Davis Sedaris riffs on it in a GQ essay this month, looking at the breakdown in class differences when the 'F' and 'S' words are spouted freely. A trapped passenger on a long flight, Sedaris sits next to a tweed-and-cashmere-type couple, feeling slightly socially inferior until they open their mouths and unleash a two-hour barrage of obscenities and crass insults. The sandwiches they are served, the music overhead, the plane itself -- all s&*t. F*%#@%g s#%t.
Sunday's New York Times styles section published a long essay on one author's longing to escape profanity, blaring from every corner and crevice of the culture. And Tuesday's Times followed up with a business section commentary on airline passengers who watch porn movies on their laptop DVDs.
I want to be horrified, really I do. What these writers are observing is profanity with no context, lazy run-on-of-the-mouth profanity, the type for which one writer has coined the phrase "promiscuous profanity." It's ugly, for sure, and fouls the common air. It's pollution of language.
But I'm reluctant to jump on that bandwagon, as appealing as it may appear. A friend I just met this week wore a T-shirt with a profane logo that he'd designed, a barbed attack on hypocrisy, a message he believed in. It was interesting to watch people respond to it. There was some head-shaking and tsk-tsking. Some eyes rolled. Other eyes met his head-on. Some onlookers raised a fist of solidarity: Right on, brother.
I thought of Lenny Bruce and his rage against hypocrisy and censorship, and his foul language crafted for a purpose. I thought how much less offensive my friend's T-shirt with its four-letter words was than the common cruelty and profane behavior I see every day.
Instead of lumping all profanity together in one big shit pile, I want to distinguish between what's intentional and what's just plain thoughtless.
Earlier this week, as I was walking past the fountain at the center of downtown, watching big kids lead little kids through the labyrinth of water spouts, a scene on the sidelines caught my attention. A fat toddler with wet, droopy drawers struggled mightily to pull himself up to a standing position on a park bench, leaning his head so that he could see the fountain activity. Proud and satisfied when he finally made it to his feet, he smiled excitedly.
"Sit!" his distracted mother said to him, pointing to the bench at his feet, then returned to her conversation with another woman. He glanced down and stood sturdily, holding the back of the bench with his chubby hand. A second passed and he happily watched the water revelers.
"Sit!!" she growled this time, in a voice usually associated with dogs and masters, but louder and more threatening, loud enough to turn the heads of three other kids in close proximity, who sensed by association that they, too, might be in trouble. The boy looked up with fear in his eyes, then plopped down on his padded rump quickly, before the approaching hand swatted him. His mother never missed a beat in her conversation with the other woman.
Farther down the sidewalk, a group of teenagers huddled over a CD cover.
"Awesome," one of them crowed. "That is fucking awesome, fucking awesome." His friends nodded in agreement.
Coarse? Thoughtless? Yes. But not cruel. Which scenario is more offensive?
Later that day, in the supermarket, another scene erupted. A father and mother carried their baby boy through the aisles, barking commands at one another.
"You never fucking listen," she said, her voice coarse and bitter.
"Who the fuck wants to listen to you?" he retorted, the baby glancing over his shoulder.
"Stop here!" she commanded loudly.
"Stop here!" the baby mimicked in a commando voice.
They carried on all the way to the checkout counter, where they waited in front of me, the baby mimicking their tone and their words. Neither of them looked at him or heard him. They were too busy not listening to each other.
Maybe the public unleashing of profanity, the promiscuity of profanity, is related in part to the proliferation of ignorance and cruelty. I know that, at that moment, this mild-mannered 51-year-old woman was imagining a T-shirt fit for the situation.
I wished the woman and man in front of me in line could glance around and see this message emblazoned on my chest: Shut the fuck up.