of the words George Carlin once told us were forbidden on radio.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the coarsening of our politics. And if that is the issue, I join with those who are calling for a more respectful debate based on facts, not emotion. Our elected leaders, now mired in a government shutdown over the semantical difference between a wall and a fence, clearly need to stop shouting at and start listening to each other.
But if the issue is the congresswoman’s use of profanity, I won’t be among those calling for the language police. That’s because of the time when there really were language police.
Comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested four times between 1961 and 1964, including once for using the word “schmuck.” Bruce wasn’t the only comedian working “blue” at that time. A number of well-known comics with squeaky clean acts for television had much raunchier routines on the nightclub circuit. None of them were arrested.
The difference was that along with the dirty words and sex jokes, Bruce was also mocking Christianity. The first amendment wouldn’t let police jail him for that, so they used the dirty words and sex jokes as an excuse.
Excursions with my grandfather aside, I grew up in a household where we didn’t curse in private and a society where we didn’t curse in public. But, I eventually came to understand that the worst words weren’t the dirty ones, but rather those that are intended to instill fear, hatred and division.
As to the congresswoman’s wish for impeachment, expect lots of comments on the subject from House Democrats in the coming weeks. But the only voice that matters is that of Jerry Nadler, chairman of the Judiciary Committee (and, of course, Nancy Pelosi).
Walter Rubel is editorial page editor of the Sun-News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.