“The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish, and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing (a vice heretofore little-known in an American Army) is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will, by example, as well as influence, endeavor to check it, and that both they, and the men will reflect, that we can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our Arms, if we insult it by our impiety, and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.”
—George Washington, General Orders, August 3, 1776
Where’s George when you need him?
Since the 1960s, the language of our public square has descended into a pit of vulgarity. Once confined to the barracks, fraternity houses, homes, and private conversations, obscene language has now become commonplace in public life.
Our movies routinely contain profanity; “The Wolf of Wall Street” tops the list by inserting a certain expletive 506 times into its storyline. That same profanity has crept into popular music, and in rap songs is par for the course. Many bloggers and those who comment on their sites litter their sentences with crudities, often employed in so unskilled a manner as to make the writers sound like some seventh grader just learning to cuss. Actors and politicians tweet out curses that might have blistered their grandmothers’ ears. Even in speeches and interviews, these same people throw out profanities with the careless ease of a Santa Claus tossing candy to kids during a Christmas parade.
Some researchers and opinion-makers find little wrong in the use of these expletives. Some say swearing helps reduce our stress levels. Some contend that obscenities act as intensifiers in arguments.
Others argue that profanity is everywhere and we need to get used to it, that these are just words and can do no harm. A writer at Etiquette Hell, an online site that exists to encourage civility, respect, and manners, rebukes these ideas: “So, if public begging became common, we should all accept it? Bank deposit slips in wedding invitations, if done by nearly everyone, are just fine and dandy? If the whole world goes mad with greed, we’ll jump right off that greedy cliff with them? Uh, no. Just because ‘lots of people do it’ is not a logical argument that it is a right thing to do.”
Of course, many of us—and I include myself—do swear from time to time. We whack our thumb with a hammer, and out it comes. We reach for a shoe in the morning, atop which sits a brown hairy spider seemingly the size of a lemon, and out it comes. We meet with our accountant in tax season, she shares her calculations of what we’ll owe the feds, and out it comes.
And sometimes swearing can produce a desired effect, acting like a slap in the face, a boot to the bottom, or a sign of an impending explosion. When that staid, mousey secretary in the office, frequently bullied by her boss, suddenly unleashes a string of curses at the broken copier, you know the volcano is about to blow. Even George Washington once gave way to a volley of oaths. When Gen. Charles Lee bungled the Battle of Monmouth, Washington unloaded on him. We have no record of what Washington said, but we do know that his soldiers looked on with gape-mouthed astonishment and that Lafayette commented: “Wonderful! Never have I heard such swearing before or since!”
But these are the exceptions. Or they were until recently. Today, some among us feel free to bombard anyone within earshot—men, women, and children—with cannonades of foul language. From the teenagers I’ve passed on the streets to the actor denouncing Donald Trump, from the man in the grocery store loudly and casually cursing into his cell phone to the politician who uses expletives as weapons, the crude, the bad, and the ugly assault our senses.
Of course, most of us refrain, at least in public, from employing what mothers once called a potty mouth. In the last three years, for example, I have gone to the same coffee shop four or five times a week to escape my apartment and to read or write. During that time, I remember only one man, a loud guy in his 60s, who turned the air blue with his language.
Nonetheless, we see what Washington called the “wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing” becoming more and more acceptable, one more symptom of our cultural sickness, one more sign of our turn toward incivility and ugliness.
This misuse of language, particularly by those who lead us and shape our culture, degrades us. It degrades civilization. It too often cuts short a discussion, kills an argument, or cuts the emotions.
So what, if anything, can we do?
First, we can inform our politicians, our actors, and other public figures who customarily resort to such language that we find it offensive. We live in the great age of communication, when to type or tweet a protest requires only a few minutes of time. No long reproof is needed, simply, “Your message would be more effective without the obscenities.”
Next, we can teach our children and grandchildren that this crude public language is wrong, that it lowers the standard of civility and raises the black flag of barbarism.
Finally, we ourselves can work to clean up our act, to abolish cursing both aloud and in our thoughts. This is a tough proposition for some of us, particularly in the thinking compartment, but if we wish to change our culture, we must start at home. An anecdote, possibly apocryphal, involving the writer G.K. Chesterton illustrates this fundamental concept.
The Times of London sent out a query to famous authors “What is wrong with the world?” to which Chesterton responded:
If we wish to rebuild our culture, we must first make sure that we have our own house in order.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.