The Monitor's View

Repulsed by Blago's bleeps

People find profanity to be both common and offensive. So why do they put up with it?

By

Rod Blagojevich may not realize it, but the Illinois governor has quite possibly inspired a New Year's resolution across the land: Cut the swearing. His blue streak turned many people red – despite an increased use of profanity and the (wrong) assumption that it's no big deal anymore.

Research confirms what everyone knows. Expletives are no longer deleted in everyday language. They've seeped into private and public discourse to such an extent that they seem to have permanently stained it.

Profanity on network TV during "family hour" nearly doubled from 1998 to 2007, and it's getting harsher. In music, sexually explicit words and swears have replaced the innocent crooning of classic love songs, says a study of Billboard's Top 10 hits.

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In politics, the Watergate tapes drew the curtain back on Oval Office cussing, as have books about administrations since. Note to the incoming president and his staff: Beware the open microphone.

Everyone has a tale of offensive profanity, but here are some we've heard of: a dad whose middle schooler is on a swear tear because that's how his Internet gamer buddies talk; another dad who overheard his son's high school football coach cussing out a teammate; a corporate lawyer mom who complains that the swearing is worst among senior executives – and who admits she joins in because that's the culture.

The excuses for gutter talk are as tiresome as the words: It makes kids look tougher; it helps adults exert power; it makes a point. Some research shows it's "good for you" as a steam-venter. One study even maintains it's a company morale builder (to quote humorist Dave Barry, we're not making this up).

Bad language is a crutch, not a muscle. It may let steam out, but it's not a tool to actually repair anger. It's debasing to users, offensive to listeners, and unkind to receivers. No wonder the Psalmist urged "acceptable" words in our mouths and meditations in our hearts.

Here's the encouraging thing: Most folks don't like profanity. A 2006 poll by AP-Ipsos found that two-thirds of people 18 and older say it bothers them.

Hollywood is discovering this through its PG rating system. Nielsen Co. reported last March that PG movies with the least profanity make the most money at American box offices. And 75 percent of adults want tighter enforcement of television broadcasting rules, according to a Pew survey. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission argued before the Supreme Court for its ability to regulate "fleeting expletives" – one-off use of swear words – on TV.

Government control of foul language is tricky. Much less controversial is what individuals can do about it. They can be kind to themselves and one another, and stop using it. And, as Judith Martin of Miss Manners fame points out, they can ask the offender not to use it.

Here's a telling set of statistics from that AP-Ipsos poll: While two-thirds of adults are bothered by swearing, 64 percent fess up to dropping f-bombs, and 46 percent say they use swearing in conversation a few times a week or more.

To a great extent, the offenders are also the offendees. Too many of us use this language. Why wait till New Year's, or the next Blago case, to change that?

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