Share this article

print logo

The Briefing: The politics of profanity

WASHINGTON – Robert De Niro, a great actor never known as one of the nation's great political minds, took to the stage at the Tony Awards the other night and quickly proceeded to make the event considerably less tony.

You probably heard what he said, and we can't repeat it here. But in case you missed it, it was an attack on the president centered on a four-letter word that used to win movies R-ratings.

This was in keeping with the times. After all, it happened just weeks after comedian (?) Samantha Bee called the president's daughter a profane euphemism for a part of the female anatomy just weeks after comedian (?) Michelle Wolf numbed the White House Correspondents' Dinner with a routine that was both profane and pitiful, just months after President Trump himself dismissed certain African nations as comparable to, well, outdoor latrines.

And this change in how we use language is by no means limited to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Just listen: people all around us are cursing more. Which prompts the questions: Why? And to what end?

Before delving into the answers, though, it must be said: Journalists are pioneers when it comes to cursing. I remember a party with work colleagues a few decades back where one editor did an impersonation of another consisting of nothing but a four-letter word, repeated endlessly with different intonations. And I must admit that my own level of cursing has increased over the years since I swore allegiance to the Washington Nationals.

As a nation, though, we've clearly come a long way in the 46 years since George Carlin – a genuine comedian – famously uttered the "seven dirty words you can't say on television."

Proof can be found all over the place. The use of profanity has grown exponentially in American literature in the last 60 years, researchers found recently. The same thing has happened on television. And a 2016 poll found that average people were using one very common and very profane four-letter word, on average, 15 percent more than they did a decade earlier, while the number of people using it several times a day doubled.

Why? Researchers cite a few different reasons.

For one thing, believe it or not, swearing might be good for us. Researchers have found that when profanity is used in limited doses, it can even reduce pain.

For another, cursing is a very honest way of communicating. It makes its point very clearly. And in fact, researchers have found that people who curse more lie less.

But above all, the surge in swearing seems tied to what may be the fundamental truth about modern American society. We are becoming more individualistic. Just listen to what Jean Twenge, the psychology professor at San Diego State University who did that study on all those swear words in all those books, has to say about America's cursing contagion.

“The increase … happened at the same time that the culture increasingly promoted self-expression and individualism," she told The Guardian. "Individualism is a cultural system that emphasizes the self more and social rules less. So as social rules fell by the wayside, and people were told to express themselves, swearing became more common."

This, of course, has political consequences. When President Trump swears, his supporters love it, seeing it as a sign that the president says what they're thinking. And Democrats – who, like all politicians, are ever eager to mimic the zeitgeist – are swearing more, too.

The trouble is, swearing doesn't exactly bring people together. In fact, it does just the opposite, driving us deeper into our respective political corners.

Proof can be found on Facebook, where Democrats busied themselves sharing and liking De Niro's comments while one Trump supporter I know gleefully posted a picture of the actor with Harvey Weinstein.

Obviously, then, the recent profusion of political profanity is both a reflection of America's increasing partisan divide and a reason for it.

We're going our own way more and cursing instead of compromising.

So is it really any wonder that as a nation, we can't #%#%@ agree on much of anything anymore?

Happening today

President Trump departs Singapore after his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ... Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, discusses gasoline prices with home state reporters ... Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, addresses the Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight's annual summit ... Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference on interest rates.

Good reads

New York magazine tells us that the U.S.-Canadian trade war is bringing out a nationalist spirit north of the border ... The New York Times offers 10 smart takeaways on the summit between President Trump and South Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ... Meantime, at Foreign Policy magazine, Michael J. Green argues that in making nice with Kim, Trump pardoned another celebrity criminal ... In the Washington Post, former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan says the summit was a spectacle of Trumpian stagecraft that the media fell for ... And Vox tells us that the murder rate fell last year in Chicago and other big cities.

Story topics:

There are no comments - be the first to comment