One town's war on profanity
According to the Associated Press, residents of Middleborough, Mass., have voted 183-50 to approve a proposal from the police chief to impose a $20 civil fine for loud, profanity-laden language in the downtown area and public parks.
Yes, I know about slippery slopes, unintended consequences, overly vague ordinances and jackbooted Big Brother thugs. And I prefer parental discipline, old-fashioned shaming and anti-profanity public service announcements to actual regulations; but I still admire Middleborough and the other communities and states taking aim at incivility.
Proponents of the law hope it will make citizens think twice about spouting off in public. Personally, I would be thrilled if it made people think ONCE about profanity. Let's face it: most profanity is an addiction, a habit, an automatic, mindless sharing of nonessential, imprecise speech.
Yes, imprecise. If the same invectives you use on the maniac who murdered your spouse and children can be applied to a jammed photocopier (or a ribbing from your best friend), profanity has lost its power to do anything except preach to the choir and irritate everyone else.
Mankind used to value compactness. We invented shorthand. We engraved the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. Now our top scientists figure out ways to stretch the word for a female dog into two syllables. Progress?
Of course the First Amendment is invoked in challenging the legitimacy of the Middleborough law. The potty-mouthed carry on the spirit of the Founding Fathers, you see. Surely you remember the crisis at the Constitutional Convention when bureaucratic red tape narrowly squelched the creation of a much-needed fourth branch of government: one dedicated exclusively to the admiration of Martha Washington's "smokin' hot (anatomical reference deleted)"?
I know: you can't legislate morality. (This usually comes from people who are quick to say, "We need to raise taxes to force the rich to be nice and pay their fair share.")
Yes, some of the greatest minds in history used profanity. Some of the greatest minds in history enslaved and murdered millions, too. What's your point?
Agreed, sometimes there arises a situation so exasperating or so joyous that a well-chosen obscenity is exactly the thing to do. And sometimes there arises a situation where a root canal is exactly the thing to do. But most people wouldn't resort to undergoing a root canal 200 times a day.
I know profanity supposedly adds spice and color to life; but if you're going to use it, start sharing early in the morning. Because after your listener has spent all day bombarded with middle initials for deities, scatological exclamations, threats to the derriere, invitations to the netherworld, anatomically impossible suggestions and the like, you flatter yourself if you think your contributions are going to be particularly clever, productive or memorable.
Predictably, critics have voiced a preference for seeing the police searching for The Real Criminals instead of enforcing profanity laws(maybe someday someone will devise a way to do both and call it ... I don't know ... multi-tasking); but just as there are only so many hours in the day, we get only so many breaths. Shouldn't society encourage people to use a few more of those breaths to say an extra "I love you," "Good job" or "Let me help you" instead of lapsing into profanity?
Danny Tyree welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org.